Content PROGRESS  

Progress is not an accident but a necessity. Instead of civilization being artificial, it is part of nature; all of a piece with the development of an embryo or the unfolding of a flower. — Herbert Spencer, 1853

One should not be ashamed of a belief in progress. It is painfully slow and intermittent … but there is a strong case for believing that in the long run it is built into the system, provided there is not an ultimate and irretrievable catastrophe. — Kenneth E. Boulding, Policy Implications of Evolutionary Economics.

That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. — Neil Armstrong, July 20, 1969, on the surface of the Moon.

Progress is a comfortable disease … your victim (life and death safely beyond) plays with the bigness of his littleness. — E.E.Cummings, 1944

Where we've been

Science and technology. The Japanese surrendered one day before Hiram Caton's ninth birthday. The terminal event was the destruction of Hiroshima by the atomic bomb. The Cold War commenced soon thereafter, when the Soviet Union installed an ‘Iron Curtain', as Winston Churchill called it, from ‘Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic'. The Cold War was dominated by the threat of mutual annihilation by atomic warfare. As he came of age, Grumpy didn't assimilate American optimism about the promise of science to promote the human good. His scepticism was expressed by the Beat Generation of the Fifties, the counter-culture of the Sixties, and in much film, fiction, and popular music. He even wrote a novel, The Teacup War , to express his experience. But his closest affinity was with The Education of Henry Adams (1907) because of its thoughtful exploration of the complexity of the encounter between man and the machine.

Prevailing theories of progress told the story as an epic of moral improvement of the human species that pulled the benefits the industrial economy in its wake. Grumpy located the human basis of progress in polytechnic rationality, whose manipulation of natural processes ever expanded the appetite for acquisition and dominance. Statements of this position are found in the following writings:

The Politics of Progress

the Politics of Progress - Hiram Caton

The book is available to read online (click here). Look at the table of contents on the second page and select what you might like to read. The chapter titles are as follows:

  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Three Manifestos
  • Diffusion of the New Philosophy
  • Popular Enlightenment: Gutenberg, Conscience, and Leviathan
  • Enlightenment and Religion in England, 1620-1700
  • John de Witt and the Dutch Commercial Republic
  • The Whig Commercial Republic
  • Faction, Party, and the Rhetoric of Opposition
  • "This Progress of the Arts and Sciences"
  • Enlarging the Politic Public
  • The Formation and Reformation of Government (Europe)
  • The Formation and Reformation of Government (United States)
  • Industrialization and Its Liberal Interpretation
  • Afterword

Articles and Reviews


John McCarthy, The Sustainability of Progress

McCarthy is a retired computer scientist at Stanford University . His optimism is large scale, for he believes that we have another billion years or more on planet Earth. His assessment covers lots of territory: food supply, population growth, fresh water supply, forests, pollution, the exhaustion of petroleum, ideology and conflict. He likens his position with that of the economist Julian Simon.

Albert A. Bartlett, Reflections on Sustainability, Population Growth, and the Environment Revisited

This lecture has been delivered 1300 times in many countries. The author, who is emeritus professor of physics at the University of Colorado, argues that sustainable growth is an unsustainable concept, in light of many facts. His position is thus the opposite of John McCarthy's view.

Joel Mokyr, The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress

Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World

The Evolutionary Economics of Kenneth E. Boulding.

Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China , Europe , and the Making of the Modern World Economy

These four studies ask why the modern economy arose in Europe rather than in China. As of 1300 A.D., the Chinese technology far exceeded the quality of European technology.  Its navy was large in the size of vessels and number, and its trade was extensive.  One part of the answer is that about 1500 A.D. Chinese government and society went into stagnation.  That happens also to be the approximate date that European nations discovered exploration and the 'new world', much of it laden with gold: suddenly there was something to do.

Eric D. Beinhocker, Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics

Beinhocker swims in the stream of Boulding, Mokyr, and Pomeranz, but doesn't quite construct the new economic vessel. See the detailed analysis by A.J. Sutter at amazon.com.

Peter Turchin, Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall

Turchin is an ecologist who does fine-grained populational studies of insects and applies his principles to our species. Amazing stuff. Does it work? Check it out!

Michael H. Hart, Understanding Human History

Professor Philippe Rushton says this about Hart's book in his review: 'Michael Hart has written a powerful new book which provides an erudite biological explanation of human history. His data-filled book pulls together diverse events using a gene-based evolutionary theory that takes IQ differences into account. He frames his ideas boldly and provocatively and he explains why cold-selected northern peoples made most of the major advances in civilization. Hart's writing is beautifully concise and to the point, and he makes excellent use of tables and bulleted lists'.

Jared Diamond, The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race

Diamond is a distinguished biologist who has written several best-sellers on the origins of the modern world. The ‘mistake' is the transition to agricultural, which makes life miserable, brutal, and short. Pastoralists and hunter-gatherers have it much better, he believes.

Jared Diamond, Why Societies Collapse

Diamond's extensive writings on the rise and fall of civilizations are summarized in this lecture given at Princeton University.

Ronald Bailey, editor, Earth Report 2000: Revisiting the True State of the Planet

Ten scientists challenge or refute the agenda of gloom (global warming, population explosion, destruction of biodiversity) that dominates much of the thinking about our future.

Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World

This study, originally published in 2002, is the most influential critique of the gloom agenda. The reaction of the science establishment was very hostile. But he survived and wrote other books on this subject. He now has the status of guru of environmental critics, even among the environmentalists.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

The IPCC was established in 1988 to assess the scientific, technical and socio-economic data bearing on climate change and its potential impacts. It is currently finalizing its fourth assessment report, Climate Change 2007, available on its website. See also the United Nations Global Environment Network (GEO) and Earth Summit Agenda 21, which describes a comprehensive action plan to eliminate and control negative human impacts on the environment. Yet another UN activity, the Millennium Project, deserves mention.

The Earth Charter

Earth Charter is a global organization promoting grass roots support for a global initiative to save the environment and all creatures in it. Earth Charter is also a statement of social, political, economic and ethical principles, linked here. The organization and its statement of principles were created by Mikhail Gorbachev and the environmental activist Maurice Strong in 1998. The Charter is meant to replace the UN Declaration of Human Rights and to become a new Ten Commandments. It enjoys very high level support. For a hostile history of the organization, see Lee Penn's ‘Agenda for Totalitarianism'.

Cyril Belshaw, Choosing our Destiny: Creating the Utopian World in the 21st Century

The author, a Canadian anthropologist, won the 2005 Utopian World Championship. He examines the interlocking parts of global society and culture, its politics and its economics. He endorses the great humanist faith that education, provided that it is reformed, is the way to a happy future.

Where We're Going  

Earth Trends

EarthTrends is a comprehensive online database, maintained by the World Resources Institute, that focuses on the environmental, social, and economic trends that shape our world.  

Foundation for the Future

The Foundation conducts a broad range of programs and activities to promote an understanding of the factors in the social, genetic, biological, medical, psychological, physiological, cultural, technological, and ecological fields that may have an impact on human life during coming millennia.

World Futures Society

The Society publishes The Futurist and Futurist Update. Current forecasts include a major extinction coming soon, critical strain on water resources, major price rises for natural resources, and increasing tensions between Russia, China, and the United States.

Redefining Progress

Founded in 1994, this organization is a think tank dedicated to ‘shifting public policy to achieve a sustainable economy, a health environment and a just society'.

Jerome C. Glenn, Theodore J. Gordon, 2005 State of the Future

Although this book is short and over-priced, it nevertheless deserves notice because of its optimistic views and because it is representative of influential American humanists.

The World of 2020 and Alternative Futures

This study was carried out by a US Air Force think tank. It attends to five very different scenarios, concentrating on how US defence forces, especially the Air Force, might respond.

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