How Do We Define Progress?

Back in the good old days…

Cultures seem to have their own ideas about what progress truly is and whether it exists at all or is just an illusion. Americans, in general, seem to have faith in progress over time, yet many continue to just as strongly express nostalgia for times past. Others have a more cynical view of progress believing life and history to be more cyclical, while others who have recently experienced opression have no doubt that progress is real and something to strive for.

I was recently struck by the juxtaposition of two headlines in my news feed: (1.) MIT solar start up aims to make solar competitive with coal – peak oil; and (2.) Luxury massage seats in the Volvo S80 and XC90 Executive. While both express the continued development of new technology, surely a sign of progress, the ends of maximizing comfort or increasing the supply of available energy reflect very different ideas of progress. Do we face a choice between providing luxury for most or meeting needs for all, or are those things compatible?

In the past 40 years, overall health in the world, and especially in the West has increased substantially as measured by life expectancy and infant mortality. Surely it is better to live longer and to have fewer babies die. The levels of world hunger or food insecurity have also fallen dramatically as improved agricultural techniques have been employed and fewer nations have been disrupted by opressive governments. Those things together have led to increases in world population (a sign of progress?), and the rise of an obesity epidemic in the West, especially in the United States (a sign of too much progress?). What if we have to choose between one undeniable good and another? Or mitigating one risk over another? Can our ethics hold up? How do we value the lives of different people? While many of us cringe from such questions, they are choices we make regularly by default or through our actions.

These are not simple questions, of course. Economists and scientists study these subjects and routinely present conflicting data. Some person’s idea of progress may include the triumph of their particular political beliefs, or religion, or tribe, while that would obviously not be progress to their opponents. I still believe that there is such an ideal as universal progress, although it may not look like any one person’s paradise. Conflict and struggle are probably part of our humanity, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot choose and achieve steps that take us all beyond where we stand today.