Progress – really? Really

On 8 October the 10th edition of my State of the World Atlas is published. It’s a big picture book with graphic presentation of statistics and trends worldwide. And the biggest of the big picture questions is, “Is progress real?” Short answer: yes. 

Yes, I know. Look outside and it’s not pretty. During the last five years we have seen global geopolitics go from sour to toxic, unravelling nuclear arms control, and reducing the appetite for international cooperation to address problems that can only be solved by working together.  The number of armed conflicts is higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War 30 years ago. Global military spending and the trade in major weapons are both at 30-year highs as well. The impact of climate change is increasing and increasingly dangerous. And on top of that there is the pandemic with its human, social, cultural and economic consequences. Can we still believe in progress? Really?

Yes, really.

Some of what we sometimes call progress is of little worth or merit – useless technological baubles that are modish for a while. And some of it when seen in larger context is downright dangerous – a contribution to global heating, waste or the crisis of air pollution. 

But in even larger context, humanity’s social progress is real. More people live longer, healthier lives than ever. Fewer live in extreme poverty than 30 years ago and a much smaller proportion of the total population than 100 or 200 years ago. The store of human knowledge continues to enlarge. Human rights are respected now in a way that was not dreamed of 200 years ago. More people live in democratic political systems today than ever. And in the first two decades of the 21st century, warfare has taken far fewer human lives than it did in the first two decades of the 20th.

Saying this does not mean being blind to the obvious. If progress is a journey, it is not about rolling along a smooth path or gliding through space. It is more like lurching in and out of massive potholes in the road or, if you prefer the space metaphor, going from one big astral collision to another, juddering all the while under the impact of an unending, randomized shower of meteorites. 

The State of the World Atlas maps and visualises the five big challenges humanity faces: 

  • the production and distribution of wealth and poverty; 
  • human rights and the respect with which ordinary people are treated by those in power;
  • the question of war and peace; 
  • the health of the people; and 
  • the health of the planet.

These last five to ten years, there has been some significant deterioration. Fewer people live in extreme poverty but world hunger is on the rise again. The statistics of democracy are strong but the quality of democracy in many countries is eroding. Human rights are more widely respected than ever but are still widely abused. Despite economic crises a decade ago and now, economic growth has continued; humanity as a whole is richer than ever but, as it has for the past 50 years, inequality is deepening. The number of armed conflicts has increased, as have the volume of the global arms trade and world military spending.

Worse, a considerable part of what we call progress, especially in science, technology and the economy, has come about at the expense of our natural environment. Failing to understand that we are part of nature, humanity has done what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has rightly decried as waging war on nature. That is a war we cannot win because it means waging war on ourselves. Prosperity and economic growth have come at a high price for us. And the bill has fallen due, the first payments have started, and there is a long way yet to go.

All true. But amid all this, the point is worth stressing. Human progress has been real over the last two centuries, despite world wars, despite colonialism, despite environmental crisis. 

Progress has been real and because of that we know further progress is possible.

But because of the price we are paying, for progress to continue, it has to be different.

If we face the bad news head on with eyes open, perhaps we will see that it is not so bad. Perhaps we will see the initiatives that are being taken – by local communities, by governments, by international organisations – to address the problems. More of that in later blog posts. There are so many things happening. And they should be a spur to action, to take decisions that stem the rise of inequality, ensure our rights are respected, expand the world’s zone of peace again, keep improving public health and prepare better against the next pandemic, and put our relationship with nature onto a healthier footing. Above all, what we need is the readiness to start working together to those ends.

One response to “Progress – really? Really

  1. Pingback: Mapping the journey of human progress | Dan Smith's blog

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