On Balance There Has Been Human Progress

Francis Heylighen

I was preparing a critique of Jeremy Lent’s views on our lack of progress but an email from my collegue Francis Heylighen beat me to it. Here is what he wrote.

For everything that is improving in the world, it is possible to find something that is not improving or getting worse, and vice versa. My point (which is also made by Max More and Stephen Pinker on the more free trade side, and by e.g. Hans Rosling, Rutger Bregman and Hanna Ritchie on the more social-democratic/ecologist side) is that if you take everything together at the largest possible scale (population of the world, not of particular regions or groups), most of the trends are consistently positive, and few are negative (release of greenhouse gases e.g.).

That of course does not mean that we live in the best of possible worlds: many things require drastic improvements, and people are right to point that out. But there is really no reason to believe we are on course to collapse, or even to a significant worsening of the present conditions.

Concerning Jeremy Lent: I read and appreciated both his books and the books of Pinker. Lent is excellent in his history of ideas and evolution of Western and non-Western worldviews. But when Lent starts describing societal collapse scenarios, he is out of his league. And his criticism of Pinker I found underwhelming. If you compare the hundreds of statistics and graphs that Pinker has collected with the points made by Lent to argue that Pinker is in error, the weight of evidence remains much stronger for Pinker.

If you haven’t read Pinker yet, I suggest you do, because all the criticism you hear about Pinker makes it look as if he is some horrible reactionary guy, but he is quite the opposite: open-minded, reasonable, looking for facts, admitting problems, arguing for the need for further progress… The main point of contention (which has led one critic to describe Pinker as “the most annoying person on Earth”) is that Pinker criticizes a common Postmodern ideology that is popular within the contemporary humanities and which blames science, rationality and enlightenment for everything bad that is happening in the world. I agree with Pinker that science and enlightenment are our best (or perhaps only) tools to consistently improve the state of humanity, and that this kind of anti-enlightenment rhetoric is counterproductive and dangerous.

But I’d rather not get into the Pinker-Lent (and others) debate, because that has already created much more heat than light, with plenty of strawman arguments making a caricature of Pinker’s position. If you are interested in getting a balanced understanding of why things are much better than most people believe, start with the books of Rosling (about social progress) and Ritchie (about environmental progress). If you want to check the actual data, there is an excellent website from Oxford University that provides about all the available ones: https://ourworldindata.org/

Finally, about the overshoot argument (aka Limits to Growth, or exhaustion of natural resources). That argument came to the fore in the 1960s, leading to plenty of predictions of the exhaustion/collapse of various resources within a few decades (food, fish, mineral resources, soil, water, …). We are now more than half a century later and none of these resources has become less abundant: we produce more food, water, minerals, energy, fish, …) both in absolute terms and per head of the population. That is simply because of ongoing technological innovation making production and consumption ever more efficient. Therefore, there is really no good reason to think that suddenly all this progress will stop. Here is how the situation is summarized in our working paper on “Anxiety, depression and despair in the information age”: https://researchportal.vub.be/en/publications/anxiety-depression-and-despair-in-the-information-age-the-techno-

The standard argument for such collapse scenarios, the “Limits to Growth”, is that an exponentially growing consumption of finite resources can only end in their exhaustion. In practice, however, as a resource becomes less abundant it also becomes more expensive. This incites people to reduce their consumption, through measures such as increasing efficiency, recycling, or switching to a more abundant resource (e.g. sunlight or seawater). On-going technological innovation leads us to achieve ever more with ever less (materials, water, land, energy, time, effort…). This enduring trend is known as dematerialization
(McAfee, 2019) or ephemeralization (Evenstad, 2018; Heylighen, 2008). As a result, as yet no natural resource has ever come anywhere near exhaustion, in spite of dire forecasts made by Malthus, Ehrlich and others (Bailey, 2015; Bailey & Tupy, 2020).

Note that in spite of my optimism about long-term development, I too am quite worried about the present state of society, albeit not so much about the objective, material conditions in which we live, but about people’s subjective experience, which has become much more negative than is healthy. The above paper tries to analyze the symptoms, causes and consequences of that problem, which we call the “Techno-social dilemma”. The ubiquitous pessimism I am arguing against is one of the core symptoms of that problem, and one of its causes is the “bad news bias” that also Max More was pointing out. But there are others, and the paper suggests a number of strategies to tackle the dilemma…

(Author’s Note. I also agree wholeheartedly with Bruce Watson who posted the following questions. “Is humanity really better off being convinced that everything is turning to shit? Isn’t a serious and scholarly attempt to find hope worth more than a serious and scholarly attempt to prove that there is no hope?” The answer to the first is NO and the answer to the second is YES.)

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3 thoughts on “On Balance There Has Been Human Progress

  1. I think something is being missed here. It is not the ‘weight of arguments’ (number of improvements) that ‘wins’ the argument.

    Arguing the number of improvements vs irreversible loss (eg species eliminated or nuclear war) is rather like arguing about how the safety of modern cars has a massive improved continuously for 50 years to a victim injured or killed in a car-crash tomorrow!

  2. Balance is hard to attain; possibly more difficult to keep. The competition for influence among public policy makers is fierce and those folks are not averse to wielding facts and figures, waving charts and graphs, or fudging a few things along the way. Some public intellectuals try to keep the ship on an even keel by appealing to reason, meaning and good sense. I can think of several such level heads but won’t drop any names. Watson’s questions were signal and illustrated a good point.

  3. Paul Van Pelt is a ‘balanced’ commentator, for example, he says; “The competition for influence among public policy makers is fierce and those folks are not averse to wielding facts and figures, waving charts and graphs, or fudging a few things along the way. ” what is he saying here? I think he is saying; don’t believe everything you hear or see, all Icons of morality or genius may have feet of clay!

    Life is indisputably better now than it was in the past, Human progress is real when measured by the metric of how our physical world has improved for us, the Human, now ( many) live in climate controlled homes with indoor plumbing, we have unlimited access to clothing, food, medical care, etc, an unimaginably luxurious life for those who lived as recently as two hundred years ago, that is a metric we all can understand!

    Is life better now When measured against, ‘What it might be’? probably not, but perhaps what we should be interested is not what it might be but what it will be if we continue to follow new ideas, without consideration of the real and long term consequences of this behavior, just because these ideas have been named ‘Progressive’, doesn’t mean we are Progressing towards something that will be good for us!

    There have been a few references in the article to species extinctions, species have always gone extinct and they always will, surely we played no role in the demise of the dinosaur?

    Humans are evolutionary creatures, will we eventual extinct ourselves? Will we eventually evolve into a creature who is no longer comparable with life on Earth? who can know for sure? But I think it is possible!

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