Are we really making progress?

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There’s an adjective that keeps appearing over and over in online articles and in the print media of late and it is the word ‘anthropogenic’. It refers to change relating to or resulting from the influence of human beings on nature and generally it is collocated with the words ‘climate change’.   The Native American Indians knew the importance of respecting nature and maintaining balance and the lines quoted above seem particularly apt for our times.

Scientists and academics have been warning us since the 1970s that the earth is warming too quickly and that if we keep consuming resources and using fossil fuels at the rate at which we are currently doing so, we will get to a point of no return,  a ‘tipping point’ where we will no longer be in control and will be unable to undo the damage we have already done.  Undoubtedly, anyone watching the apocalyptic scenes of wildfires raging in the Amazon rainforest last year and over the entire continent of Australia this month on a TV screen or mobile device and then reading about the death of over a billion animals in those fires could be forgiven for thinking that that tipping point has already arrived.   At one stage, it was being reported that an area the size of Belgium was on fire and that entire species of animals had been wiped out and become extinct as a result. It’s hard to be optimistic for the future of humanity and believe that we are in fact making progress when all around us, Nature seems to be telling us otherwise.  David Wallace-Wells, author and scientist, in the opening lines of his book “The Uninhabitable Earth” starts off by saying, “It is worse, much worse than you think.”  Lines designed to shake you out of your complacency and sit up and take notice. In a Guardian review by David George Haskell (2019),citing Wallace-Wells, he tells us that Wallace-Wells,

“trebles the size of the Book of Revelation’s posse of horsemen, elucidating a dozen categories of anguish including heat death, conflagration, poisoned air and water, psychological trauma, and societal collapse.”

Stark and terrifying predictions indeed.   Wallace-Wells goes on to point out that “none of this is news” but

“for most of us, the terrifying projections of where our planet is headed arrive in our ears overwhelmed by a cacophony of media reports blaring the day’s politics and entertainment.”

This is the danger, that faced with such overwhelming and catastrophic predictions, we will simply carry on as normal, when nothing about this crisis is normal.

So how do we know if we are making progress or indeed, how do we define that progress? In “Putting Progress in its Place” Dodds (1973) cited in Livingstone 2006 pg. 560, asks,

“Is progress to be measured by greater power over nature, the democratization of happiness, higher gross national product, more information, increased cognitive content, greater specialization, better adapted-ness to environment, more precise predictions? Is it not the case that progress in one sphere is likely to be counterbalanced by decline in another? In the ancient world, for example, Plato considered that technical progress and moral regress went hand in hand – a view also shared by Lucretius who was certain that civilization had at once delivered greater competences … and greater corruption”

The twentieth and twenty-first century’s definition of progress would likely be measured by economic indicators and wellbeing- greater life expectancy, greater levels of education and wealth, higher levels of employment , GDP and purchasing power.  However, there are other ways of determining whether or not progress is happening. For instance, if we look to history and our evolution as a species, we can see that in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds, humans have not only survived, but have thrived in the process. As Ronald Wright (2005, pg 64) states in his book, “A Short History of Progress”, civilizations had emerged three thousand years ago in

“at least seven places: Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Mediterranean, India, China, Mexico and Peru” and that “Archaeology shows that only about half of these had received their crops and cultural stimuli from others. The rest had built themselves up from scratch without suspecting that anyone else in the world was doing the same. This compelling parallelism of ideas, processes and forms tells us something important: that given certain broad conditions, human societies everywhere will move towards greater size, complexity and environmental demand.”

From the terrors posed to Prehistoric cavemen by wild animals and inhospitable conditions to the cruelties and tortures inflicted by humans upon one another in the Middle Ages to diseases such as the Black Plague, smallpox, wars and genocide, humans have somehow survived, learned from and overcome all of these challenges.  Is this not a definition of progress in itself? The ability to learn from the mistakes of the past and move forwards, in a positive direction? Looking at our achievements as a species and the ingenuity and resilience which has led to the invention of farming, machines, the Industrial Revolution, our artistic, literary, scientific and technological discoveries, surely it cannot be disputed that we have not made progress? The United Nations was formed after World War Two in 1945 to maintain international peace and security and ensure friendly relations between nations. We have conquered space and been to the Moon. We have our rights enshrined in milestone documents such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights and trade unions which protect our labour rights.  We have undone the damage to the ozone layer that was caused by CFCs in the 1980s and despite having access to nuclear weapons, we have had the good sense not to use them ever again once people saw the devastation that was caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. People are living longer than ever before thanks to better diets, vaccines and medical discoveries that have transformed our lives.  We have information at our fingertips thanks to the invention of the internet and the smart phone. The twin inventions of indoor plumbing and electricity means that domestic tasks such as washing and doing laundry can be done by machines rather than hauling our own water from the nearest river, well or borehole and doing it by hand. Of course these examples of progress don’t apply everywhere but certainly in the West, our lives have become a lot easier, at least materially.

However, restricting our definition of progress to simply a catalogue of our achievements and economic measurements is a narrow view to take. If we look at the definition of ‘progress’ from an ethical and moral perspective, perhaps we have not advanced all that much as a species in a positive direction.  Citing Tuan (2002: 86, pg 571) Livingstone states that,

“Progress is ultimately fatuous or empty unless it contributes to moral…awareness.”

In 2019, according to UNHCR data, an estimated 1,327 migrants lost their lives in the Mediterranean trying to get to Europe. The worst year in the last five years was 2016 when the figure was 5096. Most of these migrants and refugees were from the Middle East (Afghanistan and Syria) and poorer African nations.  Yet, several European countries such as Hungary, Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia closed their borders to migrants and refugees.  Italy took a particularly hard-line stance on immigration with former Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini closing ports to migrants rescued at sea and criminalising NGOs and charities rescuing migrants.  The term “Fortress Europe” was coined and was used to describe those European countries drawing up the proverbial drawbridges, even to those fleeing conflict and war. 

In the US, President Donald Trump has taken an equally hard-line stance to migrants from Mexico and Central America and his provocative and divisive rhetoric has resulted in children being forcibly separated from their parents at the US border and kept in cages in ‘camps’. Sound familiar? His pursuit of an America First policy that prioritised the economy, jobs and border security has alienated him in Europe but won him supporters at home. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, the self-styled “Tropical Trump” has rowed back on human rights and indigenous rights and allowed wholesale destruction of the Amazon rainforest by loggers and developers, causing indescribable environmental damage.   Taken altogether, it is difficult to see evidence of compassion or humanity being displayed by any of these politicians, let alone evidence of ‘moral awareness’ or ‘progress’.  In “Progress”, Margaret Meek Lange (2019) argues that,

“Environmentalists have recently produced some of the most alarming criticisms of the idea of progress. Jared Diamond and Ronald Wright are examples. The authors share three basic theoretical commitments. First, they point to the natural environment as the most important determinant of long-term social stability and change. Next, they appeal to historical examples to argue that change is non-linear and that environmental variables explain the non-linearity. Then, extrapolating from past collapses, they argue that recent growth rates should not encourage optimism. Instead, global collapse is a real possibility.”

This coincides with Wright’s (2005, pg 56) own observations thatwe are in danger of falling victim to our own success and that nuclear weapons and greenhouse gases are both potentially capable of ending “civilization on its present scale” if we are unfortunate or unwise.  However, as he goes on to explain,

“sometimes the trouble lies in a particular invention or idea; bit it also lies in social structure, in the way people tend to behave when squeezed together in urban civilizations, where power and wealth rise upward and the many are ruled by the few.”

Perhaps the challenges posed by rapidly advancing climate change will prove to be our undoing as vast swathes of the world become more and more uninhabitable. As competition for scarce resources, particularly water, increases, more wars will break out. Entire ecosystems are now under threat as a result of global warming and a new report from the Environmental Justice Foundation warns that up to 150 million ‘climate refugees’ will be forced to move to other countries by 2050.  It’s not hard to imagine how society and civilisation as we know it can break down under the strain of increased populations and their demands.  

Despite these gloomy predictions, it’s encouraging to see that there are grounds for optimism.

Steven Pinker (2019), a Harvard Psychology professor in a Ted Talk entitled “Is the World getting better or worse? A look at the numbers”, talks about our propensity to focus on the negative and the sensational and disregard the positive progress we are making as a species, particularly in the area of wellbeing.  He talks also about the effect constant negative news coverage has on our perceptions of that progress saying,

“News is about stuff that happens, not stuff that doesn’t happen. You never see a journalist who says, “I’m reporting live from a country that has been at peace for 40 years,” or a city that has not been attacked by terrorists. Also, bad things can happen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day. The papers could have run the headline, “137,000 people escaped from extreme poverty yesterday” every day for the last 25 years. That’s one and a quarter billion people leaving poverty behind, but you never read about it. Also, the news capitalizes on our morbid interest in what can go wrong, captured in the programming policy, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Well, if you combine our cognitive biases with the nature of news, you can see why the world has been coming to an end for a very long time indeed.”

He maintains that actually the world is getting better and highlights the progress we have made on the UN Sustainable Goals, the rise of literacy and democracy globally, the decline of violence, torture and cruelty and war related deaths. His optimism for the future of humanity is not a blind one, he is measured in his assessments.  Although he acknowledges that authoritarian populism, espoused by the likes of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro is a threat to progress and stability, he reassures us saying,

“there are reasons to think that it is not the face of the future. Its support is greatest among rural, less educated, ethnic majority and older cohorts, all in demographic decline. And even countries that try to hide in a nationalist fortress will increasingly be besieged by crises that are inherently global and cannot be solved without international cooperation, including climate change, ocean degradation, pandemics, migrants, cyber- crime, terrorism, piracy, dark money and nuclear proliferation.”

I, for one, hope he’s right.

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