Progress seems to be so painfully slow. The future possibilities are incredible and yet we languish in a world full of poverty, disease, crime, war, and environmental degradation. We have the technology where everyone in the world could live a long, happy, peaceful life, yet most of world lives under threat of terrorism, war, disease, or extreme poverty. A future world of unlimited renewable energy and a basic income for every person on the planet is totally possible with the current technology that we have available right now. I have no doubt that we will get there eventually, yet that future seems at the same time so distant.
Why? Some people turn to religious explanations, other to pessimism, and others to conspiracy theories.
One of the things noted by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that change in scientific paradigms often takes a generation. When a new paradigm is discovered it does not immediately replace the old. Usually adherents to the old paradigm do not adopt the new paradigm and it is only when the previous generation of scientists who still adhere to the old paradigm retire or die off does the new paradigm become fully established.
The same seems to be true in terms of social progress as well. The United States could not go from slavery to a post racial society immediately. Hell, we still haven’t gotten there but we’re much closer than we were fifty years ago when the South was still segregated. Even today those with the most racist attitudes can be traced to the families that owned the most slaves! Change takes time. Change takes generations.
In the last 500 years Western Society has undergone a total transformation in almost every sphere of its existence. Constitutional democracy was something that previously only existed in the books of philosophers. And in the past several hundred years it has become a reality in most of the world. Just in the past fifty years we’ve made tremendous progress in the sphere of civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights. In the past few years in the United States we’ve made tremendous progress in marriage equality and drug decriminalization and we’ve made a huge step towards universal heath care. We’ve failed to do much in recent years and we’ve also taken some steps back. Right now as I write this Israeli troops are murdering innocent civilians in Gaza, civilians that are trapped with no where to go and who live under terrible oppression and injustice. The governments of the world have done nothing to intervene. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much that is wrong in the world. But there is also progress. That progress seems terribly slow to those of us wanting and working for change but in geologic time we are moving at lightning speed.
When we look at the progress we have made in the past few hundred years there is good reason to be optimistic about the future. There is no need to give in to pessimism. Human nature is what it is and there may be an ultimate limit to have far we can go towards realizing an ideal society, but I think history has shown us that we can go much further. A brief look around the world shows that we can go much further.
Why is progress so slow? Maybe progress isn’t to slow, maybe we just die too fast.
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