Is Sustainable Progress Really Possible?

What should we mean by the term “Progress”, and is it really possible to have long term sustainable progress?

In Steven Pinker’s latest book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, he makes a strong case that we have made very considerable progress since the enlightenment, and will likely continue to do so, with perhaps occasional bumps along the way. This progress has occurred across a wide variety of different issues: reductions in violence, poverty, and disease, and substantial improvements in education, human rights, life span, and overall human fulfillment.

But what are the real prospects for continued progress in the future? To discuss this, we need to have a better understanding about what we mean by progress, and what types of progress are sustainable (not all are).

First, sustainable progress does not require ever-increasing GDP, and it’s certainly not compatible with ever-increasing consumption of resources. Physical limits on resource extraction and waste production put limits on this.

What worthwhile aspects progress can be sustainable? If we define progress broadly as “improved quality of life”, then there is room for continued long term improvements in the many areas that don’t directly clash with environmental limits. An optimistic view of the future includes focus on improvements in the following areas.

  • Improved physical and mental health
  • Increasing social capital (better relationships, trust, community groups)
  • Increased human capital, including education
  • Increasing intellectual capital, including technical and scientific knowledge.
  • Increasing cultural capital — improved institutions and social norms of behavior.
  • Greater personal development and expression, including the arts.
  • Increasing ability for everyone to achieve their highest potential and live meaningful lives.
  • Increasing equality of opportunity, justice, and equal treatment under the law.
  • Reduction in crime, poverty, unnecessary suffering.
  • Greater security - greater safety, having an improved social safety net.
  • Higher quality commons — parks, outdoor areas, community facilities, public transportation.
  • A more resilient society capable of dealing with disasters.
  • Better more effective governance

Of course there are all sorts of technological achievements that can contribute to this. Improved medical technology, better computers and communication, safe and environmentally sound transportation, and of course carbon-free energy production are examples. The key assumption being made is that we can change the relationship between quality of life and energy consumption. While some past improvements in the quality of life were not dependent on increased energy consumption (e.g. the polio vaccine), the two have generally increased together. Progress, to be sustainable, will require this to change. While this is certainly possible with focus shifting more to the areas I mentioned above, this will certainly be a substantial cultural change.

The challenge of sustainable progress is even greater when you consider that resource consumption rates are already above the sustainable level in many cases and will need to be reduced. But it gets even more challenging when you take into consideration the differences between the developed and developing world. It is much harder to imagine progress continuing in the developing world without increase energy and resource usage. Sustainable progress measured on a global scale will require some leveling and convergence of resource usage across the globe. That of course will require an even bigger reduction in energy and resource usage in the developed world.

Possible? Yes. Challenging? Very. The solution must be a combination of technological, cultural, and political changes.

We must also realize that progress isn’t a single all-or-nothing type of thing. The above discussion suggests that there will be ongoing progress in some areas, but not in others. This should not be controversial. Most people will say that during their life times, some aspects of their quality-of-life have improved, while others have declined. That will likely be the story in the future.