“Progress Studies” And Appreciating How Good We Have It Today

I had a really great phone conversation the other day with the guy who runs Roots of Progress. It’s a blog that has joined the increasingly loud debate about whether there should be a discipline called “Progress Studies” that was kicked off in The Atlantic this past summer.

I won’t dive into all the details of what proponents of Progress Studies are calling for — some of it seems to be stuff that has already been taken up by other disciplines, like how civilizations started and what institutions and incentives allow them to flourish. And I don’t have super-strong, well-developed feelings about the whole Progress Studies endeavour. But a large part of it that struck me as an archaeologist is simply the education of how much progress has been made. And that doesn’t seem to exist right now.

For sure, there is plenty of progress still to be made, be it economic, social, technological, political, whatever. But one of the great gifts of being an archaeologist is an appreciation of just how much poorer — and emptier — the world was in the past.

The average Haitian has more years of schooling today than the average Frenchman did less than a century ago. Someone born in Sierra Leone, the absolute bottom of the barrel in life expectancy, can expect to live longer than a white male born in the US in 1900. We have nearly instantaneous, nearly free communication with family and business partners on the other side of the globe. I don’t worry that a business will poison me — the steel wool found in my sesame chicken at the food court last week notwithstanding — because of the combination of food safety laws and bad press. We have air conditioning.

That last one might seem less important, but think about how many lives are saved in heat waves. Think about how it has altered the social patterns of the South. Go watch an Andy Griffith episode, and you’ll see them sitting on the porch talking to neighbors and just kind of trying to ignore the heat. For good or for ill, Sun Belt residents can stay inside in the heat of the evening now. It also makes schools and offices bearable.

It’s also something that not even the richest Robber Barons of the Guilded Age or Shahs of Persia or Emperors of Rome could buy. It simply didn’t exist.

This being an election year coming up, at least half of all Americans will become brain-damaged and think that only the apocalypse can result if their side loses. Or maybe that we’re already four years into the apocalypse.

I think if a “Progress Studies” ever got introduced to the liberal arts curriculum, it could only help people be a little less myopic. Especially the elites that make up the politically active class. Things are not getting worse or stagnating. That shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement or condemnation of any particular policies, but they’re just not.

Disagree with that statement? Good news! I have a time machine (my kid’s science project was super ambitious this year), and you can choose to go back to any time, any place in the past that you’d like to go. Unfortunately, we’re pretty sure it’s a one-way trip, so there’s no take backs.

Now, what time and place would you rather be than right here, right now?

I personally wouldn’t go back further than my childhood. I mean, those were OK years. But then again, maybe like rewatching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as an adult, I’d just be like, “WTF is this?”

I’ve always thought the first thing that would strike us about traveling to the past would be the smell. Like, people were really gross. Soaps weren’t very good. Oral hygiene wasn’t a top priority for most people. And people pooped in either a hole in the ground or a bucket (which would then be emptied in the gutter) and had no toilet paper. I don’t know for sure, but I bet a lot of people were just plain stinky.

As a parent, I’ve also become increasingly aware of how special the time we live in is. Kids are treated as consumption goods rather than investment goods. I don’t need to make my kids work in the fields — though they’d be great at stoop labor, as they’re short and already very close to the ground. And kids bury their parents instead of the other way around. One of my kids’ teachers lost her grown son last week. And it was a terrible, life-shaking tragedy, rather than a sad-but-commonplace event.

There are a few times in the distant past where we have records that might be reliable. The odds of a child in ancient Rome to survive to age 16 appears to be about 50%. How sad is that?

But it’s not just that we live longer and (most people) don’t smell awful anymore. How the poorest people live is just vastly better than it used to be. You don’t even have to go back to antiquity for the poor to be literally starving or malnourished. We poo-poo processed foods like cheap cheeseburgers at the drive through or ravioli that comes in a can. But you know what? Those are calories and fat and protein that used to be hard to come by.

Our bodies urge us to jump on that cheap, greasy burger or that bajillion-calorie cupcake because for most of our species’ existence, those were scarce resources. The idea that we — or our family — might not get enough to eat was a constant fear all the way from the earliest hunter-gatherers to the unlucky in the Great Depression.

Today, the poorest people in rich countries have to worry about too much of these efficient packages of energy. Diabetes and obesity are side effects of us humans being too damned good at making the surplus of foods we didn’t have for so many thousands of years. That is, of course, not to belittle the terrible health consequences of obesity and related conditions. But it’s certainly better than starving to death or being stunted from malnutrition, I think we can all agree.

The poor — though still disenfranchised in many ways in different countries — at least enjoy the same legal rights as the rich. This is not a world where nobility and patricians can legally and openly enjoy privileges that are closed off to everyone else. Ditto on legal differences between sexes, races, religious groups, and so on. They are all shrinking by the day, and the very fact that as a society we focus on how imperfectly some of these advances are in put into practice shows just how much better things are than in the past. No matter how disadvantaged a group might be, the here and now is just so much better than any time in the past. Even if we’re not quite to that utopian golden age yet, the world is just a far more civilized place, where it’s become unacceptable to send children to factories, fire a woman from a job when she gets married, or have racially segregated school systems.

Even cancer and Alzheimer’s — the current front lines of humanity’s struggle against death — are in many ways further signs of ours success. We live long enough to get these diseases because we weren’t killed by people from a neighboring village for our women, crops, and petty valuables. We didn’t get smallpox or even a simple deadly infection from an unsterilized wound. We didn’t get eaten by mountain lions (the kind too big to fight with our bare hands like this guy did).

Part of being an archaeologist is that I probably look backward more than most people. It can sometimes be scary looking forward at the future. We don’t know what will happen. But the past does offer some certainty — it happened, even if we don’t always have the clearest picture of some parts of it.

Americans, and maybe everyone (see: Brexit), seem like they have a lot of anger and angst at the present. And that increasingly is translating into people just lining up behind the demagogues on Team Red or the demagogues on Team Blue. Which sucks. When you pick a team, you’re dropping 10 or 20 IQ points. It’s an uphill battle to convince someone in one tribe that there is anything redeeming in the other one, which leads to a lot of incivility and simply turning off their ability to judge the truth of things by the facts at hand.

I don’t judge whether the general public is correct to be so angry at how the world is today, but I can’t help but think that most people would be a little calmer, a little more civilized, a little smarter, and a lot happier if they had an appreciation of just how much progress the world has made since any time you can think of*.

*that wasn’t when you were way undercharged at Chili’s happy hour after having way too many cheap appetizers and drinks

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