Closing the gap between the science and politics of progress

‘My view of human progress has stayed surprisingly constant throughout my presidency. The world today, with all its pain and all its sorrow, is more just, more democratic, more free, more tolerant, healthier, wealthier, better educated, more connected, more empathetic than ever before. If you didn’t know ahead of time what your social status would be, what your race was, what your gender was, or your sexual orientation was, what country you were living in, and you asked what moment in human history you would like to be born, you’d choose right now.’

Barack Obama, in a 2016 BBC documentary series on his presidency

Obama’s view of progress is one that is, broadly speaking, shared by politicians and governments throughout the developed world and beyond (embellished here by the ‘identity politics’ that characterizes political debate today). The view reflects the dominant or orthodox model of human development. As the United Nations has stated, past decades have seen substantial progress in many aspects of human development. Most people today are healthier, live longer, are more educated and have more access to goods and services, it says; they also have more power to select leaders, influence public decisions and share knowledge.

However, science is now telling us a different story about progress. The discrepancies arise from the equation of progress with modernization, especially the processes of cultural Westernization and material progress (measured as economic growth). Progress indicators focus on those qualities which characterize modernization and which we celebrate as success or improvement. Modernity’s benefits are counted, but its costs are underestimated. These costs include, especially, the growing impacts of modern ways of life on the natural environment and on human wellbeing (which are inextricably linked).

We are seeing a paradigm shift in understanding how to improve the human condition, one which has yet to have much impact on politics: the current dominant paradigm is confronted by a growing body of anomalous and contradictory evidence that it cannot explain or resolve. It is being challenged by a still-emerging paradigm that better acknowledges and reflects the realities of planetary conditions and limits and our greater understanding of human needs and wellbeing.

Obama’s faith in progress provides the foundation of his ideological belief in incremental, rather than radical, political change, reflected in his oft-cited view that the arc of history is long, but bends towards justice. This belief is also apparent in his claim that we can have economic growth without environmental destruction –also an article of faith in modern politics that rests on the notion of ‘dematerialization’ or ‘decoupling’. Several new studies have disputed this possibility. For example:

  • A modelling of growth and its environmental impacts, based on historical data and projections, found that ‘growth in GDP ultimately cannot plausibly be decoupled from growth in material and energy use, demonstrating categorically that GDP growth cannot be sustained indefinitely’.
  • Another model shows global material stocks (timber, metal, concrete, asphalt, bricks, sand and gravel, etc.) accumulating in buildings, infrastructure and machinery increased 23-fold between 1900 and 2010, and now totals 800 billion tonnes, two-thirds of it in industrialized nations . Material stocks would increase a further four-fold if stocks in developing economies converge with those in industrial countries. ‘Saturation, or significant decoupling of stock growth from economic development, is not in sight’, the study states.
  • A systematic literature review of 94 studies has concluded that that state of the global environment has continued to deteriorate. Despite a commitment by governments around the world to sustainable development, supported by an array of agreements, strategies, laws, and programs, ‘decades of scientific monitoring indicate that the world is no closer to environmental sustainability and in many respects the situation is getting worse’.

Then there is the matter of progress’s impacts on wellbeing. By definition, progress should be making life better overall, and most conventional measures show this to be the case. However, evidence for its harm to human wellbeing is growing. In the US, life expectancy fell in 2015 and 2016, the first two-year decline since 1962-63. A major reason is a massive rise in drug-overdose deaths, especially from opioids, which are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. More than a half of American adults regularly take, on average, four prescription medicines, with one in eight of those aged 12 and older using antidepressants. Is this progress?

Doubts about progress also emerge from surveys and studies of people’s concerns about their personal lives, their societies, the world, and the future. For example:

  • A 2016 survey of 22 developed and developing countries shows that people around the world believe ‘the system’ no longer serves them, and that life is getting worse. Across the countries, an average of 57% believe their country is in decline; 64% say traditional parties and politicians don’t care about them; 69% believe the economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful. More believe their generation has had a worse life than their parents, and that life for today’s youth will be worse than their parents’, than believe life is getting better.
  • A 2016 survey in 28 countries, both developed and developing, found that corruption, globalization and technological change were weakening trust in global institutions; there was growing despair about the future, a lack of confidence in the possibility of a better life for one’s family. Two thirds of the countries were now ‘distrusters’, with less than a half of people trusting the major institutions of government, business, media and NGOs.  Across the countries, only 15% believed the present system was working; more than three quarters agreed the system was biased against regular people and favoured the rich and powerful; and more than two thirds did not have confidence that current leaders could address their country’s challenges.
  • A 2013 survey investigated the perceived probability of future threats to humanity in four Western nations: the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Overall, across the four countries, 54% of people rated the risk of ‘our way of life ending’ within the next 100 years at 50% or greater, while 24% rated the risk of ‘humans being wiped out’ at 50% or greater. Three-quarters (78%) agreed that ‘we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world’.

The growing gap between the conventional view of progress and the realities of people’s lives helps to explain the widespread public disquiet in many countries and its political consequences, evident in growing political volatility and extremism. Not enough attention is paid to this. As Donald Trump enters his second year as US president, the mainstream media remain fixated on his every action and utterance. What they overlook is the opportunity his election and other recent political upheavals provide to widen political debate.

Generally speaking, the media treat today’s political turmoil as an alarming aberration, and acknowledge neither its deep roots nor the need for transformative change. There are occasional hints of this broader agenda, but it is rarely if ever expressed in a systemic review of how we define and measure progress. Unsurprisingly, most of reporting and commentary comes from people — journalists, politicians, academics, analysts — who are part of the political establishment, the status quo. The underlying message often seems to be that the sooner we return to the previous politics the better.

As the political analyst and historian Thomas Frank wrote last year, in the US the ‘respectable press’ is captivated by the theme of legitimacy, which it believes Trump lacks and which defines its war against him; ‘…as long as the news media understand that war as a crusade to re-establish the old rules of legitimacy, they are going to continue to fail’. Or as the environmental activist and writer Joanna Macy conceded in a recent interview, Trump’s election was ‘a very painful waking up’; if Hillary Clinton had become president, ‘we would have stayed asleep’.

Re-establishing the old rules of political legitimacy is the last thing we want to do. Instead, we need to enlarge political debate to question the modern worldview that underpins politics. This would open the way for far-reaching policy choices that the status quo precludes. Politics and the media define arbitrarily what warrants coverage and discussion, and much that is important is left out. Climate change notwithstanding, there is almost no serious discussion of genuine sustainable development; nor is there a serious consideration of health and wellbeing that reaches beyond lifestyle factors and healthcare to examine its social determinants.

There is no valid reason why the modern worldview could not be a central theme of political debate. This would be very different from today’s emphasis on ‘issue’ and ‘identity’ politics, whose elements are kept firmly within the conventional framework of progress. The interconnected challenges facing humanity cannot be solved by focusing on the discrete, specific problems that characterize and define today’s politics, however legitimate the concerns are in themselves.

The status quo relies heavily on scientific legitimation. While science has largely underpinned the orthodox view of progress, science, through research in many disciplines, is now exposing its limitations, flaws and hazards. It is in science’s hands to build on people’s unease and their insights into its sources to press on all institutions, but especially politics and business, the need for deep change if we are to safeguard humanity’s future.

People in power may genuinely believe they are doing the right thing for humanity; after all, the scientific orthodoxy on progress supports their belief. And even if they are largely intent on advancing their own interests, they can claim scientific legitimacy to do so. By pushing us to rethink how we conceptualise and measure progress and development, science is creating not just a chink, but a gaping hole, in the armour of the status quo.

Solutions to our predicament exist, but governments and leaders will not implement them if they are not convinced of the magnitude of the problem — which they are not at present, as Obama’s position shows. Perceived scientific legitimacy is a central justification for these political perceptions. Changing these perceptions is arguably science’s greatest challenge today.

Richard Eckersley is an Australian researcher on progress, sustainability and wellbeing. This article draws on a paper, ‘Closing the gap between the science and politics of progress’, published recently in the international journal, Social Indicators Research. The paper (including references) is available on his website,

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