Closing the gap between the science and politics of progress (Part 1 of 2)

Feb 14, 2018

Global politics is based on an outmoded and increasingly destructive model of human progress and development. In the first of two parts, RICHARD ECKERSLEY examines what is wrong with the model with respect to sustainability and quality of life.

‘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, President of the United States 2009-2017

It is unusual for a national leader to articulate his worldview in this way. Nonetheless, Obama’s view of progress is one that is, broadly speaking, shared by politicians and governments throughout the developed world and beyond (partly framed here by the ‘identity politics’ that characterises political debate today). The view reflects the dominant or orthodox model of development.

However, this model is increasingly at odds with what science tells us about the world. It is not that the specific achievements are wrong, but that they are incomplete, and so present a false picture of progress. The growing gap between the conventional view 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.

As discussed in an earlier piece, the core flaw in the dominant model arises from the equation of progress with modernisation, especially the processes of cultural Westernisation and material progress (measured as economic growth). Progress indicators focus on those qualities which characterise modernisation and which we celebrate as success or improvement. Western liberal democracies, which typically occupy all but a few of the top 20 places in progress indices, are presented as models of development for other countries.

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, of course inextricably linked. That many of the world’s most populous nations, including China, India and Brazil, are, in important respects, following this path of progress greatly exacerbates the global threat.

Obama’s faith in progress provided the foundation of his ideological commitment to incremental, rather than radical, political change, reflected in his oft-cited view that the arc of history is long, but bends towards justice. In his snapshot of an improving world, Obama does not mention environmental impacts and the challenge of sustainability. But he has addressed this issue elsewhere, arguing that evidence of a ‘decoupling’ of energy-sector emissions of greenhouse gases and economic growth ‘should put to rest the argument that combatting climate change requires lower growth or a lower standard of living’.

Again, this belief in the desirability and feasibility of continuing economic growth is an article of faith in modern politics. In environmental terms it rests on the notion of dematerialisation or decoupling. It may be possible to decouple growth from fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions by switching to clean, renewable energy, but this does not mean an uncoupling of growth from resource consumption and its environmental impacts. Several new studies have disputed this broader possibility.

For example, a review of 94 studies published last year 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’.

Apart from its unsustainability, 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 modernisation’s damage to quality of life and 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.

Modernity’s impacts are also seen in surveys and studies of people’s deep concerns about their personal lives, their societies, the world, and the future. These perceptions may be intangible and at odds with objective conditions, but they are important to quality of life, with implications for both individual wellbeing and societal functioning.

For example, A 2016 survey in 28 countries, both developed and developing, found that corruption, globalisation 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.

Richard Eckersley is an independent researcher on progress, sustainability and wellbeing. This article draws on a longer paper published this month in the international journal, Social Indicators Research. The paper is available on his website,

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