Matt Ridley is an interesting writer. A popular science/ideas writer he gives you his thoughts on a wide variety of subjects. I do admire his willingness to adopt an overarching narrative. To be honest, at times it can seem a bit too much for my tastes. His libertarian-esque views tend to see him damning a wide range of very different things in history under the heading of government interference. I understand what he is saying, but are Pharaonic decrees to build pyramids really basically the same thing as anti-child labor laws? Still, a central thing I can 100% get behind him on is his argument that progress exists and is a good thing. We might not all agree all the time what progress is exactly. That said, there are many changes over the past 10,000 years that surely we all would say, “yep that’s good”.
Why Are People So Negative About Progress?
One challenge that clearly comes out is that many people don’t really want to believe in progress. Ridley suggests, and it makes a lot of sense to me, that rich people like to whine about lack of progress most.
It is easier to wax elegiac for the life of a peasant when you do not have to use a long-drop toilet.Ridley, 2010, page 12
It seems like progress is giving many of us the free time that allows us to worry about the negative effects of progress.
Want a case of progress. Would I have lived to age 51 in prior generations? Probably not. (I certainly wouldn’t have outrun a predator and I don’t fancy my chances against plague). In which case, it seems a bit much for me to whine about how things are much worse nowadays.
Politics And Progress
Ridley is no ‘progressive’. He dislikes government and many environmental policies especially. He isn’t afraid to tell you so, at length. To be clear I don’t agree with a lot of what he says. He simply didn’t convince me at times. He seemed to imply not eating meat was a fate worst than death. That said, I still think it is helpful to read his clearly stated position.
Interestingly, despite him not being progressive, he seems to believe in progress more than the vast bulk of progressives that I see. He criticizes both the left and right for their failure to see how much we have achieved collectively and how much more can be achieved.
Zero-sum thinking dominates the popular discourse…Ridley, 2010, page 101
Zero-sum thinking is a major problem. (See also here for probably my most unabashedly political post. I generally try and keep it more middle-of-the-road). Generally speaking society isn’t collapsing, see here. People just aren’t very good at perspective. Someone getting your coffee order wrong this morning does not mean that this is the worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the world.
I also think zero-sum thinking cuts across the political spectrum. It is also pretty silly most of the time. Any casual glance at history will show that progress has been made. Really an incredible amount of progress has been made. Social interactions must be more than zero-sum or we’d still be fighting over who had the best stone axe.
Progress Exists And Is A Good Thing
I hear the argument that we need to emphasize how bad things still are to motivate further progress. Many people seem to be worried that if we say something has improved this somehow devalues the genuine suffering of people currently. This is surely wrong; both in fact but also in terms of effective communication. If progress hasn’t occurred despite millennia of effort isn’t that completely demotivating? If no progress has been made, shouldn’t we give up now and just have a drink?
We need to accept the idea that progress can happen (however you see progress) to motivate further progress. For this, it is critically important to realize progress has happened. History, of course, has a vast range of awful things. But it also has amazing achievements. Medicine, democracy, education, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Whatever the personal flaws of people involved in these achievements it doesn’t stop them from being brilliant.
I find it funny that the distinctively ‘unprogressive’ Ridley feels the need to make the point to us that progress works. He might see slightly different causes of progress to me at times but he believes progress exists. On this, he is absolutely correct.
Read: Matt Ridley, (2010) The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Harper Collins