Redefining progress

Since the industrial revolution started progress has always been quantified in one way or another: size, speed, number, amount, value, income, profit, productivity and countless other metrics. Based on this mode of definition people perceive progress as growth. Growth in size, speed, number, amount, value, income, profit, productivity and so on.

We need to define progress in other ways because quantifying it is counterproductive, in other words, we think we are progressing but we are not. Progress, from a quantitative-growth viewpoint, adheres to the law of diminishing returns which suggests that as an economy continues to increase its human and physical capital, the marginal gains to economic growth will diminish. The problem is that the continual growth of resource use on a finite planet is impossible. Current growth is ruining the planet and ironically not improving the overall well-being of people either. In his book, A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright discusses the collapse of various civilisations throughout history such as the Sumerians, Roman Empire, Easter Islanders and Mayans. He made the observation that civilisations can over-progress going from cleverness to recklessness and falling into what he calls ‘progress traps’. These traps happen when the civilisation is at its peak, and its most complex, bloated with the gas of bureaucracy and technocracy. There is no doubt that our civilisation is becoming increasingly bureaucratic and technocratic. We are not progressing, we are regressing.

Redefining progress by description

By redefining progress in qualitative terms there is no real limit to it. This distinction could be described by saying we don’t need bigger, we need better. Some people might argue that bigger is better. This might be the case sometimes but there are many other qualities that can make something better or worse. Some might argue that the increasing complexity and speed of systems is progress but only if you value complexity and speed. From a sustainabilist point of view, simplicity, smallness and slowness are valued because they are more effective, more elegant, more resilient and less wasteful. Complexity might be clever, but simplicity is wise.

Of course, people value different qualities, in which case they are also likely to define qualitative progress differently. One quality Econation believes is of the highest value is well-being. Or more accurately, well-being is a meta-quality, a combination of qualities. It’s hard, if not impossible, to measure well-being because it is subjective. One person’s well-being might be another person’s living hell. You measure quantities but describe qualities and we can certainly describe well-being – or the lack of it. Once you start describing things you can start to look at ways of improving them i.e progressing them.

To ensure well-being, for people and planet, we need to describe progress, not measure it.