From our Past to our Potential: a history of Progress

Writing: Tom Wileman

In the last twelve months, humankind has taken a photograph of a black hole, and legalised gay marriage in Bermuda (23rd November), Austria (1st January), Ecuador (8th July), and Taiwan (24th May). On the 24th of September, Russia formally adopted the Paris climate agreement. All these achievements can be characterised as ‘progress’ in the short history of humankind. However, progress is not linear. Despite these accomplishments, wealth inequality is growing. In Britain, the richest 10% of households hold 44% of all wealth. The poorest 50% own just 9%. And perhaps more importantly, this gap is widening: the top 0.1% have more than doubled their share of wealth in the last 35 years. So, what is progress? Is humanity going forward or backward? Is life better than it was ‘before’? Or is life getting more unequal?

This would be hard to argue, as some of the achievements of the past year are testament to; as are rapidly declining youth illiteracy and child mortality rates. Welfare and healthcare systems, as we know them, have only existed for 90 years, and never in such an inclusive manner. The general human quality of life is the highest it has ever been, despite growing wealth and income inequality.

Income and wealth inequality are social issues, not just economic ones. Lionisation of monarchies, demonisation of foreign aid, and ostracization of those who receive social benefits by the media all help habilitate rampant wealth inequality. Many argue that wealthy people are ‘job creators’. This is for the most part true, but they are also creators of inequality, and what use is a job if you are not being fairly compensated and are becoming relatively poorer over time? Many argue that greed is simply human nature, and unavoidable, but as Andrew Collier once wrote: “to look at people in capitalist society and conclude that human nature is egoism, is like looking at people in a factory where pollution is destroying their lungs and saying it is human nature to cough.”

So, are we progressing?


But it is not enough. A system exists where the bottom 90% are given ‘gifts’ such as healthcare systems and technological upgrades to our iPhones. This ‘progress’ placates and appeases the bottom 90%, distracting us from asking for a fair share. A system exists where any statistics about global wealth inequality are likely inaccurate as we only know about a portion of the richest 1%’s actual wealth. A system exists where the people rely on billionaires’ ‘generosity’ for projects such as the Notre Dame restoration. This is, however, broadly true of most of human history; historians cannot estimate 13th century ruler Mansa Musa’s wealth, yet his generous handouts ruined Cairo’s economy. The Roman Empire provided a ‘Cura Annonae’, an expansive grain dole given to those who could not afford food, while Senators bribed and embezzled masses of wealth.

Yes, life is getting better, but we should not solely measure progress from the 13th century, or anywhere in the past. It is easy and unfair. We should also measure progress by our potential, where we ‘can’ be, and where we ‘should’ be, rather than just where we ‘were’.

Image: via Wikipedia Commons

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