Can We Make Human Progress?

Even economists are beginning to see that the current economic system is flawed. Most want to fix it, like Jared Bernstein who advocates re-priming growth, but distributing it more equally, which he calls “reconnection.” Arguments about fairness captivate us more than ecological crises that seem more abstract, so they dominate attention. They want to overhaul the economic engine – make the same vehicle run better.

Only a handful of environmental economists like Herman Daly or David Fleming laboring in relative obscurity advocate economics to care for the earth and its ecosystems as well as us. Daly calls this upheaval a steady state economy. Others call it a circular economy, post-growth economy, and even lean economy. By any name, it’s a total redesign of the vehicle using different principles, which scares most of us. We prefer to ignore such proposals, no matter how well reasoned.

Economic growth is considered to be the platform necessary for resolving social ills. This idea is so ingrained that even environmentalists researching human economic footprints struggle to free themselves from the measurements of material economic expansion that we have been developing for more than two centuries. For example, a study recommending closer feedback from human systems into climate models could not escape using GNP as an indicator of quality of life, consumption, and energy use.

The conceptual foundations of expansionary economics reach back to Adam Smith, Jevons, Keynes, Friedman, and their ilk, the philosophical economists, including Marx. All believed that economic growth is wealth, and that more wealth is progress – material progress. Disputes are confined to how to do it, and how fairly to do it. However, a new framework needs new concepts of wealth, progress, and success.

Wealth is what we can do to sustain all life; it’s not volume of consumption; it’s not valuation of owned assets.

Wealth depends on what we consider to be progress, on what we think makes life “better” rather than “worse.” and for how many of us. That is fundamental because it determines how we organize society. Only a few generations ago, life may have been relatively good for some, but not so good for those who were slaves. And to those eager for material progress (not everyone), nature was a force to be tamed and harnessed.

We have succeeded too well. Despite occasional natural disasters, nature is in full retreat, harassed by a system whose health depends on expanding human habitat and shrinking the habitat for everything else. Our own success now forces us to heed the health of nature more, while still expanding – trying to save our cake while eating it. Alternative business models have limits. They draw us to monetizeable technologies and techniques that fit the system, but give it a green twist. To blow beyond this, we need guidance from a different concept of progress – a different “true north.”

Gut level guidance is from concepts of progress embedded so deeply in our psyches that we may be unaware of them. They picture a better future. To preclude being despondent, perhaps we need such a “hope for something better.” These hopes are rarely ours alone. They are shaped by our human culture. Our cultural concepts of progress influence us, whether we conform to them or deviate from them.

For example, in the 19th century, Westward Expansion and the Monroe Doctrine built the United States. People acted on the beliefs that industry, technology, civilization, and democracy – and freedom to innovate – would inevitably “make everything better,” if not for them, then for future generations. And it would never end.

So what does success mean to you, personally? Increasing the value of investments? Making a payroll? Wrapping our world in software? Travelling the world? Having a distinguished career? Lifelong learning? Getting a patent? Regenerating nature? Improving the lives of others?

Our ideas of success shadow our concepts of progress, and we have a great variety of them. Some are attempts to prolong expansion, or avoid having to think about it. A favorite is belief in a technology, from a new designs for nuclear power to transhumanism, which is enhancing us physically, mentally, and emotionally. One way or another, we hope technology will save the planet from the second law of thermodynamics (energy dissipates; things run down) – with little change in our way of life.

Each of these beliefs in technology presumes that rapid human learning is necessary and inevitable. Of these transhumanism is the most ambitious; one of its objectives is to modify us emotionally, either so we get along better with each other, or by making some of us more dominant; take your pick.

Indeed technology can help us preserve the planet if we apply it to that concept of progress, but can we? The history of people trying to modify themselves in a low-tech utopia is not promising. A current utopia that is falling short of its intent is Auroville in India. Even Sir Tomas More doubted the worth of his original Utopia, not because of its features, but because he did not think people could change to abide by its customs.

And so any proposal to make progress in a human sense is the toughest challenge we can give ourselves, although not totally hopeless. In many settings we know that people substantially modify their beliefs when exposed to a different kind of environment. Don’t explain principles first, create a new environment and people come around – at least in that setting. That happens when an organization adopts lean, when we are saturated in a totally different culture, or when subjected to military training. Of course, this approach presumes that someone has initial control of others’ environments.

Given our environmental duress, sooner or later a global sense of urgency about low consumption visions of progress may overtake us. However, pessimists figure that few humans are wise enough to learn new beliefs from abstract news; most have to learn the hard way, so society will collapse in chaos and strife. So how can we make human progress?

Human progress is learning by questioning our beliefs and updating them as well as our technology and techniques.

This implies learning from observation as well as from abstraction, considering courses of action from the view of all stakeholders, and acting – and quickly at times. No global algorithm can specify what every local community and every company should do. Those on the scene have to set their own course.

Not much chance of that without having a common mission with a common idea that progress is sustaining all life, including our own, long term. Learning to enjoy life while consuming a lot less will require enormous changes in what we do physically, but more than that, a transformation in our state of mind. Call that an ism if you like.

Compression Thinking promotes human progress through the concepts of a Vigorous Learning Organization. Of course, we want to change what we do to live well using much less “stuff,” and that is contrary to prevailing business and economic thought patterns. But to reframe our situation, we have to work on changing our own concepts of progress. We recognize that this is hard to grasp because Vigorous Learning is not a set of techniques to sell to organization bent on realizing conventional commercial goals. It promotes a necessary transformation of those goals.

Compared with any seen so far, changes could be huge. By expansionist thinking, just writing off the stranded capital from old coal power plants is a big financial jolt. It should become routine. Low-consumption concepts of progress should generate all kinds of different thinking; like efficiency is important; crucial when necessary, but effectiveness – doing the right thing for all concerned, including earth – is never unimportant. Even our definitions of work and value added must change.

Progress is learning to learn faster, not only technical skills, but behavioral ones, learning to control many urges that might have helped tribal hunter-gatherers survive, but don’t help much in a much bigger world. We must learn to do this to resolve “wicked problems” that involve fairness, unanticipated effects, fear, uncertainty, and risk.

That is, can we get beyond merely being civil while actually making decisions using power games, to elevating the effectiveness of civil communication to question prior beliefs and mutually learn how to live well on a beleaguered, resource-pinched planet? That would put human progress in charge of technological progress.

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  1. Doc,

    Good points, as usual, and nice try. However, until we do more to first illuminate and acknowledge whatever deep-set programming in our brain drives our behavior, not much is likely to change. Why do we unendingly seek growth?

    Here’s one for you. As this week’s Economist notes: “Peacocks strut; bowerbirds build lovenests; spiders gift-wrap flies in silk. Such courtship rituals play an important role in what Charles Darwin called sexual selection: when the female of a species bears most of the costs of reproduction, males use extravagant displays to demonstrate their reproductive fitness and females choose between them.”

    It could be as simple as that. Males are programmed to constantly strive for more, as markers for status so that females will chose them to mate with, and females are programmed to respond positively to markers for status. A few scientists even argue that humans are victims of something called “Fisherian runaway sexual selection.”

    Making proclamations over coffee about what we should do is not really good problem solving. In fact, that might even be another example of status-seeking driven by our sexual-selection programming. Perhaps we could work harder to more deeply understand the causes of the problem. As you know, when the causes of a problem are understood, the solutions often become obvious.

    Dan P.

  2. Good article that paints the picture of human nature measuring for success. Hidden behind all of the narrative for human progress is the nature of “winner takes all” competition. From government to corporations to small societies to the individual, competition for monetary surplus or power is the driving force behind social interaction and consequently social education.

    Competition for monetary wealth and power has been the nemesis for the stability of any structured society. Whether commune utopia ideals or massive government systems (place any desired “ism” for the label), monetary and power competition creates the illusion of success. Society and nature becomes fragmented, marginalized and placed into monetary categories based on the moving peg of currency value.

    The cycle of social structures from concept to the social tier level status to separation between lord and peasant to the eventual civil disobedience into total collapse of the entire system is a product of human competition for wealth and power. The competitive nature of humans is a natural instinct for survival, but the actions of competition is a learned trait. Once the peasants figure this out then we might be able to offer (and accept) a belief system that has the opportunity to span all religeous and political borders to begin a true Compression model for all.

    The ideals of Compression is not ultimately based in data, science or political structure. It is based on a belief system that mankind must make changes in our behavior before we destroy the resources for which we have become dependant upon.

    Religion is a prime example of competition between human societies. All seek dominance, yet all have a serious question concerning pre-supposition. The term pre-supposition is about a belief system in what governs the world in which you live. Science plays a big role in this.

    For example, evoluntionists believe in millions of years, creationists believe in somewhere around 6000 years for the age of our planet. Both have the same scientific data, but the “peg” for measuring is based on a pre-supposition. The pre-supposition is the belief system for both sides where one side has a belief in creation according to the Bible, the other side a belief according to some obtained scientific data. Since neither side is able to “peg” the human measurement system, we shall always have this discord between data sets.

    We can psycho-analyze the systems to death without ever reaching a conclusion because all measurements of mankind are based on a a pre-supposition that supports one or another view. What we can do is understand the simple basic fact that resources are limited and business growth potential based on such limited supply must change. Both sides or all sides must find some recognition with this fact, regardless of religious or political beliefs.

    Political affialiation will not solve this resource problem. What we see today in Brexit or Trump as President is the culmination of decades of social experiments flying south. All systems were based on the financial and now the supposed working class is rising up with pitchfork in hand to make changes. But changes for what? Neither side has any clue of what is happening other than the working folks have risen up for a change. Maybe the change does not matter to these folks as long as it is a “change” from what had surpressed them for many generations. This is not Compression, this is a political pitchfork against some oligarch social structure that is now in rapid decline.

    The whole point of Compression is for all social structures to understand the ramifications of resource limits. Learning groups is not about some “Kumbayah” social string that tries to bind all the world together. It is about local limits and what we can do as a local society to eliminate our resource use while maintaining our desired way of life. A lot of give and take involed with this aspect.

    My opinion is that if we try to make Compression the “Kumbayah” approach it shall fail. The world has different views, different religions and different reasons for existance. Not one governing system shall work for everyone. Therefore we must find ways to govern ourselves within our own local communities.

    If we try to sit “naked on a rock” to ponder the world, we shall always end up in defeat. The world shall never be able to get along together as a single social experiment. Therefore we must determine how to evaluate the values of Compression and allow the world to find their own way through this mess.

    Now, how do we have a competitive nature that is learned towards finding our individual skills for society?

  3. Response to Michael Hall:

    OK, what you write may well be true, but, beneath that, what are the causes of our “winner takes all” nature? Why do we tick that way? Just admonishing ourselves that we need to behave a different way or face extinction, even if we carefully describe a different way, unfortunately doesn’t work for changing our mindset. We can be fairly certain about that based on much evidence and findings from the neuroscience community. It takes more than data to change our mistaken ideas.

    • Very good response seeking the cause of the “winner takes all” human nature. My response is that this is human nature, but the cause and end result is a “learned” condition. Humans are competitive by nature, but we learn our reasons for competition through the system by which we live.

      Compression is about a belief system not a religious system. As for myself, I am the son of Doc Hall. But even though we do not share the same ideals or possibly the same religious beliefs, we both agree on the same concept that nature must be a stakeholder in whatever system we develop.

      True, it will take more than data to change our ideas. It will take a common belief system that spans all other religious beliefs. For example, the patriotic American belief for WWII. All were not within the same political or religious belief, but many became united for the patriotic belief. We all had a common enemy to overcome. Compression outlines this common enemy called earth resources and our current business model for growth.

      I have included my email address so that you can contact directly. We can discuss this between ourselves without having to constantly peek into the archives of Compression.

      Maybe we can find a path that Doc is looking for?

      Michael R. Hall
      MRH Design

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