Can We Make Human Progress?

Even economists are beginning to see that the current economic system is flawed. Most want to fix it, like Jared Bernstein who advocates re-priming growth, but distributing it more equally, which he calls “reconnection.” Arguments about fairness captivate us more than ecological crises that seem more abstract, so they dominate attention. They want to overhaul the economic engine – make the same vehicle run better.

Only a handful of environmental economists like Herman Daly or David Fleming laboring in relative obscurity advocate economics to care for the earth and its ecosystems as well as us. Daly calls this upheaval a steady state economy. Others call it a circular economy, post-growth economy, and even lean economy. By any name, it’s a total redesign of the vehicle using different principles, which scares most of us. We prefer to ignore such proposals, no matter how well reasoned.

Economic growth is considered to be the platform necessary for resolving social ills. This idea is so ingrained that even environmentalists researching human economic footprints struggle to free themselves from the measurements of material economic expansion that we have been developing for more than two centuries. For example, a study recommending closer feedback from human systems into climate models could not escape using GNP as an indicator of quality of life, consumption, and energy use.

The conceptual foundations of expansionary economics reach back to Adam Smith, Jevons, Keynes, Friedman, and their ilk, the philosophical economists, including Marx. All believed that economic growth is wealth, and that more wealth is progress – material progress. Disputes are confined to how to do it, and how fairly to do it. However, a new framework needs new concepts of wealth, progress, and success.

Wealth is what we can do to sustain all life; it’s not volume of consumption; it’s not valuation of owned assets.

Wealth depends on what we consider to be progress, on what we think makes life “better” rather than “worse.” and for how many of us. That is fundamental because it determines how we organize society. Only a few generations ago, life may have been relatively good for some, but not so good for those who were slaves. And to those eager for material progress (not everyone), nature was a force to be tamed and harnessed.

We have succeeded too well. Despite occasional natural disasters, nature is in full retreat, harassed by a system whose health depends on expanding human habitat and shrinking the habitat for everything else. Our own success now forces us to heed the health of nature more, while still expanding – trying to save our cake while eating it. Alternative business models have limits. They draw us to monetizeable technologies and techniques that fit the system, but give it a green twist. To blow beyond this, we need guidance from a different concept of progress – a different “true north.”

Gut level guidance is from concepts of progress embedded so deeply in our psyches that we may be unaware of them. They picture a better future. To preclude being despondent, perhaps we need such a “hope for something better.” These hopes are rarely ours alone. They are shaped by our human culture. Our cultural concepts of progress influence us, whether we conform to them or deviate from them.

For example, in the 19th century, Westward Expansion and the Monroe Doctrine built the United States. People acted on the beliefs that industry, technology, civilization, and democracy – and freedom to innovate – would inevitably “make everything better,” if not for them, then for future generations. And it would never end.

So what does success mean to you, personally? Increasing the value of investments? Making a payroll? Wrapping our world in software? Travelling the world? Having a distinguished career? Lifelong learning? Getting a patent? Regenerating nature? Improving the lives of others?

Our ideas of success shadow our concepts of progress, and we have a great variety of them. Some are attempts to prolong expansion, or avoid having to think about it. A favorite is belief in a technology, from a new designs for nuclear power to transhumanism, which is enhancing us physically, mentally, and emotionally. One way or another, we hope technology will save the planet from the second law of thermodynamics (energy dissipates; things run down) – with little change in our way of life.

Each of these beliefs in technology presumes that rapid human learning is necessary and inevitable. Of these transhumanism is the most ambitious; one of its objectives is to modify us emotionally, either so we get along better with each other, or by making some of us more dominant; take your pick.

Indeed technology can help us preserve the planet if we apply it to that concept of progress, but can we? The history of people trying to modify themselves in a low-tech utopia is not promising. A current utopia that is falling short of its intent is Auroville in India. Even Sir Tomas More doubted the worth of his original Utopia, not because of its features, but because he did not think people could change to abide by its customs.

And so any proposal to make progress in a human sense is the toughest challenge we can give ourselves, although not totally hopeless. In many settings we know that people substantially modify their beliefs when exposed to a different kind of environment. Don’t explain principles first, create a new environment and people come around – at least in that setting. That happens when an organization adopts lean, when we are saturated in a totally different culture, or when subjected to military training. Of course, this approach presumes that someone has initial control of others’ environments.

Given our environmental duress, sooner or later a global sense of urgency about low consumption visions of progress may overtake us. However, pessimists figure that few humans are wise enough to learn new beliefs from abstract news; most have to learn the hard way, so society will collapse in chaos and strife. So how can we make human progress?

Human progress is learning by questioning our beliefs and updating them as well as our technology and techniques.

This implies learning from observation as well as from abstraction, considering courses of action from the view of all stakeholders, and acting – and quickly at times. No global algorithm can specify what every local community and every company should do. Those on the scene have to set their own course.

Not much chance of that without having a common mission with a common idea that progress is sustaining all life, including our own, long term. Learning to enjoy life while consuming a lot less will require enormous changes in what we do physically, but more than that, a transformation in our state of mind. Call that an ism if you like.

Compression Thinking promotes human progress through the concepts of a Vigorous Learning Organization. Of course, we want to change what we do to live well using much less “stuff,” and that is contrary to prevailing business and economic thought patterns. But to reframe our situation, we have to work on changing our own concepts of progress. We recognize that this is hard to grasp because Vigorous Learning is not a set of techniques to sell to organization bent on realizing conventional commercial goals. It promotes a necessary transformation of those goals.

Compared with any seen so far, changes could be huge. By expansionist thinking, just writing off the stranded capital from old coal power plants is a big financial jolt. It should become routine. Low-consumption concepts of progress should generate all kinds of different thinking; like efficiency is important; crucial when necessary, but effectiveness – doing the right thing for all concerned, including earth – is never unimportant. Even our definitions of work and value added must change.

Progress is learning to learn faster, not only technical skills, but behavioral ones, learning to control many urges that might have helped tribal hunter-gatherers survive, but don’t help much in a much bigger world. We must learn to do this to resolve “wicked problems” that involve fairness, unanticipated effects, fear, uncertainty, and risk.

That is, can we get beyond merely being civil while actually making decisions using power games, to elevating the effectiveness of civil communication to question prior beliefs and mutually learn how to live well on a beleaguered, resource-pinched planet? That would put human progress in charge of technological progress.

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