The Roots of Progress

The Present Crisis

Introduction to The Techno-Humanist Manifesto

Never has humanity been so powerful, and at the same time so distrustful of our power.

We live in an age of wonders. To our ancient ancestors, our mundane routines would seem like wizardry: soaring through the air at hundreds of miles an hour; making night bright as day with the flick of a finger; commanding giant metal servants to weave our clothes or forge our tools; mixing chemicals in vast cauldrons to make a fertilizing elixir that grants vigor to crops; viewing events or even holding conversations from thousands of miles away; warding off the diseases that once sent half of children to an early grave. We build our homes in towers that rise above the hills; we build our ships larger and stronger than the ocean waves; we build our bridges with skeletons of steel, to withstand wind and storm. Our sages gaze deep into the universe, viewing colors the eye cannot see, and they have discovered other worlds circling other Suns; they have found the atoms of Democritus; they can tell us the system of the heavens and the mechanism of life; they can at long last turn base metals into gold.1 Once, these accomplishments, and their benefits to humanity, were referred to simply as “progress.”

But not everyone agrees that the advancement of science, technology, and industry has been such a good thing. “Is ‘Progress’ Good for Humanity?” asks a 2014 Atlantic article, saying that “the Industrial Revolution has jeopardized humankind’s ability to live happily and sustainably upon the Earth.”2 In Guns, Germs, and Steel, a grand narrative of civilizational advancement, author Jared Diamond disclaims the assumption “that the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for iron-based statehood represents ‘progress,’ or that it has led to an increase in human happiness.”3 Diamond also called agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” and “a catastrophe from which we have never recovered,” adding that this perspective demolishes a “sacred belief: that human history over the past million years has been a long tale of progress.”4 Historian Christopher Lasch is even less charitable, asking: “How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?”5 Economic growth is called an “addiction,” a “fetish,” a “Ponzi scheme,” a “fairy tale.”6 There is even a “degrowth” movement advocating economic regress as an ideal.7

These ideas are not confined to a niche of intellectuals: after permeating education, media, and entertainment for decades, they have become the zeitgeist. “Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless” than it is, said the global health expert Hans Rosling; even after presenting people with the facts, “they were still stuck in their old negative worldview. The new ideas just wouldn’t take.”8 A 2015 survey of several Western countries found that only a small minority think that “the world is getting better.”9 Another survey found that almost 20% of Americans think it was better to be born 200 years ago than today (with another 41% “not sure”).10 Nor are people hopeful for improvement. In 2023, over three quarters of Americans did not believe that life for their children would be better than their own, and only 24% were optimistic about the country’s future.11 Most worrying is that young people are particularly pessimistic: in a recent youth survey on climate change, 75% thought that “the future is frightening” and more than half agreed that “humanity is doomed.”12

With so little awareness of progress, and so much despair for the future, our society is unable to imagine what to build or to dream of where to go. As late as the 1960s, Americans envisioned flying cars, Moon bases, and making the desert bloom using cheap, abundant energy from nuclear power. We might criticize some pieces of this vision, but at least they had a vision. Today we hope, at best, to avoid disaster: to stop climate change, to prevent pandemics, to stave off the collapse of democracy.

From an advertisement by a coalition of power companies in the LA Times, 1959.13

This is not merely academic. If society believes that scientific, technological and industrial progress is harmful or dangerous, people will work to slow it down or stop it. Activists have obstructed all forms of energy—nuclear power, oil and gas, even solar and wind14—and the average American benefits from no more energy today than fifty years ago.15 The EU has largely banned the cultivation of GMOs,16 and opposition to Vitamin A–enhanced “Golden Rice” has prevented it from “saving millions of lives and preventing tens of millions of cases of blindness.”17 Sri Lanka created a food crisis for itself when it banned synthetic fertilizer in a hasty, bungled shift to “organic” farming.18 In medicine, romantic notions of “natural” health cause patients to shun treatment for cancer and vaccines for diseases; measles outbreaks are now on the rise.19

Even mere apathy puts progress at risk. New ideas are always vulnerable, and in every age, there are natural diseases of stagnation: fear of change, economic protectionism, the accumulation of bureaucracy. In the Middle Ages, guilds limited competition and resisted the introduction of new techniques.20 In the Industrial Revolution, textile workers smashed and burned the machinery that threatened their jobs.21 The first locomotives were opposed based on fears that they could never be made safe—an objection that was stressed by their competitors who operated wagon-roads and canals.22 The first bicycles raised pseudo-medical concerns about damage to the spine and moral panic about ladies traveling unchaperoned.23 Today, NIMBYs fight any housing development that would alter their “neighborhood character” or threaten their property values by expanding supply. Progress needs principled defenders against the status quo.

And more: we need an inspiring vision of the future to motivate the effort and strife that progress requires. Science, technology, and the economy require continual investment, and each new generation must receive and carry the torch. Inventors and entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution were motivated by the power of steam and all that it could be applied to; those of the late 19th century were enthralled by electricity; the scientists and engineers in the late 20th century who went to NASA had grown up on Star Trek. If we are to make progress today, it will be driven by technologists who are fascinated with the potential for technologies such as artificial intelligence or genetic engineering. We must believe in the future in order to build it.

Fear and skepticism of progress put us at risk of stagnation and decline. The defeatism that arose in the 20th century about the challenges of progress does not give us a way forward. We need a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century, and beyond.

The time for that philosophy is now. Stagnation and sclerosis have become too painful to ignore.

Key economic metrics such as GDP and total factor productivity have been slowing down for decades. Even though computing technology is still racing ahead, other fields are lagging behind. Manufacturing, construction, transportation, and energy have seen no new general-purpose technologies since the 1960s—contrast with the period 1880–1940, which saw the invention of electrical power, synthetic plastics, the assembly line, the automobile and the airplane. Nuclear power was once on track to be the dominant source of world electricity;24 instead, it plateaued at about 10%.25 The Concorde was grounded, and the planes we fly today actually go a bit slower than the jets of the 1960s.26 The Apollo program was canceled; no human has left low-Earth orbit since 1972.27

Cowen and Southwood28; Eli Dourado29. Chart design by Freethink

Even where the technical challenges have long been solved, we seem unable to build or to operate. The costs of healthcare, education, and housing continue to rise.30 Energy projects, even “clean” ones, are held up for years by permitting delays and lack of grid connections.31 California’s high-speed rail, now decades in the making, has already cost billions of dollars and is still years away from completing even an initial operating segment, which will not provide service to either LA or San Francisco.32 During the covid pandemic, when speed was at a premium, testing kits were delayed by the FDA, the NIH was still taking months to approve research grants, and vaccine distribution was hampered by squabbling over equity.33

On the horizon, powerful new technologies are emerging, intensifying the debate over technology and progress. Robotaxis are doing business on city streets; mRNA can create vaccines and maybe soon cure cancers; there’s a renaissance in both supersonic flight and nuclear energy.34 SpaceX is landing reusable rockets, promising to enable the space economy, and testing an enormous Starship, promising to colonize Mars. A new generation of founders have ambitions in atoms, not just bits: manufacturing facilities in space, net-zero hydrocarbons synthesized with solar or nuclear power, robots that carve sculptures in marble.35 Most significantly, LLMs have created a general kind of artificial intelligence—which, depending on who you ask, is either the next big thing in the software industry, the next general-purpose technology to rival the steam engine or the electric generator, the next age of humanity after agriculture and industrialization, or the next dominant species that will replace humanity altogether. All together, these developments promise to re-accelerate economic growth, but also raise fears ranging from technological unemployment to literal human extinction.

Credit: Monumental Labs
Credit: Monumental Labs

Some technologists are now actively seeking a response to the criticism the tech industry has borne for years from media, academia, and government. Many of them feel they have become the scapegoat for society’s problems, from teen suicides to San Francisco housing prices to the erosion of democracy. They have grown tired of playing defense, and are going on the offense.

Some counter pessimism with optimism, to the point of dismissing concerns or downplaying risks and problems. The optimists point out, correctly, that history is full of scaremongering and moral panics about technology that look downright silly in retrospect, and that on the whole, technology has been massively beneficial for humanity.36 But being too dismissive of risk is a mistake, and it will backfire. The risks are real—history provides many examples of them, in addition to the moral panics—and the public is too sensitive to them to accept any message that feels cavalier. Progress consists not of ignoring problems, but of embracing and solving them. The right message is not “don’t worry!” but “here’s how we will solve it… and here are the fantastic benefits that make the cost or risk worth it.”

Another, more philosophical response has been “accelerationism”, which endorses progress as the inexorable unfolding of an evolutionary process. This process is driven by the techno-capitalist machine, a “meta-organism” that tries to capture as much energy as possible for its own growth.37 Accelerationists seek “to maximize the probability of the technocapital singularity,”38 that is, to aid the acceleration of evolution and capitalism as an end in itself, or as a means to “increase the amount of intelligence in the universe.” In practice, this means they are pro-technology and anti-regulation: “over-regulating technologies suppresses variance and hence slows down progress;” “Don’t be afraid, just build.”39 This nascent movement projects energy, ambition, and positivity, and some tech founders and investors, including people I like and greatly respect, have adopted the label “effective accelerationist” (a play on the “effective altruists” who have been warning about existential risk from AI). But as an ideological foundation for human flourishing, this philosophy points in the wrong direction. It emphasizes an impersonal process over individual lives. Its stated goal is to “follow the ‘will of the universe,’” or perhaps “to preserve the light of consciousness”40—but not your consciousness, necessarily, or mine. And it denies that we have any real control over the process: “You cannot stop the acceleration,” says one of the movement’s founders; “You might as well embrace it.” We are all merely agents of the machine.

The world needs a moral defense of progress based in humanism and agency—that is, one that holds human life as its standard of value, and emphasizes our ability to shape the future.

This is what I am calling “techno-humanism”: the idea that science, technology and industry are good—because they promote human life, well-being, and agency. The rest of this book will explain and defend this idea.

In Part 1, The Value of Progress, I will give a moral defense of progress. I will clarify the idea of a humanistic standard of value and of human well-being itself. I will attempt to tease apart concepts such as happiness, life satisfaction, value-fulfillment, and self-actualization. I include spiritual values in this idea of well-being (on a secular concept of the spiritual), and I will argue that material progress is in harmony with these values and even supports them. And I will briefly address some of the costs and risks of progress, especially to health and safety, and give a framework for thinking about them.

In Part 2, The Future of Progress, I will argue that there is much more progress to be made. In the future we should expect acceleration, not stagnation, because the progress of the past was not a fluke: problem-solving is fundamental to human nature. I will conclude with an ambitious vision for the technological future.

Finally, in Part 3, A Culture of Progress, I will describe the attitude towards progress we once had, how we lost it in the 20th century, and how we can establish a stronger and wiser culture of progress in the 21st. I’ll conclude with a brief description of the progress movement we need to accomplish this, and the changes in society it should bring about.

If you are a scientist, engineer, or founder, I hope this book helps you find moral meaning in your work, that it gives you a vision to aspire to and a responsibility to live up to. I want you to see the pursuit of progress as a noble quest.

If you are an author, journalist, academic, educator, or other intellectual, I hope this book gives you a framework of ideas to inform your work—especially if you are involved in history, economics, or philosophy. Those fields should more often adopt the progress lens.

If you are a novelist, screenwriter, director, or other artist or entertainer, I hope this book gives you inspiration for the kinds of stories we need to tell the world about progress.

If you are in government or policy, I hope this book gives you a framework for thinking about your role and responsibility for providing a legal foundation for progress.

No matter who you are, I hope this book gives you a new and powerful way of thinking about the nature of human beings, our relationship to nature, and the role of science, technology and industry in human life.

Above all, I want to inspire everyone who reads this to dream of a better future and to work in some way, small or large, to advance the grand project of human progress.


For more about The Techno-Humanist Manifesto, including the table of contents, see the announcement. For full citations, see the bibliography.

  1. Matson, “Lead into Gold.” 

  2. Caradonna, “Is ‘Progress’ Good for Humanity?.” 

  3. Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 11. 

  4. Diamond, “The Worst Mistake.” 

  5. Lasch, True and Only Heaven, 13. 

  6. Klein This Changes Everything; Raworth, we are “structurally addicted to endless growth.”; Hamilton, Growth Fetish; Speth, “Growth Fetish”; Barash, “We are all Madoffs”; Thunberg, Speech to the UN

  7. Piper, “Shrinking the Economy.” 

  8. Rosling, Factfulness, 9–11. 

  9. Our World in Data and YouGov, “Global Living Conditions.” 

  10. CGO Abundance Poll.” 

  11. Bailey, “Progress, Rediscovered.” 

  12. Hickman et al., “Climate Anxiety”; Ritchie, “Stop Telling Kids They’ll Die from Climate Change.” 

  13. Flying Car Ad” 

  14. Bennon and Wilson, “NEPA Litigation”; Brean, “BLM Reject Wind Farm”; Victoria Lozano, “Nevada Town Fights.” 

  15. Primary energy use per person in the US was 77,028 kWh in 2023, vs. a peak of 98,111 kWh in 1973, according to Our World in Data, “Energy Use per Person.” 

  16. Papademetriou, “Genetically Modified Organisms.” 

  17. Ropeik, “Anti-GMO Hysteria.” 

  18. Ellis-Petersen, “Hard to find a farmer left”; Nordhaus and Shah, “Catastrophically Wrong.” 

  19. Balogh et al., “Clinical Outcomes”; Johnson et al., “Alternative Medicine for Cancer”; Healy and Paulson, “Vaccine Critics”; Mathis, “Measles.” 

  20. Mokyr, Lever of Riches, 258–260. 

  21. Horn, “Machine-Breaking in England.” 

  22. Smiles, Life of George Stephenson, 259-261. 

  23. For example, see “Bicycles are Blamed,” “Bicycle Spine and a Rider’s Curved Back,” and “Bicycle Nose” at the Pessimists Archive, “Bicycle”

  24. Lang, “Global Benefits Forgone.” 

  25. Wanner and Taniguchi, “Nuclear Power.” 

  26. Dunn, “Commercial Air Travel”. 

  27. NASA, “Apollo 17.” 

  28. Cowen and Southwood, “Rate of Progress.” 

  29. Dourado, “Total Factor Productivity.” 

  30. Hermann and Whitney, “Home Price Record High.”; Dieleman et al., “Factors in US Healthcare Spending,” BLS, “Consumer Price Index,” ; Ma, “Trends in College Pricing.” 

  31. EERE, “Long Delays.”; Berkeley, “Backlog Grows.” 

  32. Gumbel, “Train to Nowhere.” 

  33. Ortega, “Government Delayed Testing.” Tabarrok, “NSF Faster than NIH.” 

  34. Waymo, Moderna/BioNTech, Boom Supersonic, Last Energy, Oklo 

  35. Varda Space Industries, Terraform Industries, Valar Atomics, Monumental Labs 

  36. Pessimists Archive maintains an excellent set of references demonstrating the long history of panics over technology: pessimistsarchive.org 

  37. This and other quotes in this paragraph, unless otherwise cited, are from Jezos and Bayeslord, “Principles and Tenets.” 

  38. Zestular et al, “E/Acc.” 

  39. E/ACC, “What is E/Acc?” 

  40. Zestular et al, “E/Acc.” 

Get posts by email:

Become a patron

Get posts by email