The science and politics of human progress: Closing a widening gap

Richard Eckersley writes: The core flaw in the dominant model of progress arises from the equation of progress with modernisation, especially the processes of cultural Westernisation and material progress (measured as economic growth). Global politics is based on this outmoded and increasingly destructive model of human progress and development. Can science change a dire situation?

Richard Eckersley

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.

The core flaw in the dominant model of progress 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

Importantly, a model of progress that helps humanity at one time in history or at one stage of development will not necessarily suit another. This is especially true of developed countries today, in which aspects of progress have become particularly problematic; developing countries have more to gain, but still face rising costs.

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, and in a way consistent with his political orthodoxy. For example, he has argued that dealing with climate change need not conflict with economic growth. Evidence of a ‘decoupling’ of energy-sector emissions of greenhouse gases and economic growth, he says, ‘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 rejected this broader possibility.

  • A modelling of growth and its environmental impacts, based on historical data and projections, found that ‘growth in GDP ultimately cannot plausibly be decoupled from growth in material and energy use, demonstrating categorically that GDP growth cannot be sustained indefinitely’.
  • Another model shows global material stocks (timber, metal, concrete, asphalt, bricks, sand and gravel, etc.) accumulating in buildings, infrastructure and machinery increased 23-fold between 1900 and 2010, and now totals 800 billion tonnes, two-thirds of it in industrialized nations . Material stocks would increase a further four-fold if stocks in developing economies converge with those in industrial countries. ‘Saturation, or significant decoupling of stock growth from economic development, is not in sight’, the study states.
  • A systematic literature review of 94 studies has 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’.
  • In 1992, more than 1700 independent scientists issued a warning to humanity that environmental destruction required a great change in its stewardship of the Earth if ‘vast human misery’ was to be avoided. In 2017, on the 25th anniversary of that warning, more than 15,000 scientists have signed a ‘second notice’ warning that with the exception of stabilising the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in solving environmental challenges, and ‘alarmingly, most of them are getting far 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. The recent research into progress indicators has focused attention on subjective wellbeing. Commonly measured as self-reported life satisfaction or happiness, subjective wellbeing is believed to capture important subjective elements of progress that other, objective indicators do not.

However, measuring life satisfaction or happiness does not fundamentally alter the dominant view of progress. For example, World Happiness Report scores are strongly correlated with the Human Development Index (based on per capita income, education and life expectancy). On the face of it, such associations seem persuasive. But subjective-wellbeing indicators may have a Western bias; and they also fail to capture fully the more intangible ‘psychosocial dynamics’ of our ways of living: the complex interactions and relationships between the subjective and objective worlds. These shape perceptions, expectations and values, and influence the intrinsic meanings of life events and social situations; they frame how we see the world and our place in it, and so what we do in the world.

For example, growth in GDP does not simply make us materially richer, liberating us from scarcity and hardship, and freeing us to live as we wish, as the conventional model assumes. Instead, it is associated with other, cultural changes, such as increasing materialism, which impact profoundly on wellbeing. Materialism – giving priority to money and what it buys – is associated with lower life satisfaction, happiness and vitality, and higher depression and anxiety; less prosocial and cooperative behaviours, and more antisocial and competitive behaviours; and more environmentally damaging and unsustainable choices and lifestyles.

Similarly, individualism and freedom, once seen as liberating human potential, are now increasingly linked to a heightened sense of risk, insecurity, uncertainty and isolation. Another powerful psychosocial dynamic that derives from Enlightenment beliefs about individual and intellectual freedom is the cultural emergence of the 1960s counter-culture and postmodernism, and their recent and dramatic expression in ‘post-truth’ politics, with its alternative facts, fake news, and created realities. This development also defies the dominant narrative of modernisation as progress.

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 (but not the only) reason for the decline 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.

  • A 2016 survey of 22 developed and developing countries shows that people around the world believe ‘the system’ no longer serves them, and that life is getting worse. Across the countries, an average of 57% believe their country is in decline; 64% say traditional parties and politicians don’t care about them; 69% believe the economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful. More believe their generation has had a worse life than their parents, and that life for today’s youth will be worse than their parents’, than believe life is getting better.
  • A 2016 survey of trust in 28 countries, both developed and developing, found that trust had become a deciding factor in whether a nation can function. Corruption, globalization and technological change are weakening trust in global institutions; there is 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 are now ‘distrusters’, with less than 50% of people trusting the major institutions of government, business, media and NGOs. Across the countries, only 15% believe the present system is working; more than three quarters agree the system is biased against regular people and favour the rich and powerful; and more than two thirds do not have confidence that current leaders can address their country’s challenges.
  • A 2017 survey asked people in 38 developed and developing countries whether life in their country was better or worse than it was 50 years ago ‘for people like me’ (Pew Research Center 2017). The global median (middle) values were 38% worse, 43% better. In the US, 41% said worse, 37% better; in the UK, 31% said worse, 45% better; in Australia, 33% said worse, 50% better,. Hardly convincing evidence of progress, the results may also have a positive bias because of the way the question was framed. In a 2015 poll only 16% of Australians said quality of life in Australia, taking into account social, economic and environmental conditions and trends, was getting better, while 49% thought it was getting worse.
  • A 2013 survey investigated the perceived probability of future threats to humanity in four Western nations: the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Overall, across the four countries, 54% of people rated the risk of ‘our way of life ending’ within the next 100 years at 50% or greater, while 24% rated the risk of ‘humans being wiped out’ at 50% or greater. Three-quarters (78%) agreed that ‘we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world’.


People’s concerns about modern life are finding political expression in increasing extremism, especially on the right, but also the left. A US study found that Americans had since the 1970s become both more independent of political parties and more ideologically extreme. The trends help to explain the emergence in the 2016 US presidential race of Donald Trump as an ‘independent’ on the far right, and Bernie Sanders as an ‘independent’ on the far left, and Trump’s eventual victory.

This shift is also evident in political developments in the UK and Europe, but not necessarily in the same way: in France, a new centrist party headed by Emmanuel Macron swept aside the previously dominant Socialist and Republican parties; in the UK, Theresa May’s Conservatives lost a large lead to a revamped Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, championing a socialist agenda; in Germany, Angela Merkel won a fourth term as chancellor, but her ruling coalition lost ground in a surge in support for the far right and she has struggled to form a government.

Changing the political and cultural status quo runs up against formidable obstacles. One is the inertia in the system, with currents ways of doing things locked into place by entrenched and self-perpetuating organisational values and attitudes, and the multitude of existing mechanisms by which the world is run. Another obstacle is the money and effort that vested political and corporate interests put into maintaining their advantage.

The status quo relies heavily on scientific legitimation. Obama’s worldview shows this. It is also evident, in the negative, in the relentless and ruthless efforts of industry after industry to defend itself against evidence of harm by sowing scientific doubt about the evidence, buying influence, and shifting blame. More broadly, a massive and growing media-marketing complex culturally ‘manufactures’ modern, high-consumption lifestyles, denying and defying the damage to the environment and to health and wellbeing.

While science has largely underpinned the orthodox view, science, through research in many disciplines, is now exposing its limitations, flaws and hazards. It is in science’s hands to build on people’s justified unease and their valid insights into its sources to press on all institutions, but especially politics and business, the need for deep change if we are to safeguard humanity’s future.

At this level, the task is to enlarge political debate to question the worldviews that underpin politics. This would open the way for far-reaching policy choices that the current status quo precludes. Politics and the media define arbitrarily what warrants coverage and discussion, and much that is important is left out.

Climate change notwithstanding, there is almost no serious discussion of genuine sustainable development; nor is there a serious consideration of health and wellbeing that reaches beyond lifestyle factors and healthcare. Broadly speaking, the mainstream media treat recent political developments as an alarming aberration, and acknowledge neither their deep roots nor their potential to bring about transformative change.

There is no valid reason why the worldview of leaders could not be a central theme of political debate. This would be very different from today’s emphasis on ‘issue’ and ‘identity’ politics, whose elements are kept firmly within the conventional framework of progress. The interconnected challenges facing humanity cannot be solved by focusing on the discrete, specific problems that characterise and define today’s politics, however legitimate the concerns are in themselves.

Even climate change, for all the policy and technological innovation it is attracting, is unlikely to be resolved in isolation and without whole-system, societal changes: a recent analysis shows that with current emission mitigation policies, the likely median temperature increase by 2100 is 3.2oC, with only a 5% chance of keeping the rise to under 2oC, the goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

However, recent events have rocked the political establishment and threatened the existing order. The growing political volatility could open the way for the debate we need to have about the sort of society we want to live in, and there are signs that this is happening. An optimal outcome is far from certain, however. For example, addressing global threats requires new institutions, more interactions between institutions, and a greater willingness to enforce agreements.

The loss of faith in institutions, which has triggered a crisis of political legitimacy, could militate against this more extensive and balanced form of globalisation and international cooperation. As problems multiply, intensify and coalesce, the world could become entirely preoccupied with the crises, and continue to neglect the long-term requirements of a high, lasting and equitable quality of life.

Science could play a decisive role in keeping the conversation focused on what really matters. This role will require greater collaboration between the natural and social sciences and the humanities; more engagement with other sectors of society such as politics, business, religion and the arts; and better communication with the public, going well beyond current improvements in these areas. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are useful, but remain embedded in the orthodox model of development. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides one model for how to move forward if it can be applied to the much larger task of genuine sustainable development – social, economic and environmental.

Framed in terms of paradigm shifts, the current paradigm of human progress is confronted by a growing body of anomalous and contradictory evidence that it cannot explain or resolve. It needs to be replaced with a new paradigm that better acknowledges and reflects a world of complexity, incommensurability, ambiguity and subjectivity.

Fundamentally, the problem is that politics is defined by a model of human progress and development that is flawed in two critical respects: it is environmentally unsustainable, and it is lowering quality of life. Evidence of both failings is getting stronger, including that economic growth cannot be ‘decoupled’ from resource consumption and environmental impacts, and that progress as we pursue it is contributing to growing disillusion with modern life and distrust of institutions, especially government.

Governments and leaders will not implement solutions to the problems posed by human progress and sustainable development if they are not convinced there is a problem, which they are not at present. Perceived scientific legitimacy is a central justification for these political perceptions. Changing these perceptions is arguably science’s greatest challenge today.

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

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