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In Pursuit of Progress: Is Everything Awful Right Now?

Blog Post | Progress Studies

The Rediscovery of Human Progress

A new movement promoting scientific, technological, and economic solutions to humanity's problems emerges.

Summary: The modern world is built on centuries of progress, yet many take its comforts and opportunities for granted. A new movement aims to redefine our understanding of advancement, and focuses on celebrating humanity’s achievements to shape an optimistic narrative for the future. From fostering technological innovation to advocating for economic growth, this coalition strives to combat cultural pessimism and inspire a renewed belief in the potential for a better world.

“The tragedy of today is that we are the heirs and the beneficiaries of thousands of years of progress and we take it for granted. You wake up in a nice soft bed. You go get fresh milk and orange juice from the fridge. You take a shower under hot running water. You hop on the train or car to work. You take the elevator up to the 40th floor. You earn your living by typing on a computer behind big plate glass windows in an air-conditioned building. You relax in the evening by streaming movies and music or catching up with friends from around the world in your real-time video calls. None of this existed a couple centuries ago. A lot of it didn’t exist a few decades ago. And yet it’s just so easy to go through your days enjoying all of that without giving a second thought to where it all came from or how, or how challenging it was to bring all of those amazing inventions into the world.”

Jason Crawford, founder of the Roots of Progress project, is one of the leaders of a new pro-progress movement that is coalescing in a collection of think tanks, websites, and other intellectual incubators. It celebrates humanity’s achievements so far. It judges progress not in technocratic terms but with an eye on outcomes for individual human beings. And it imagines, again in Crawford’s words, an “ambitious technological future that we want to live in and are excited to build.”

Rethinking Progress

These groups promoting economic growth spurred by scientific, technological, and industrial progress are quite distinct from modern political progressives. Contemporary progressives trace their ideological lineage back to the Progressive movement that arose in American politics around the turn of the 20th century as a response to the consequences of mass urbanization, mass immigration, increasing economic inequality, and rapid industrial growth.

Fundamental then as it is today among modern progressives is their certainty that they know the direction in which “progress” must go and that exercise of government power guided by a technocratic elite is central to achieving their version of “progress.” Princeton University historian Thomas C. Leonard observes that early 20th century “progressives believed in a powerful, centralized state, conceiving of government as the best means for promoting the social good and rejecting the individualism of (classical) liberalism.” In addition, he says, they believed in “the disinterestedness and incorruptibility of the experts who would run the technocracy they envisioned, and a faith that expertise could not only serve the social good, but also identify it.”

A hundred years later, one illustrative distillation of modern progressivism is “The Progressive Promise” manifesto issued by the 101 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “We believe that government must be the great equalizer of opportunity for everyone,” forthrightly states the Promise. “We support bold policies to close the gap between the rich and everyday Americans and ensure our government delivers essential services to every person in this country.” They envision “transformational change” that includes “ending poverty and income inequality,” and “advancing racial justice and equity in every policy.” It is notable that unlike their early 20th century forebears’ belief in technological progress and economic growth, this essentially redistributionist manifesto nowhere mentions policies aimed at advocating and promoting either in the 21st century. In their view, uncontrolled economic growth is leading to environmental catastrophe and to appalling social consequences.

The contours of the new progress movement stretch from the Human Progress project at the libertarian Cato Institute to the “eco-modernist” initiatives at the Breakthrough Institute and the Pritzker Innovation Fund. Four relatively new groups at the forefront of the pro-progress forces are The Roots of Progress, the Institute for Progress, The Progress Network, and Works in Progress. Together, they are—as The Progress Network puts it—”building an idea movement that speaks to a better future in a world dominated by voices that suggest a worse one.”

Cultural Pessimism

There are indeed many voices who say our future is bleak. William Rees, a population ecologist at The University of British Columbia, claimed last year that “collapse is not a problem to be solved, but rather the final stage of a cycle to be endured.” Also last year, Stanford University biologist and indefatigable population doomster Paul Ehrlich told 60 Minutes “that the next few decades will be the end of the kind of civilization we’re used to.” A 2022 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences declared that climate change could “result in worldwide societal collapse or even eventual human extinction.” Last year an article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology suggested that civilizational collapse is likely this decade and certain by 2040.

These dire prognostications are reflected in bleak public attitudes, especially in rich developed countries. A YouGov poll in 2016 found only 6 percent of Americans thought the world was getting better. Other rich countries had even lower scores: Germany and the United Kingdom were at 4 percent, Australia and France at 3 percent. (The Chinese were the most optimistic, with 41 percent saying the world was getting better.) In 2017, a Pew Research Center poll reported that 41 percent of Americans thought that life today was worse than it was 50 years ago, compared to 37 percent who thought it was better.

In 2021, The Lancet published a poll of 10,000 young people (ages 16 to 25) in 10 countries (Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the U.K., and the USA) asking how they felt about climate change that found pervasive pessimism about the future. About 75 percent reported that “they think the future is frightening,” with more than 55 percent agreeing that “humanity is doomed” and 39 percent saying they are “hesitant to have children.” About 45 percent responded that “their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning.” A YouGov poll in 2022 found more than 30 percent of American adults thinking climate change will lead to extinction of the human race.

In 2023, 76 percent of Americans in an NBC survey were “not confident that life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us.” That same year, a Wall Street Journal poll similarly reported that 78 percent of Americans believe that life for their children will not be better than it was for themselves. A November poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations found only 24 percent of Americans were optimistic about their country’s future. These are the headwinds that the emerging progress movement is combating.

The Optimistic Opposition

There is a division of labor between the pro-progress groups. The Roots of Progress is focused on creating a new philosophy of progress and promoting young intellectuals who propound it. In an essay outlining what that might look like, Crawford argues for “a renewed vision of the future” that accelerates technological progress to provide humanity with cheap, abundant, clean fusion energy, permanent settlements in space, and cures for diseases and even aging itself using advanced biotech. “A future where we don’t just end poverty, but create new levels of wealth so fantastic that they make today’s wealth look like poverty in comparison—just as was done over the last two hundred years,” he writes.

“We are going to need a large body of intellectuals, of writers, creatives, educators, and journalists,” says Crawford. To develop this cadre, the group has created a fellowship program as “a career accelerator for progress intellectuals.” There were over 500 applicants for the first cohort, of which 19 were selected. The selected fellows analyze how to remove the regulatory roadblocks that stymie infrastructure and clean nuclear power deployment, how to incentivize countries to welcome more immigration, and how to overcome pervasive risk aversion in awarding research grants.

The Institute for Progress (IFP), co-founded by Caleb Watney and Alec Stapp, focuses on finding public policy ideas that can boost innovation sooner rather than later. “Because of the unique position of the United States, we have a moral call to really take the lead and embrace our role as the world’s R&D lab,” argues Watney. The U.S., he notes, has particular advantages when it comes to scientific and technological progress: the concentration of the world’s top universities, the fact that the world’s top scientific minds want to immigrate here, a huge and dynamic economy that enables the rapid iteration and prototyping of new technologies.

“The Institute for Progress is not an organization focused on mass politics,” Watney adds. “We are not going to get people to hold up banners saying, ‘I want total factor productivity growth to be higher.'” Instead, it’s “a very incrementalist organization” that looks “for issues that are important. If you were to change them, would they really matter? Are they tractable? Does it seem like you could actually move the needle on them in a useful way in, say, the next five years?” Among other activities, IFP researchers engage in such nitty-gritty work as filing detailed comments on federal agency proposals. For example, the IFP recently advised the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority on how to hasten the development of more effective coronavirus vaccines. Also, the IFP signed an agreement last year to partner with the National Science Foundation to help the agency develop faster mechanisms for funding high-risk, high-reward research proposals.

Meanwhile, Works in Progress publishes long-form case studies on how entrepreneurs, inventors, researchers, and others have successfully made progress in fixing various problems. It also prints proposals for how to ameliorate those still unresolved. Among the topics covered in recent articles: overcoming obstacles to tapping geothermal energy, upzoning in New Zealand to address housing shortages, how advance market commitments could have spurred the development of an effective malaria vaccine more quickly, and—in an article by Reason‘s own Peter Suderman—how mixologists surmounted the problem of boring drinks.

The Progress Network—based at New America, a liberal-leaning think tank—aims to bring together an ideologically diverse set of pro-progress scholars and pundits. Its founder, money manager Zachary Karabell, says he’s aiming to “create a cohort of people who are united by a sensibility, but certainly not united by a monolithic view of what’s working and what isn’t.” Its cohort of associates includes the Cato Institute’s Mustafa Akyol, MIT economist Erik Brynjolfsson, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, journalist Matthew Yglesias, Columbia University linguist (and New York Times columnist) John McWhorter, Depolarization Project CEO Alison Goldsworthy, and Pritzker Innovation Fund chief Rachel Pritzker. Other Network members include the founders of both The Roots of Progress and the Institute for Progress. Karabell ruefully acknowledges that it is hard to get the independent “idea entrepreneurs” he has recruited into the Progress Network to collaborate. For now, the Network has assembled 120 or so members whose voices make the constructive point that the world, on the whole, is getting better. The Network highlights stories detailing the actuality of progress “from around the world that get kind of buried under the avalanche of negative stories” through its What Could Go Right? podcast, a daily newsletter, and social media.

The heads of all four organizations cite the animating influence of the July 2019 Atlantic article “We Need a New Science of Progress,” written by Cowen and Patrick Collison, the billionaire founder of the internet payments company Stripe. “The success of Progress Studies will come from its ability to identify effective progress-increasing interventions and the extent to which they are adopted by universities, funding agencies, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and other institutions,” Cowen and Collison argued. “In that sense, Progress Studies is closer to medicine than biology: The goal is to treat, not merely to understand.”

Cowen and Collison are involved in the movements in other ways too. Both The Roots of Progress and Works in Progress have received grants from the Emergent Ventures project, administered by Cowen. Works in Progress became part of Stripe Press in 2022.

How Progress Got a Bad Reputation

Why did progress fall out of favor? Crawford suggests the strong belief in economic, technological, and social improvement that characterized 19th century Europe and America was dented by the next century’s bloody world wars. “People before World War I had hoped that technology and economic growth would actually lead to an end to war and that we were entering a new era of world peace,” he says. “That proved to be disastrously wrong. Not only had technology not led to an end to war, it had actually made war all the more horrible and destructive. It had given us the machine gun, chemical weapons, the atomic bomb.”

Crawford also notes the 20th century saw the emergence of institutions featuring “top-down control by a technical elite.” This, he argues, prompted “a countercultural idea that saw progress as linked to this authoritarianism and rejected both.”

Watney points to the negative externalities that have accompanied technological development and economic growth—air and water pollution, climate change, deforestation—and suggests these have contributed to the disillusionment with progress as well. On top of that, he says, a spirit of complacency and safetyism has emerged in rich developed countries, adding new roadblocks.

“We have become the victims of our success, to a certain extent,” Watney argues. “As you get increasing levels of wealth and productivity, you’re more inclined to keep hold of the safety and the gains that you already have and less likely to risk a little bit to gain a lot more.” Or as Karabell puts it, “If you’re more worried about the unknown negative consequences than you’re excited about unknown positive consequences, you’re basically going to be sclerotic and not do anything.”

You should not confuse this appreciation for past progress with a belief that progress is complete. Karabell stresses that he doesn’t believe “we should just shut up and recognize” everything that’s going right. It’s just that “we are demonstrably able to create problems and we’re demonstrably able to solve them.”

Crawford thinks progress has slowed in recent decades. Two big reasons for the slowdown, he argues, are “the growth of the regulatory state” and “the centralization and bureaucratization of research, and in particular the funding of research.” Both impose unnecessarily constraining limits on scientific freedom and the types of opportunities and inventions that can be pursued.

“It’s totally fair to be frustrated with a lot of the excesses of the regulatory state,” says Watney. More hopefully, he adds: “If you’re so pessimistic about the current state, that means there should be lots of low-hanging fruit. Small changes could actually lead to really large increases.”

The IFP’s chief aim is to pick that low-hanging fruit by cutting down the overburden of regulation and reforming the stodgy processes that encrust science funding. So the group is working to streamline the National Environmental Policy Act so that it no longer blocks for years the building of critically needed infrastructure: roads, pipelines, electrical lines, and nuclear, renewable, and geothermal energy projects. The institute also wants to speed up the approval processes at the Food and Drug Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission—in the first case to get new treatments to patients more quickly, and in the second to deploy modern nuclear reactors faster. It is pushing to reform the science funding programs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation. For example, researchers associated with the IFP note that NIH peer review grant evaluations now tend to focus on the probability that research proposals will achieve their primary outcomes. Thus this evaluation process generally steers funding away from high-risk, high-reward research. One IFP proposal to overcome this conservative bias is to have peer reviewers first assess how valuable the new cures and treatments stemming from the proposed research would be should it prove successful in developing new fundamental knowledge.

Trying To Make It Better

All these projects direct people’s attention to Gapminder, Human Progress, Our World in Data, and other efforts that comprehensively document how much progress is still being made today. These changes include increasing average life expectancy, cutting extreme poverty, reducing childhood mortality, increasing wealth, supplying greater access to education, and empowering women’s rights.

Yet merely pointing out the facts of progress isn’t enough to persuade a lot of folks. It would be great, says Karabell, if it worked just to tell people, “You should all just read the data and change your views.” But it usually doesn’t.

So another theme that unites these four efforts is their embrace of narrative as a way to restore cultural faith in progress. “You can’t throw facts in the face of people’s emotions, or at least you’ve got to be very careful about how you do that,” says Karabell. “You can’t tell people that they should feel better just because the data tells them they should.” Crawford agrees: “Narratives have a lot of power and they have more power than charts and graphs.”

Saloni Dattani of Works in Progress explains, “One of the reasons that we started Works in Progress was we wanted to allow people to really go deep into some area that they were interested in and make a stronger case and longer case for something that they thought could improve the world or something that they thought was a challenge.” Examples include a recent long article, “Watt lies beneath,” that details how advances in geothermal energy could provide humanity with essentially unlimited supplies of clean energy, and the short video “Gentle Density: Brooklyn” describing how Brooklyn, New York, evolved into the second-most-densely populated county in the U.S.

As another example, Zurich-based Roots of Progress Fellow Alex Telford suggests over at his Liveware newsletter on Substack that the static concepts of health and disease are barriers to progress toward perfecting precision medicine aimed at maintaining bodily homeostasis. In her co-authored Salt Lake Tribune op-ed, “We should pay farmers to save the Great Salt Lake,” Roots of Progress fellow Jennifer Morales explains how water markets can stop that body of water from drying up.

Karabell continues: “How one writes that story about the future is part and parcel of shaping that future. If you begin with ‘We’re fucked,’ it’s really hard to solve your problems because you’re basically convinced that you can’t.”

These proponents of progress do not think that they will change the world overnight. “You have to create a critical mass,” says Karabell, “and ideas take a long time to have an effect on society. But things do change, cultural attitudes do change.” Dattani describes herself as an “impatient optimist.”

“Pessimism is more arrogant than optimism,” Karabell concludes. “Optimism is simply that we know for a fact that we are capable of solving problems. Pessimism is the conviction that we are not. The future isn’t worse unless people stop trying to make it better.”

This article was published at Reason on 4/6/2024.

Blog Post | Progress Studies

What Is Progress? (Or, Progress Towards What?)

How we define ultimate progress depends on axiology; that is, on our theory of value.

Summary: The definition of progress varies from worldview to worldview. While material progress, social progress, and human progress are interconnected, the notion of progress isn’t universally agreed upon and often hinges on differing standards of value. However, there are are key throughlines that unify different reasonable notions of progress more than is initially obvious.

In one sense, the concept of progress is simple, straightforward, and uncontroversial. In another sense, it contains an entire worldview.

The most basic meaning of “progress” is simply advancement along a path, or more generally from one state to another that is considered more advanced by some standard. (In this sense, progress can be good, neutral, or even bad—e.g., the progress of a disease.) The question is always: advancement along what path, in what direction, by what standard?

Types of Progress

“Scientific progress,” “technological progress,” and “economic progress” are relatively straightforward. They are hard to measure, they are multi-dimensional, and we might argue about specific examples—but in general, scientific progress consists of more knowledge, better theories and explanations, a deeper understanding of the universe; technological progress consists of more inventions that work better (more powerfully or reliably or efficiently) and enable us to do more things; economic progress consists of more production, infrastructure, and wealth.

Together, we can call these “material progress”: improvements in our ability to comprehend and to command the material world. Combined with more intangible advances in the level of social organization—institutions, corporations, bureaucracy—these constitute “progress in capabilities”: that is, our ability to do whatever it is we decide on.

True Progress

But this form of progress is not an end in itself. True progress is advancement toward the good, toward ultimate values—call this “ultimate progress,” or “progress in outcomes.” Defining this depends on axiology; that is, on our theory of value.

To a humanist, ultimate progress means progress in human well-being: “human progress.” Not everyone agrees on what constitutes well-being, but it certainly includes health, happiness, and life satisfaction. In my opinion, human well-being is not purely material, and not purely hedonic: it also includes “spiritual” values such as knowledge, beauty, love, adventure, and purpose.

The humanist also sees other kinds of progress contributing to human well-being: “moral progress,” such as the decline of violence, the elimination of slavery, and the spread of equal rights for all races and sexes; and more broadly “social progress,” such as the evolution from monarchy to representative democracy, or the spread of education and especially literacy.

Others have different standards. Biologist David Graber called himself a “biocentrist,” by which he meant

… those of us who value wildness for its own sake, not for what value it confers upon mankind. … We are not interested in the utility of a particular species, or free-flowing river, or ecosystem, to mankind. They have intrinsic value, more value—to me—than another human body, or a billion of them. … Human happiness, and certainly human fecundity, are not as important as a wild and healthy planet.

By this standard, virtually all human activity is antithetical to progress: Graber called humans “a cancer… a plague upon ourselves and upon the Earth.”

Or for another example, one Lutheran stated that his “primary measure of the goodness of a society is the population share which is a baptized Christian and regularly attending church.”

The idea of progress isn’t completely incompatible with some flavors of environmentalism or of religion (and there are both Christians and environmentalists in the progress movement!) but these examples show that it is possible to focus on a non-human standard, such as God or Nature, to the point where human health and happiness become irrelevant or even diametrically opposed to “progress.”

Unqualified progress

What are we talking about when we refer to “progress” unqualified, as in “the progress of mankind” or “the roots of progress”?

“Progress” in this sense is the concept of material progress, social progress, and human progress as a unified whole. It is based on the premise that progress in capabilities really does on the whole lead to progress in outcomes. This doesn’t mean that all aspects of progress move in lockstep—they don’t. It means that all aspects of progress support each other and over the long term depend on each other; they are intertwined and ultimately inseparable.

Consider, for instance, how Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen defined the term in their article calling for “progress studies”:

By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries.

David Deutsch, in The Beginning of Infinity, is even more explicit, saying that progress includes “improvements not only in scientific understanding, but also in technology, political institutions, moral values, art, and every aspect of human welfare.”

Skepticism of this idea of progress is sometimes expressed as: “progress towards what?” The undertone of this question is: “in your focus on material progress, you have lost sight of social and/or human progress.” On the premise that different forms of progress are diverging and even coming into opposition, this is an urgent challenge; on the premise that progress is a unified whole, it is a valuable intellectual question but not a major dilemma.

Historical Progress

“Progress” is also an interpretation of history according to which all these forms of progress have, by and large, been happening.

In this sense, the study of “progress” is the intersection of axiology and history: given a standard of value, are things getting better?

In Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, the bulk of the chapters are devoted to documenting this history. Many of the charts in that book were sourced from Our World in Data, which also emphasizes the historical reality of progress.

So-Called “Progress”

Not everyone agrees with this concept of progress. It depends on an Enlightenment worldview that includes confidence in reason and science, and a humanist morality.

One argument against the idea of progress claims that material progress has not actually led to human well-being. Perhaps the benefits of progress are outweighed by the costs and risks: health hazards, technological unemployment, environmental damage, existential threats, etc. Some downplay or deny the benefits themselves, arguing that material progress doesn’t increase happiness (owing to the hedonic treadmill), that it doesn’t satisfy our spiritual values, or that it degrades our moral character. Rousseau famously asserted that “the progress of the sciences and the arts has added nothing to our true happiness” and that “our souls have become corrupted to the extent that our sciences and our arts have advanced towards perfection.”

Others, as mentioned above, argue for a different standard of value altogether, such as nature or God. (Often these arguments contain some equivocation between whether these things are good in themselves, or whether we should value them because they are good for human well-being over the long term.)

When people start to conclude that progress is not in fact good, they talk about this as no longer “believing in progress.” Historian Carl Becker, writing in the shadow of World War I, said that “the fact of progress is disputed and the doctrine discredited,” and asked: “May we still, in whatever different fashion, believe in the progress of mankind?” In 1991, Christopher Lasch asked:

How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?

Those who dispute the idea of progress often avoid the term, or quarantine it in scare quotes: so-called “progress.” When Jeremy Caradonna questioned the concept in The Atlantic, the headline was: “Is ‘Progress’ Good for Humanity?” One of the first court rulings on environmental protection law, in 1971, said that such law represented “the commitment of the Government to control, at long last, the destructive engine of material ‘progress.’” Or consider this from Guns, Germs, and Steel:

… I do not assume that industrialized states are “better” than hunter-gatherer tribes, or that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents “progress,” or that it has led to an increase in human happiness.

The idea of progress is inherently an idea that progress, overall, is good. If “progress” is destructive, if it does not in fact improve human well-being, then it hardly deserves the name.

Contrast this with the concept of growth. “Growth,” writ large, refers to an increase in the population, the economy, and the scale of human organization and activity. It is not inherently good: everyone agrees that it is happening, but some are against it; some even define themselves by being against it (the “degrowth” movement). No one is against progress, they are only against “progress”: that is, they either believe in it, or deny it.

The most important question in the philosophy of progress, then, is whether the idea of progress is valid—whether “progress” is real.

“Progress” in the 19th Century

Before the World Wars, there was an idea of progress that went even beyond what I have defined above, and which contained at least two major errors.

One error was the idea that progress is inevitable. Becker, in the essay quoted above, said that according to “the doctrine of progress,”

the Idea or the Dialectic or Natural Law, functioning through the conscious purposes or the unconscious activities of men, could be counted on to safeguard mankind against future hazards. … At the present moment the world seems indeed out of joint, and it is difficult to believe with any conviction that a power not ourselves … will ever set it right.

(Emphasis added.)

The other was the idea that moral progress was so closely connected to material progress that they would always move together. Condorcet believed that prosperity would “naturally dispose men to humanity, to benevolence and to justice,” and that “nature has connected, by a chain which cannot be broken, truth, happiness, and virtue.”

The 20th century, with the outbreak of world war and the rise of totalitarianism, proved these ideas disastrously wrong.

“Progress” in the 21st Century and Beyond

To move forward, we need a wiser, more mature idea of progress.

Progress is not automatic or inevitable. It depends on choice and effort. It is up to us.

Progress is not automatically good. It must be steered. Progress always creates new problems, and they don’t get solved automatically. Solving them requires active focus and effort, and this is a part of progress, too.

Material progress does not automatically lead to moral progress. Technology within an evil social system can do more harm than good. We must commit to improving morality and society along with science, technology, and industry.

With these lessons well learned, we can rescue the idea of progress and carry it forward into the 21st century and beyond.

This article was published at The Roots of Progress on 3/9/2024.

Blog Post | Human Development

Heroes of Progress: An Interview with Alex Hammond

Summary: In a dialogue between Clay Routledge and Alex Hammond, the author of Heroes of Progress: 65 People Who Changed the World gives an overview of his exploration into the essence of human advancement. Hammond’s book embarks on a journey into the lives of remarkable individuals who defied odds and transformed the world. Hammond explains some defining characteristics of history’s heroes of progress, shedding light on their unwavering determination, tireless perseverance, and unyielding pursuit of meaningful innovation.

The following is an interview conducted by Archbridge Vice President of Research and Director of the Human Flourishing Lab Clay Routledge with Alex Hammond, author of the new book, Heroes of Progress: 65 People Who Changed the World, which is out March 19, 2024.

Clay Routledge: What inspired you to write a book on the topic of human progress?

Alex Hammond: Over the past two centuries, humanity has experienced unprecedented progress. Between 1820 and 2020, extreme poverty (defined as living on less than $1.90 per person per day) declined by over 90 percent. Over the same period, average global life expectancy more than doubled, and illiteracy declined by over 86 percent.

Yet, despite this immense progress, most of us remain pessimistic and anxious about the state of the world. A 2020 survey by the global public opinion company YouGov asked my fellow Britons, “Generally speaking, do you think the world is becoming a better or worse place, or is it staying much the same?” A whopping 70 percent of respondents thought the world was becoming a worse place to live. Eighteen percent thought it was staying the same, and a measly four percent thought it was improving. When YouGov asked a similar question to Americans in 2016, 65 percent of respondents thought the world was worsening, and just six percent thought it was improving. Similarly, a 2022 national survey found that one-third of American adults and half of Americans under 30 report feeling anxious all or most of the time.

I believe the findings of the two studies above are inherently linked. As Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker notes in the foreword to the book, “s[k]epticism often breeds apathy and fatalism.” This fatalism and apathy, I would argue, underpins much of our modern-day anxiety about the state of the world and humanity’s ability to overcome the most pressing problems of our day. Therefore, the question remains: what causes this skepticism? Pursuing this question led me to write this book.

I believe, perhaps due to a post-1960s intellectual climate that deems it uncool to celebrate those who have come before and media outlets who are becoming increasingly pessimistic about humanity’s outlook, that mass skepticism is rooted in our lack of knowledge about the incredible feats of progress that have come before. As such, Heroes of Progress was written to take readers on a journey through the lives of some of the most important people and explore the societal conditions that made their innovation possible. By sharing these stories, I hope this book will cause the reader to develop a sense of gratitude for what has come before and inspiration as to the endless capacity of free individuals to transform the world for the better.

Clay: What makes someone a hero of progress, and what was your process for selecting the individuals you feature in your book?

Alex: I have defined a “hero of progress” as someone whose work saved or improved the lives of millions of people, irrespective of field or area of expertise. From agronomists whose hybrid crops saved billions of lives, intellectuals who changed public policy and removed barriers to human flourishing, business people whose inventions raised living standards and revolutionized our societies, or scientists whose medical breakthroughs eliminated diseases and ended pandemics, the book features them all—and more!

However, it should be said that despite the narrow selection criteria, the book is not all-encompassing. It is likely that many other people, dead or alive, could fit the definition of a hero of progress. One challenge in compiling the heroes is that the innovation process is usually incremental, collective, and part of a network of information and improvements built on centuries or millennia of acquired knowledge. For simplicity’s sake, I only included those who played the clearest and most important part in developing ideas, processes, change, or goods that went on to save or improve millions of lives. That said, the book attempts to highlight many unsung people who changed the world for the better and without whom, we’d all be far poorer, sicker, hungrier, ignorant, and less free.

Clay: As a psychologist interested in human progress, I appreciate your emphasis on the human mind. You write, “Nations, governments, societies, businesses, committees, groups, algorithms, and computers don’t have ideas. Ideas spring forth from the human brain.” When researching the individuals you feature, did you find any indications of possible common psychological characteristics among these heroes of progress?

Alex: Although the heroes came from many different nations, fields, and historical eras, some common characteristics are evident. The first, and likely unsurprising, trait many heroes hold is their high level of industriousness, grit, and tenacity toward pursuing what they deem meaningful. Fritz Haber, for example, conducted thousands of experiments day in and day out for over a decade just to prove that synthesizing ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen was possible. While many people would have given up on these repetitive experiments, Haber believed his work was meaningful and couldn’t be stopped. Thanks to his perseverance, Haber’s breakthrough eventually led to the widespread adoption of synthetic fertilizer, which saved hundreds of millions, if not billions, of lives.

Similarly, most heroes wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, went into fields others told them they were incapable of being in (due to background, sex, race, etc.), and took any opportunity to work on what they believed was meaningful. Take Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering as an example. Their employers didn’t allow them to spend their workday developing a vaccine for whooping cough. Instead, they tirelessly worked in their lab during evenings and weekends over the course of years to develop the vaccine. In doing so, their work helped to save over 15 million lives so far.

Another trait, particularly common for heroes who lived roughly between 1500 and 1800, was their willingness to migrate. Many heroes moved nations (often several times) to gain freedoms, networks, mentorship, or an education that simply wasn’t available in their home country.

The desire to not take no for an answer, often ignore criticism, work relentlessly, and move abroad to pursue opportunity ultimately meant many heroes were exceptionally disagreeable. Take Maurice Hilleman, the man credited with saving more lives than any other medical scientist in the 20th century. One of his mentees noted that he kept a row of shrunken heads (fake ones, made by his children) on his desk as trophies for every employee he fired from his lab. He ran his laboratory like a military unit and refused to accept mandated classes run by his employers. Yet, he developed over 40 vaccinations and created eight of the 14 recommended in the current schedules. In my opinion, if many of our heroes had been around today, they would likely have been fired or canceled long before they could make their world-changing discovery. To me, this is one of the most unexplored elements in the modern free speech debate—though that’s an article for another day!

Clay: Even if someone has an amazing idea, her or his ability to turn that idea into something truly impactful is influenced by their environment. In the book, you also emphasize the importance of freedom. Why is freedom in all its forms—from free speech to free markets—so critical to human innovation and progress?

Alex: It is only when people have agency and freedom that they can then turn their ideas into innovations. To create ideas, humans must be free to speak, publish, associate, disagree, take risks, and, most importantly, disrupt the status quo. However, Diedre McCloskey said it best when she noted that innovation “isn’t enough [for technological and material progress]. It has got to be tested whether it is profitable to work.” Therefore, a broad range of pro-market policies are needed to allow individuals to save, invest, and trade, which ensures the best innovations rise to the top and, sometimes, even change the world forever.

The price mechanism, which serves as a useful device for innovators to separate good ideas from bad, must remain undistorted for innovation to flourish. The lack of economic and social freedom and a distorted price mechanism is why, for most of human history, our relationship with innovation was sporadic, episodic, limited, and often reversible.

In the second half of the 18th century, humanity’s relationship with innovation began to change when some states in Western Europe—first the Netherlands and the United Kingdom—stopped disincentivizing innovation. They allowed their citizens to develop new ideas and contradict old ones without fear of ostracism, harassment, imprisonment, or death. These freedoms, to varying degrees, have slowly spread across the world.

As the book presents the biographies of the heroes in chronological order, it is fascinating to see that as fundamental personal and economic freedoms begin to spread across the world in the 19th, 20th, and continuing into the 21st century, the backgrounds, ethnicities, and sexes of the heroes become increasingly diverse.

Clay: You make the important point that more people means more minds, which means more ideas. There is a lot of discussion today regarding declining fertility rates. Some see this as a good trend; others see this as a bad trend, often arguing that having more humans (more minds) is actually helpful for addressing challenges such as climate change and improving life for everyone.

I would put myself in this second camp and think that even if AI, robots, and automation can help resolve some of the problems that would result from a declining population, a world with a lot fewer children is, on the whole, bad for progress because children are a powerful source of meaning and existential inspiration. They remind us that we are part of something larger and more enduring than our individual mortal lives. This has an expansive effect on our decisions by encouraging us to improve the world. Do you have thoughts on how current fertility trends might influence progress going forward?

Alex: Due to the human mind’s unique ability to build on and improve past innovations, which in turn leads to technological progress and economic growth, I agree with the late University of Maryland economist Julian Simon’s analysis that the homosapien brain is the world’s “ultimate resource.”

I am deeply concerned about the threat of declining fertility as it relates to culture, geopolitics, governance, and, most importantly, innovation and continued progress. Free nations such as South Korea, where it has been estimated that for every 100 great-grandparents, there will be just 6.6 great-grandkids, will almost certainly experience less innovation and economic growth.

However, despite declining fertility, the sheer number of human minds is just one aspect of innovation. As noted above, there must also be freedom for innovation to flourish. Consequently, given billions of people worldwide lack the freedom of speech, association, ownership, trade, investment, and ultimately, the ability to test their ideas in a marketplace, there is an unfathomable amount of untapped potential for innovation in the world today. If all unfree nations become economically and socially free tomorrow, the rate of innovation and global economic growth would be immense.

Clay: Your colleague Chelsea Follett wrote a book focused on the places where major advances occurred. Beyond freedom and population, what are important factors that help people actualize their creative and innovative ideas to become heroes of progress?

Alex: As you mention, individuals’ freedom to choose and act without oppressive or insurmountable policy hurdles is a prerequisite for innovation. However, another aspect that also determines the rate of progress is the number of individuals with the skills (education) and mindset to believe that they can pursue meaningful tasks and test or develop their ideas. Without the skills and belief that you can pursue your goal and overcome hurdles, creativity and innovation are unlikely, if not impossible. Like the number of people living in free and open societies, there is immense untapped potential among people already on this planet to become empowered with the confidence and skills to innovate.

This Interview was published at Profectus on 3/12/2024.

Blog Post | Adoption of Technology

Bitcoin Brought Electricity to Countries in the Global South

It won’t be the United Nations or rich philanthropists that electrifies Africa.

Summary: Energy is indispensable for societal progress and well-being, yet many regions, particularly in the Global South, lack reliable electricity access. Traditional approaches to electrification, often reliant on charity or government aid, have struggled to address these issues effectively. However, a unique solution is emerging through bitcoin mining, where miners leverage excess energy to power their operations. This approach bypasses traditional barriers to energy access, offering a decentralized and financially sustainable solution.

Energy is life. For the world and its inhabitants to live better lives—freer, richer, safer, nicer, and more comfortable lives—the world needs more energy, not less. There are no rich, low-energy countries and no poor, high-energy countries.

“Energy is the only universal currency; it is necessary for getting anything done,” in Canadian-Czech energy theorist Vaclav Smil’s iconic words.

In an October 2023 report for the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship on how to bring electricity to the world’s poorest 800 million people, Robert Bryce, author of A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations, sums it as follows:

Electricity matters because it is the ultimate poverty killer. No matter where you look, as electricity use has increased, so has economic growth. Having electricity does not guarantee wealth. But its absence almost always means poverty. Indeed, electricity and economic growth go hand in hand.

To supply electricity on demand to many of those people, especially in the Global South, grids need to be built in the first place and then have enough extra capacity to ramp up production when needed. That requires overbuilding, which is expensive and wasteful, and the many consumers of the Global South are poor.

Adding to the trouble are the abysmal formal institutions of property rights and rule of law in many African countries, and the layout of the land becomes familiar: corruption and fickle property rights make foreign, long-term investments basically impossible; poor populations mean that local purchasing power is low and usually not worth the investment risk.

What’s left are slow-moving charity and bureaucratic government development aid, both of which suffer from terrible incentives, lack of ownership, and running into their own sort of self-serving corruption.

In “Stranded,” a long-read for Bitcoin Magazine, Human Rights Foundation’s Alex Gladstein accounted for his journey into the mushrooming electricity grids of sub-Saharan Africa: “Africa remains largely unable to harness these natural resources for its economic growth. A river might run through it, but human development in the region has been painfully reliant on charity or expensive foreign borrowing.”

Stable supply of electricity requires overbuilding; overbuilding requires stable property rights and rich enough consumers over which to spread out the costs and financially recoup the investment over time. Such conditions are rare. Thus, the electricity-generating capacity won’t be built in the first place, and most of Africa becomes dark when the sun sets.

Gladstein reports that a small hydro plant in the foothills of Mount Mulanje in Malawi, even though it was built and financed by the Scottish government, still supplies exorbitantly expensive electricity—around 90 cents per kilowatt hour—with most of its electricity-generating capacity going to waste.

What if there were an electricity user, a consumer-of-last-resort, that could scoop up any excess electricity and disengage at a moment’s notice if the population needed that power for lights and heating and cooking? A consumer that could co-locate with the power plants and thus avoid having to build out miles of transmission lines.

With that kind of support consumer—guaranteeing revenue by swallowing any excess generation, even before any local homes have been connected—the financial viability of the power plants could make the construction actually happen. It pays for itself right off the bat, regardless of transmissions or the disposable income of nearby consumers.

If so, we could bootstrap an electricity grid in the poorest areas of the world where neither capitalism nor central planning, neither charity worker nor industrialist, has managed to go. That consumer of last resort could accelerate electrification of the world’s poorest and monetize their energy resilience. That’s what Gladstein went to Africa to investigate the bourgeoning industry of bitcoin miners electrifying the continent.

Bitcoin Saves the World: Energy-Poverty Edition

Africa is used to large enterprises digging for minerals. The bitcoin miners springing forth all over the continent are different. They don’t need to move massive amounts of land and soil and don’t pollute nearby rivers. They operate by running machines that guess large numbers, which is the cryptographic method that secures bitcoin and confirms its transaction blocks. All they need to operate is electricity and an internet connection.

By co-locating and building with electricity generation, bitcoin miners remove some major obstacles to bringing power to the world’s poorest billion. In the rural area of Malawi that Gladstein visited, there was nowhere to offload the expensive hydro power and no financing to connect more households or build transmission lines to faraway urban areas: “The excess electricity couldn’t be sold, so the power stations built machines that existed solely to suck up the unused power.”

Bitcoin miners are in a globally competitive race to unlock patches of unused energy everywhere, so in came Gridless, an off-grid bitcoin miner with facilities in Kenya and Malawi. Any excess power generation in these regions is now comfortably eaten up by the company’s onsite mining machines—the utility company receiving its profit share straight in a bitcoin wallet of its own control, no banks or governments blocking or delaying international payments, and no surprise government currency devaluations undercutting its purchasing power.

No aid, no government, no charity; just profit-seeking bitcoiners trying to soak up underused energy. Gladstein observes:

One night during my visit to Bondo, Carl asked me to pause as the sunset was fading, to look at the hills around us: the lights were all turning on, all across the foothills of Mt. Mulanje. It was a powerful sight to see, and staggering to think that Bitcoin is helping to make it happen as it converts wasted energy into human progress. . . .

Bitcoin is often framed by critics as a waste of energy. But in Bondo, like in so many other places around the world, it becomes blazingly clear that if you aren’t mining Bitcoin, you are wasting energy. What was once a pitfall is now an opportunity.

For decades, our central-planning mindset had us “help” the Global South by directing resources there—building things we thought Africans needed, sending money to (mostly) corrupt leaders in the hopes that schools be built or economic growth be kick-started. We squandered billions in goodhearted nongovernmental organization projects.

Even for an astute and serious energy commentator as Bryce, not once in his 40-page report on how to electrify the Global South did it occur to him that bitcoin miners—the very people who are turning the lights on for the poorest in the world—could play a crucial role in achieving that.

It’s so counterintuitive and yet, once you see it, so obvious. In the end, says Gladstein, it won’t be the United Nations or rich philanthropists that electrifies Africa “but an open-source software network, with no known inventor, and controlled by no company or government.”