The forgotten stage of human progress

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What if we invented technology to save the planet – and the world refused to use it?

This haunting hypothesis first came to mind when I read about Paxlovid, the antiviral drug developed by Pfizer. When taken within days of contracting COVID-19, Paxlovid reduces the chance of a vulnerable adult dying or being hospitalized by 90 percent. Two months ago, the White House promised to make it widely available to Americans. But today the pills are still hard to find, and many doctors don’t know how to prescribe them.

The pandemic provides further examples of life-saving inventions that remain largely untapped. Unlike Paxlovid, COVID vaccines are well known to every doctor; They are completely free and readily available. But here, too, invention alone was not enough. COVID is the leading killer of middle-aged Americans, and the mRNA vaccines reduce the risk of death by about 90 percent. And yet about a third of Americans ages 35 to 49 say they will never take it.

My hypothetical concern relates more literally to energy. What if I told you that scientists found a way to generate affordable electricity that is 99 percent safer and cleaner than coal or oil, and that this breakthrough produces even fewer emissions per gigawatt hour than solar or wind? That’s incredibleyou could say. We need to build this thing everywhere! The breakthrough I’m talking about is 70 years old: it’s nuclear power. But over the last few decades, the US has actually been closing old nuclear power plants faster than we’ve opened new ones. This problem is endemic to clean energy. Even many Americans who support decarbonization in the abstract protest against building renewable energy projects in their neighborhoods.

I see two lessons here. The first concerns America specifically. In the pandemic, we didn’t have enough masks or tests (at first), then we didn’t have enough vaccines or pills. We don’t have enough houses, immigrants, doctors or microchips. We are not short of scientific breakthroughs. The US languishes because many of our policies are designed for scarcity. What we need is the opposite: an abundance agenda.

The second lesson is about progress in general: invention is easily overestimated, and execution is often underestimated.

Many books about innovation and scientific and technological advances are all about people inventing things. The takeaway for most readers is that human progress is one damn breakthrough after another. In the 19th century we invented the telegraph, then the telephone, then the lightbulb, then the modern car, then the airplane and so on. But this approach – let’s call it the eureka theory of progress – misses most of the story. In the 1870s, Thomas Edison invented the useful lightbulb. But by 1900, less than 5 percent of factory output came from electric motors. The building blocks of the personal computer were invented in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. But for decades, computers made so little measurable difference in the economy that economist Robert Solow said, “You can see the computer age everywhere except in productivity statistics.”

In a cover story for this magazine a few years ago, I insisted that what America was suffering from was primarily an invention recession – a serious lack of new ideas for hardware. Now I think that, like others, I probably got that wrong. The US could absolutely Use a better “science of science” to make more breakthroughs – in biotechnology, artificial intelligence and clean energy. But the insistence on invention often overlooks the fact that we are running out of capacity to use the technology we already have.

Progress is a puzzle that requires science and technology to solve. But to believe that material progress is just a matter of science and technology is a serious mistake.

  • When addressing some challenges – such as curing complex diseases like multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia – we don’t know enough to solve the problem. In these cases what we need is more science.
  • For other challenges – like building carbon removal plants that suck emissions out of the sky – we have the science, but we need a cost-efficiency revolution. we need more technology.
  • On still other challenges – nuclear, for example – we have the technology, but we don’t have the political will to deploy it. We need better politics.
  • After all, for certain challenges – for example COVID – we have solved most of the scientific, technological and political problems. we need one cultural change.

Today I am starting a new project at The Atlantic called “progress”. It will include my newsletter; monthly office hours in which I answer questions about my writing; and some larger forthcoming initiatives and events. I see this project as encompassing all of the themes I just listed: science, technology, politics and culture. But fundamentally, this project is about attention. I’m frustrated with the state of the political discourse and want to help change the way we think about progress—especially the way we think about abundance. I want to show people that standing still can lead to more pain than change.

Here is an example. An important value for conservationists is being against waste. That is why they are promoting recycling and renewable energies. But many of these environmentalists and conservationists also oppose certain clean energy projects on the grounds that human construction can disrupt the local environment. This is not an entirely unfounded concern. However, at scale, it is holding us back from decarbonizing the grid. We need to reformulate the problem: Imagine a world where we invented a technology to save the planet and just refused to use it. Would not that be wasteful? If wasting an ounce of plastic is a sin, wasting a decade of clean energy construction is a disaster.

If we focus on the worst consequences of creating abundance, we will get away with a cavalcade of scarcity: insufficient wind, solar, nuclear, and geothermal energy; too few doctors, psychologists, nurses. This is the world we have. We must invent a better world. We must build what we have already invented. The forgotten stage of human progress

Jessica MacLeish

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