The Roots of Progress is now a nonprofit organization
Today I'm launching The Roots of Progress as a new nonprofit organization. Here's an essay explaining our mission, followed by details of the new org:
We need a new philosophy of progress
We live in an age that has lost its optimism. Polls show that people think the world is getting worse, not better. Children fear dying from environmental catastrophe before they reach old age. Technologists are as likely to be told that they are ruining society as that they are bettering it.
But it was not always so. Just a few centuries ago, Western thinkers were caught up in a wave of optimism for technology, humanity and the future, based on the new philosophy of the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment was many things, but in large part, it was a philosophy of progress.
At the end of the 18th century, the Marquis de Condorcet gave expression to this philosophy and its optimism in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. In it, he predicted unlimited progress, not only in science and technology, but in morality and society. He wrote of the equality of the races and the sexes, and of peace between nations.
His optimism was all the more remarkable given that he wrote this while hiding out from the French Revolution, which was hunting him down in order to execute him as an aristocrat. Unfortunately, he could not hide forever: he was captured, and soon died in prison. Evidently, the perfection of mankind was slow in coming.
Material progress, however, was rocketing ahead. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, and then the Civil War in America, the path was clear for technological innovation and economic growth: the railroad, the telephone, the light bulb, the internal combustion engine.
By the end of the 19th century, it was obvious that the world had entered a new age, and progress was its watchword. The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (best known for his work on evolution with Darwin) titled his book about the 1800s The Wonderful Century. In it, he attributed twenty-four “great inventions and discoveries” to the 19th century, as compared with only fifteen in all of human history preceding it. The boundless optimism of the early Enlightenment seemed to have been justified.
And if the material progress prophesied by Francis Bacon could be realized, perhaps the moral progress prophesied by Condorcet would come true as well. By the end of the 19th century, slavery had been ended in the West, and some hoped that the growth of industry and the expansion of trade would lead to and end to war and a new era of world peace.
They were wrong.
The 20th century violently shattered those naive illusions. The world wars were devastating proof that material progress does not inevitably lead to moral progress. Technology had not put an end to war—in fact, it had made war all the more terrible and deadly. In 1945, the nuclear bomb put a horrible exclamation point on this lesson: the most destructive weapon ever devised was the product of modern science, technology, and industry.
At the same time, other concerns were coming to the fore—including old ones, like poverty, and new ones, like the environment. By the mid-20th century, the philosophy of progress had been dealt a severe challenge. The optimism at its foundation had been shaken. In its place, we saw the rise of radical social movements based on a deep distrust of technology and industry. Today, progress and growth are called an “addiction”, a “fetish”, a “Ponzi scheme”, or a “fairy tale.” Some even advocate a new ideal of “degrowth”.
It’s no wonder, then, that the last fifty years have seen relative stagnation in technological and industrial progress. Nuclear power was stunted, the Apollo program was canceled, the Concorde was grounded.
But now, in the 21st century, some people are starting to call attention to the problem: Peter Thiel, Tyler Cowen, Patrick Collison. There’s now a growing community that recognizes the threat of stagnation and the value of progress.
The 19th century philosophy of progress was naive. But the 20th century turn away from progress was no solution.
We need a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century. One that teaches people not to take the modern world for granted. One that acknowledges the problems of progress, confronts them directly, and offers solutions. And one that holds up a positive vision of the future.
To establish that new philosophy is the mission of The Roots of Progress.
Original post: https://rootsofprogress.org/a-new-philosophy-of-progress
The Roots of Progress is now a nonprofit organization
The Roots of Progress started in 2017 as a side project, not much more than a blog. After Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison published their call for “progress studies”, and the progress community started to form, it became my full-time job. For the first year or so I was an independent writer, supported by grants. Now I have enough support not only to fund myself, but also to hire help and sponsor programs. The new nonprofit organization is the vehicle for this.
The mission of The Roots of Progress is to establish a new philosophy of progress for the twenty-first century. The world needs a clearer understanding of the nature of progress, its causes, its value and importance, how we can manage its costs and risks, and ultimately how we can accelerate progress while ensuring that it is beneficial to humanity.
My focus now is on two priorities. First is the intellectual content, the history and philosophy of progress itself. I’m writing a book on this topic, The Story of Industrial Civilization, and the new organization is sponsoring this work. But much more is needed: more books, articles, talks, journals, documentaries. We need more histories of different aspects of progress, to make the story accessible to a broader audience. We need progress-oriented solutions to the problems facing the world, such as poverty, climate, pollution, job loss, and pandemics. And we need an ambitious, inspiring vision of the future, of where progress can take us. If you’d like to write on any of these topics, get in touch.
My second priority is building out and strengthening the progress network and community. Stay tuned for announcements here.
For advice and governance, I’ve formed a board of directors. The people I invited, while not in the limelight of the progress community, have been some of my strongest supporters: Ray Girn, CEO of Higher Ground Education (which commissioned my high school progress course), and Anil Varanasi, CEO of Meter. Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen are serving as advisers (as they have informally, ever since I was considering going full-time).
Our first-year fundraising goal is $500,000, and thanks to generous donations from Patrick and John Collison among others, we’re already more than halfway to that goal. You can support us through Patreon, or get in touch to talk about a larger or one-time contribution. (We’ve filed for IRS recognition of our status as a 501(c)(3) public educational charity. In the US, donations to such organizations are tax-deductible. The recognition is expected later in 2021, and will be retroactive to our founding in May.)
The Roots of Progress is working towards a world in which the idea of progress is communicated through education and journalism, creating industrial literacy among the public. A world with a positive vision of the future, embodied in optimistic sci-fi and new World’s Fairs. A world where young people see progress as a meaningful career, and where new organizations for science, research and development give them the career paths they need to build the future.
Thank you for joining us on this journey!
Original post: https://rootsofprogress.org/nonprofit-announcement