Is Progress Bad?


I saw this article on the Atlantic by Jeremy Caradonna, a professor of history at the U. of Alberta. It's about whether "progress" is good for humanity. The article takes particular aim at "progress" as a concept associated with sustained economic growth since the Industrial Revolution.

The first point to make is that Caradonna mischaracterizes the conclusions that economic historians and growth economists make about the moral character of growth after the Industrial Revolution. None of them, at least the ones I've read, and I've read a lot of them, have ever suggested that humanity is morally superior for having achieved sustained growth. Here's the quote he pulls from Joel Mokyr's The Enlightened Economy

Material life in Britain and in the industrialized world that followed it is far better today than could have been imagined by the most wild-eyed optimistic 18th-century philosophe—and whereas this outcome may have been an unforeseen consequence, most economists, at least, would regard it as an undivided blessing.

And here is Caradonna's reaction to that quote:

The idea that the Industrial Revolution has made us not only more technologically advanced and materially furnished but also better for it is a powerful narrative and one that’s hard to shake.

The only sense in which Mokyr means "we're better for it" is precisely that it made us more materially furnished. We are superior in real consumption. Full stop. Nowhere does Mokyr make a claim that this superiority in real consumption implies any kind of superiority in virtue, morality, or ethics.

We are shockingly, amazingly, well off on a material basis compared to our ancestors not only 200 years ago even thirty years ago. This despite the fact that the population of the earth is now roughly 7-8 times higher than it was when the Industrial Revolution started.

So Caradonna has set up a straw man to take down. Fine, he's hardly the first person to do that. What's his real argument, then? Let me take a stab at summarizing it. After the Industrial Revolution, bad things happened in addition to good things. Caradonna thinks those bad things are particularly bad, and thinks we should give up some of the good things (gas-powered cars) in order to alleviate the bad things (global warming).

Okay. Great. I'm with you Prof. Caradonna. Seriously, I'm in for a carbon tax and expanded spending on alternative energy R-and-D. I want to drive around either an electric car, or one powered by hydrogen, or using gas produced by algae that actually pulls CO2 from the atmosphere.

But the idea that economic growth - progress - is somehow the enemy of that goal is misguided. To paraphrase Homer Simpson: "To economic growth, the cause - and solution - to all of life's problems". Economic growth created the conditions that allowed us to alleviate evils like starvation and infant mortality while at the same time giving us more clothes, better housing, faster ways to get around, means of communication, Diet Coke, and gigantic-ass TV's. It also bequeathed us technologies that heat up the atmosphere. And that sucks. But it sucks less than starving.

Economic growth means we've got a new kind of constrained optimization problem to solve in the 21st century: how to maximize real consumption while minimizing environmental damage. Caradonna has a particular type of solution to that optimization in mind, one tilted more towards minimizing damage than maximizing consumption. But the world seems to be making a different kind of choice, and so he's trying to persuade others to adopt his solution. More power to him. There is no one who can tell him (particularly me) that his choice of how to solve that optimization problem is wrong. It's just about preferences.

But anything that alleviates the constraints in this problem is welcome, regardless of preferences. Innovations that mitigate global warming (or other environmental concerns) would help us regardless of our exact preferred solution. If we can invent hyper-efficient spray-on solar panels, that would be an incredible boon to humanity. Cheap, clean power. Everyone wins. You know what I would call something like that? Progress.

The underlying issue is not a concept like progress or economic growth, but the fact that constraints exist.

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