Is progress a good thing? Generally speaking, it seems like an easy question – unless, that is, you’re in the “sustainability movement.”
In a piece in the Atlantic, adapted from his new book, “Sustainability: A History” (which I haven’t read), historian Jeremy Caradonna challenges prevailing notions regarding the Industrial Revolution. Was the explosion of industry and subsequent rise in productivity and technology good for humanity? Not if you believe there are too many people living way too long and emitting way too much carbon into the atmosphere. And this “ecological crisis” – the greatest threat to ever challenge mankind – has its roots in the Industrial Revolution.
So if, for some reason, you embrace a “narrative” that says the rise of laissez faire economics – and the resulting efficiency and technological advancements – were moral because they freed millions from poverty and made modern life possible, you’re not thinking clearly. If you cling to the narrative that prosperity creates economic stability which in turn creates an environment that makes political stability possible, you’re just being didactic:
Narratives are inevitably moralistic; they are never created spontaneously from “the facts” but are rather stories imposed upon a range of phenomena that always include implicit ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong. The proponents of the Industrial Revolution inherited from the philosophers of the Enlightenment the narrative of human (read: European) progress over time but placed technological advancement and economic liberalization at the center of their conception of progress. This narrative remains today an ingrained operating principle that propels us in a seemingly unstoppable way toward more growth and more technology, because the assumption is that these things are ultimately beneficial for humanity.
Yes, that’s the assumption. Unlike the neo-Mathusians, I don’t pretend to know what the future holds. But let’s concede for the purposes of this piece that climate change threatens society in serious ways right now. If you want to argue that Americans should alter the way they live and sacrifice some of their prosperity for security, you might be wrong, but please feel free to convince them. If you’re arguing that prosperity itself is corrupt and man’s greatest economic achievements were a historical mistake, then your obsession with “sustainability” has warped your sense of morality.
Now, my conception (read: European) of progress and a better standard of living would place many advances above composting, organic farming, or even urban chicken coops.
- Higher incomes that allow people to make livings that afford them more than merely survival or avoiding starvation.
- A low poverty rate.
- High quality and diversity of employment opportunities. Rather than the choice of being a farmer or being a blacksmith, the average citizen should have an array of careers to choose from, and the ability to be industrious and take risks for profit.
- The availability of housing. On an average night in the United States, a country with a population of somewhere around 350 million, fewer than one million people are homeless.
- Consistent GDP growth.
- Access to quality health care.
- The availability of quality education. (I suppose we could quibble over the word “quality,” but certainly there is widespread free education availability.)
- High life expectancy. Worldwide life expectancy has more than doubled from 1750 to 2007.
- Low frequency of deadly disease.
- Affordable goods and services.
- Infrastructure that bolsters economic growth.
- Political stability.
- Air conditioning.
- Freedom from slavery, torture and discrimination.
- Freedom of movement, religion and thought.
- The presumption of innocence under the law.
- Equality under the law regardless of gender or race.
- The right to have a family – as large as one can support. Maybe even larger.
- The right to enjoy the fruits of labor without government – or anyone else – stealing it.
There’s much more, of course. If the “sustainability movement” had its way, many of these advances would be degraded. And since Caradonna offered a few charts highlighting climate change and population growth (a bad thing), I too was assembling a number of graphs that could offer visual examples of the rise of positive developments since the Industrial Revolution. I also soon noticed that all of them looked virtually identical. So below is what a graph encompassing nearly every one of my bullet points looks like:
Despite the immense benefits that I have clearly laid out in my reductive graph above, Caradonna argues that the Industrial Revolution ushered in:
a veritable Age of Pollution, which has resulted in filthy cities, toxic industrial sites (and human bodies), contaminated soils, polluted and acidified oceans, and a “blanket” of air pollution that traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, which then destabilizes climate systems and ultimately heats the overall surface temperature of the planet.
As Indur M. Goklany meticulously explores in his excellent book “The Improving State of the World,” in recent decades we have made the world a lot cleaner, healthier and livable for humans. And we did so without surrendering much wealth or freedom. I suppose it makes me a technoutopian to trust that we can adapt and create ways to deal with whatever consequences – and obviously there are consequences – a thriving modern world drops on us. Historically speaking, though, would it have been better for humanity to avoid an “Age of Pollution” and wallow in a miserable pre-Industrial Age, where poverty, death, disease and violence, were far more prevalent in our short miserable lives? Or would we have chosen global warming? I think the latter. And I think we’d do it again.