Can progress be measured per-capita?

Alert: this essay contains mild spoilers for the movie Snowpiercer. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. It is a brilliant, though at times violent and absurd meditation on modern civilization. 

In a previous post I commented on the question of whether there’s anything good about the Anthropocene. “Civilization has excelled at making a few people marginally more comfortable,” I wrote, “but the cost has been the destruction of millions of years of cultural and biological diversity.” A few people pushed back on whether I was giving civilization enough credit, arguing that there’s much data to show that people’s lives are, cumulatively, better today than they ever have been.

It may be impossible to evaluate such a claim, however, at least quantitatively. Sure, there’s plenty of hard data about health and quality of life that has been kept for the past hundred years, but which data are kept and prioritized skews the results, by embedding assumptions about what indicators are most informative to questions of health and well-being. Indicators such as poverty levels, infectious disease, and infant mortality are often selected because people think them to be objective, but other indicators, such as the rates of human rights abusesnumber of fragile/failing states, number of people in slavery, and rising global rates of depression and obesity are also informative. Further, how exactly do you measure and compare something like connection to the land, or self reliance, or solidarity?  

Are people better off living with high rates of hunger, malnutrition, and ecological degradation, or living with high rates of infant mortality?

Quantitative indicators of progress can also be misleading. Take infant mortality; one of the first targets of “third world” development programs is usually to reduce infant mortality rates through public health interventions. This is a relatively easy thing to fix; yet, unless accompanied by aggressive economic development, such interventions can actually plunge regions into what’s known as the demographic trap – where populations grow but other living conditions do not improve, leading to epidemics of hunger and of ecological overshoot. Are people better off living with high rates of hunger, malnutrition, and ecological degradation, or living with high rates of infant mortality? The only answer that I am comfortable with is that neither should be acceptable. An improvement of one at the expense of the other is not progress.

The United Nation's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are another example of how indicators of progress can be misleading. The MDGs are eight goalposts for international development selected by the UN in 2000. They including eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, and promote gender equality and empower women. Progress toward these goals has been mixed from place to place; even in places where progress is being seen, howeber, Human Rights Watch argues that because the MDG agenda neglects human rights issues, programs designed to attend to the MDGs can result in "diminished and distorted development efforts, with many people excluded or unable to benefit ... and many [harmed] by economic policies carried out in the name of development" (2014, p. IX). 

Progress for Who and When?

Thus, "progress" in the modern world has repeatedly proven to come with trade-offs over space and time. The question that these and other indicators of progress answer is not "are we better off" but "who is better off than whom and compared to when?" Are western Europeans better off than they were in the Middle Ages? Sure. But, are Native Americans better off today than they were in 1491? Unlikely.

Are Native Americans better off today than they were in 1491? Unlikely.

A key difficulty to making arguments about well-being for all of humanity is that there’s no quantitative data with which to compare today with many thousands of years ago. All we have are what can be inferred from oral histories and from the archaeological record. Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins attempted this; in Stone Age Economiche offers extensive equations for characterizing the amount of work involved in hunter-gatherer societies. He shows rather elegantly that people in prehistoric times likely worked far less than people do today. He called this the “original affluent society” hypothesis. Deaths due to injury may have been more common, and life spans were (overall) shorter, but nevertheless there’s evidence that people were more comfortable than they are now. The common pattern of psychological and social ills that plague indigenous communities who have been forced out of their traditional lives and livelihoods and into "modern" living is hardly a ringing endorsement of the new over the old. 

Is anyone really better off if the planet is on the brink of ecological collapse?

This brings us to the philosophical question of whether the ends ever justify the means. Are dramatic losses of life or of quality of life over the last few hundred years among some people justified by modest gains in other parts of the world? To put it another way, is progress something that can be measured "per capita"?Proponents of western society’s recent achievements seem to argue yes. “The past was bad,” they might say, “but we’re gaining ground. We simply need to just keep on doing what we’re doing.” But, much of these modest gains in global equity and massive gains in elite wealth have come at the expense of our planetary life support system. Is anyone really better off if the planet is on the brink of ecological collapse?

The Allegory of the Train

The recent movie Snowpiercer illustrates this point beautifully. The basic premise of the movie is as follows: the very near future finds Earth frozen and devoid of all life as a result of first-world nations releasing an experimental chemical into the atmosphere to mitigate global warming. What remains of humanity lives aboard the titular train, which was built to circle the world in the course of one year. There is a very strict social hierarchy on the train. The poorest of the poor, who have no rights and receive the most utilitarian of food rations (protein bars made from insects), live in barracks at the back of the train, while the upper class lives in decadence at the front.

The movie follows a band of revolutionaries who seek to take control of the train and, ostensibly, install a new and more just social order. As the story unfolds, director Joon-ho Bong uses the train as a multi-layered allegory for civilization and its contemporary woes. The allegory (and the train) covers a lot of ground, including human nature, technophilia, and civilization’s reliance on hierarchy, indoctrination, and anonymous violence. The whole thing would feel heavy handed if not for the ingenious absurdity of it all.

One deliciously absurd scene that is relevant to the issue at hand involves our band of revolutionaries being treated to salmon sashimi. They've just walked through a car that contains a stunning self-contained aquatic ecosystem. At the far end they find a sushi bar manned by a neatly dressed chef. The group's hostage, a high-ranking minister, invites them to sample the fish. They do, and the minister lectures them on the technological marvel and accomplishment of it all - how they must be very precise about how many fish they harvest in order to maintain the aquarium’s delicate balance. Meanwhile, through the train’s windows a desolate frozen wasteland of some nameless former metropolis zooms by.

That anyone can boast about such achievements when the evidence of devastation and injustice is so immediate is absurd, and this is exactly the point. 

I'm not saying that data and indicators are irrelevant. I just don't think "progress", given its many subjectivities, is something that we should try to measure globally. Numbers at that scale make it too easy to accept trade-offs. There are 35 million people living in slavery, but that's not statistically significant in a population of 7.1 billion. Except that they're people. Living as slaves. So of course it is significant. It should cast a shade over how we see every good thing in our lives. 

If we want to see real social progress we need to admit that it can't solely be funded by the residuals of a growth-based global economy, especially given that growth has such a relatively short lifespan remaining. There are alternatives, such as steady state economic systems, that offer a way to transition from growth in quantity to growth in quality and equity. But, we're not going to convince more people that these alternative economic approaches matter unless we stop using creative accounting to put a positive spin on the status quo. 

I'd like to close with a quote from Paul Gilding's Ted Talk on growth, because the point here is not to be all doom and gloom but simply to demand honesty, because true innovation will only happen if we're honest about the problems at hand. 

“When we think about the future I paint, of course we should feel a bit of fear. But fear can be paralyzing or motivating. We need to accept the fear and then we need to act. We need to act like the future depends on it. We need to act like we only have one planet. We can do this. I know the free market fundamentalists will tell you that more growth, more stuff and nine billion people going shopping is the best we can do. They’re wrong. We can be more, we can be much more.”
— Paul Gilding


Header photo used courtesy of the German Federal Archive