Polymath, civilization, #HumanProgress & flourishing proponent. #ProgressStudies writer, researcher, thinker. Energy Project Manager. Asia-Pacific, Australia
(Max Daniel) Effective Altruism:
“Looking to the future, the progress studies community is most worried about the Great Stagnation. They are nervous that science seems to be slowing down, that ideas are getting harder to find, and that economic growth may soon be over. Industrial-Revolution-level progress was by far the best thing that ever happened to humanity, but we're at risk of losing it. That seems really bad. We need a new science of progress to understand how to keep it going. Probably this will eventually require a number of technological and institutional innovations since our current academic and economic systems are what's led us into the current slowdown.”
(Tony Morley) Human Progress – Progress Studies
The Industrial Revolution was a pivotal and critical point for the launch of human progress and prosperity; however, it came with costs and problems which needed to be solved in turn. The Industrial Revolution was the kick-off point where civilization mastered the ability to utilize the chemical energy banked in geological formation to invest in building a prosperous civilization. I do not think we are at risk of losing the progress of civilization build on the Industrial Revolution, but rather that the progress which the revolution kicked off, needs to continue to mature. The human progress proponent seeks as a priority to continue to advance the dramatic story of improving global living standards, while making rational and fact-based choices with investment and risk. When it comes to “what is progress?” as defined elegantly by Pinker in the following text, we have not yet reached the top of the s-curve for the majority of the global population. There is still room for progress in progress.
Pinker: What is Progress?
“What is progress? You might think that the question is so subjective and culturally relative as to be forever unanswerable. In fact, it’s one of the easier questions to answer. Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony. All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress.” - Enlightenment Now, The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress – Steven Pinker c2018
“So while they agree that the world has been getting a lot better thanks to progress, they're also concerned that progress exposes us to new nuclear-bomb-style risks.”
Agreed, many of the technologies and systems which have driven human progress forward, have also created novel risks and consequences that in turn must be mitigated or eliminated. The utilization of coal is a perfect example of this. Coal represented the metaphorical equivalent of an energy seed investment which humans have used since the Industrial Revolution through to today, to get civilization up and running. However, the ubiquitous use of coal for heating, smelting, and later electricity generation, has introduced or exacerbated issues including climate change, environmental surface disturbance and water and air pollution. Which are issues of human progress that in turn require further solutions.
Similarly, our mastery of nuclear theory, and subsequently nuclear energy; provided both great manifest opportunities to push civilization forward, while at the same time it opened a pandora’s box of risk with regards to the use of nuclear energy for mass destruction and or loss of life. Our command of nuclear theory is widely disseminated, and as such there is little chance of fully reducing the risk to zero. There are, however, effective means of control for reducing the likelihood and consequence, of nuclear risk, and I would argue that utilizing those controls and mitigations are an example of human progress in action.
With regards to the article by Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen, “We Need a New Science of Progress”, I do think there is value here. While the primary thesis for the history of progress and its principal drivers is fairly well established, it is poorly communicated, and not universally available or understood. What is needed is to take the human progress thesis as outlined in books like Progress, and Open by Johan Norberg, Factfulness by Hans Rosling, The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley and Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern Work was Created – William J. Bernstein, amongst others, and use the insights contained therein to motivate our civilization to build a better future based on sound, rational and effective modes of operation. We can debate at length whether indefinite economic growth and ongoing human progress is possible, desirable, or ethical, once we have lifted nearly all of the worlds’ people out of extreme poverty – and not before then. “First comes a full stomach, then comes ethics.” – Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera c1928
“(They might also think of factory farming as an example for how progress might be great for some but horrible for others, at least on some moral views.)”
Agreed, factory farming has been both a blessing and a curse, particularly with respect to our use of animals for food. Access to more food, better food, and more meat and protein, is a driving force for progress at the developing country level, but causes enormous issues in the highly developed West. There’s certainly room for progress in agriculture and livestock management and wellbeing. Synthetic meat anyone? See, “Why Meat is the Best Worst Thing in the World” by Kurzgesagt c2018
So while they agree that the world has been getting a lot better thanks to progress, they're also concerned that progress exposes us to new nuclear-bomb-style risks.
I fully agree. As we attempt to solve problems and improve our personal and collective standards of living as a species, we generate other, largely unforeseen problems and consequences that require yet further solutions, mitigations or substitutions in turn. This has been an active trend in humanity for more than a hundred thousand years - a classic example of “Hatchet, Ratchet, Pivot” theory, advanced by Ruth DeFries
“Our species long lived on the edge of starvation. Now we produce enough food for all 7 billion of us to eat nearly 3,000 calories every day. This is such an astonishing thing in the history of life as to verge on the miraculous. The Big Ratchet is the story of how it happened, of the ratchets, the technologies and innovations, big and small, that propelled our species from hunters and gatherers on the savannahs of Africa to shoppers in the aisles of the supermarket. The Big Ratchet itself came in the twentieth century, when a range of technologies, from fossil fuels to scientific plant breeding to nitrogen fertilizers, combined to nearly quadruple our population in a century, and to grow our food supply even faster. To some, these technologies are a sign of our greatness to others, of our hubris. MacArthur fellow and Columbia University professor Ruth DeFries argues that the debate is the wrong one to have. Limits do exist, but every limit that has confronted us, we have surpassed. That cycle of crisis and growth is the story of our history indeed, it is the essence of The Big Ratchet. Understanding it will reveal not just how we reached this point in our history, but how we might survive it.” - The Big Ratchet, How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis – Ruth DeFries
(Max Daniel) Effective Altruism:
“Regarding the future, they're most worried about existential risk -- the prospect of permanently forfeiting our potential of a future that's much better than the status quo. Permanent stagnation would be an existential risk, but EAs tend to be even more worried about catastrophes from emerging technologies such as misaligned artificial intelligence or engineered pandemics. They might also be worried about a potential war between the US and China, or about extreme climate change. So in a sense they aren't as worried about progress stopping than they are about progress being mismanaged and having catastrophic unintended consequences.”
I agree, however, civilization cannot mitigate existential risk without the courage, confidence, drive to do so. From my perspective, the human progress movement seeks to make the following broad case,
Now, there is at times, much debate amongst the Effective Altruism community and the Human Progress community about 3) and 4), however I think we universally agree on the majority of 1) – 4).
“ Permanent stagnation would be an existential risk, but EAs tend to be even more worried about catastrophes from emerging technologies such as misaligned artificial intelligence or engineered pandemics. They might also be worried about a potential war between the US and China, or about extreme climate change.”
I agree, civilization is not doing enough to consider (low likelihood, high consequence risks) such as “misaligned artificial intelligence”, “engineered pandemics” and other ‘LLHC’ risks, e.g., catastrophic climate change, nuclear war, asteroid impact, massive volcanic eruption, multi-state conventional warfare, genetically advanced selective human development (see Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari) etc. These are risks which need ongoing risk assessment and appropriate mitigation. On a side note, I have formal tertiary qualifications in risk assessment and mitigation, as it has been the field of my normal non-human progress vocation for the last decade.
“They therefore aim for 'differential progress' -- accelerating those kinds of technological or societal change that would safeguard us against these catastrophic risks, and slowing down whatever would expose us to greater risk. So concretely they are into things like "AI safety" or "biosecurity" -- e.g. making machine learning systems more transparent so we could tell if they were trying to deceive their users, or implementing better norms around the publication of dual-use bio research.”
I’m afraid commentary on this section falls outside my scope of expertise.
“Overall, EA and the progress studies perspective agree on a lot -- they're probably closer than either would be to any other popular 'worldview'.
"But overall EAs probably tend to think that human progress proponents are too indiscriminately optimistic about further progress, and too generically focused on keeping progress going."
(Tony Morley) Human Progress – Progress Studies:
The human progress and progress studies movement is not a blindly optimistic look at a mission completed, or progress concluded – but rather that the world has become a much better place, while remaining in need of enormous progress. “Bad and Better”
“The solution is not to balance out all the negative news with more positive news. That would just risk creating a self-deceiving, comforting, misleading bias in the other direction. It would be as helpful as balancing too much sugar with too much salt. It would make things more exciting, but maybe even less healthy. A solution that works for me is to persuade myself to keep two thoughts in my head at the same time. It seems that when we hear someone say things are getting better, we think they are also saying “don’t worry, relax” or even “look away.” But when I say things are getting better, I am not saying those things at all. I am certainly not advocating looking away from the terrible problems in the world. I am saying that things can be both bad and better. Think of the world as a premature baby in an incubator. The baby’s health status is extremely bad and her breathing, heart rate, and other important signs are tracked constantly so that changes for better or worse can quickly be seen. After a week, she is getting a lot better. On all the main measures, she is improving, but she still has to stay in the incubator because her health is still critical. Does it make sense to say that the infant’s situation is improving? Yes. Absolutely. Does it make sense to say it is bad? Yes, absolutely. Does saying “things are improving” imply that everything is fine, and we should all relax and not worry? No, not at all. Is it helpful to have to choose between bad and improving? Definitely not. It’s both. It’s both bad and better. Better, and bad, at the same time. That is how we must think about the current state of the world.” - Factfulness, Ten Reasons We're Wrong About The World - And Why Things Are Better Than You Think – Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund