The Economist on the demise of progress

In: Uncategorized

20 Dec 2009

The cover story of this week’s Economist is on the discrediting of the idea of progress. It is an astute piece overall but better on the benefits of progress than explaining its contemporary unpopularity.

On the gains resulting from economic growth and the development of science it argues that: “For aeons people lived to the age of just 25 or 30 and most parents could expect to mourn at least one of their children. Today people live to 65 and, in countries such as Japan and Canada, over 80; outside Africa, a child’s death is mercifully rare. Global average income was for centuries about $200 a year; a typical inhabitant of one of the world’s richer countries now earns that much in a day. In the Middle Ages about one in ten Europeans could read; today, with a few exceptions, such as India and parts of Africa, the global rate is comfortably above eight out of ten. In much of the world, ordinary men and women can vote and find work, regardless of their race. In large parts of it they can think and say what they choose. If they fall ill, they will be treated. If they are innocent, they will generally walk free.”

It points to several factors to explain the demise in the popularity of progress including the extreme nationalist conception of progress pursued by the Nazis, the totalitarian record of the Soviet bloc, the misuse of science, inadequate regulation of business, fear of environmental damage and status consciousness. Such arguments are half true at best. For example, the Nazi experience certainly played an important role in discrediting the idea of progress but they were against it rather than simply perverting the concept. And it should be asked why economic growth is widely seen as the cause of environmental damage rather than the source of potential solutions.

These questions will be examined more closely in my forthcoming book.

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