Ed.note: This article draws on a paper published this month in the international journal, Social Indicators Research. The paper is available on Richard’s website, www.richardeckersley.com.au

Global politics is based on an outmoded and increasingly destructive model of human progress and development. Can science change a dire situation?

‘My view of human progress has stayed surprisingly constant throughout my presidency. The world today, with all its pain and all its sorrow, is more just, more democratic, more free, more tolerant, healthier, wealthier, better educated, more connected, more empathetic than ever before. If you didn’t know ahead of time what your social status would be, what your race was, what your gender was, or your sexual orientation was, what country you were living in, and you asked what moment in human history you would like to be born, you’d choose right now.’ Barack Obama, President of the United States 2009-2017

It is unusual for a national leader to articulate his worldview in this way. Nonetheless, Obama’s view of progress is one that is, broadly speaking, shared by politicians and governments throughout the developed world and beyond (partly framed here by the ‘identity politics’ that characterises political debate today). The view reflects the dominant or orthodox model of development.

However, this model is increasingly at odds with what science tells us about the world. It is not that the specific achievements are wrong, but that they are incomplete, and so present a false picture of progress. The growing gap between the conventional view and the realities of people’s lives helps to explain the widespread public disquiet in many countries and its political consequences, evident in growing political volatility and extremism.

The discrepancies between the politics and science of progress arise from the equation of progress with modernisation, especially the processes of cultural Westernisation and material progress (measured as economic growth). Progress indicators focus on those qualities which characterise modernisation and which we celebrate as success or improvement. Western liberal democracies, which typically occupy all but a few of the top 20 places in progress indices, are presented as models of development for other countries.

Modernity’s benefits are counted, but its costs are underestimated. These costs include, especially, the growing impacts of modern ways of life on the natural environment and on human wellbeing (which are, of course inextricably linked). That many of the world’s most populous nations, including China, India and Brazil, are, in important respects, following this path of progress greatly increases the global threat.

Obama’s faith in progress provided the foundation of his ideological commitment to incremental, rather than radical, political change, reflected in his oft-cited view that the arc of history is long, but bends towards justice. In his snapshot of an improving world, Obama does not mention environmental impacts and the challenge of sustainability. But he has addressed this issue elsewhere, arguing that evidence of a ‘decoupling’ of energy-sector emissions of greenhouse gases and economic growth ‘should put to rest the argument that combatting climate change requires lower growth or a lower standard of living’.

Again, this belief in the desirability and feasibility of continuing economic growth is an article of faith in modern politics. In environmental terms it rests on the notion of dematerialisation or decoupling. It may be possible to decouple growth from fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions by switching to clean, renewable energy, but this does not mean an uncoupling of growth from resource consumption and its environmental impacts. Several new studies have disputed this broader possibility. For example:

  • A modelling of growth and its environmental impacts, based on historical data and projections, found that ‘growth in GDP ultimately cannot plausibly be decoupled from growth in material and energy use, demonstrating categorically that GDP growth cannot be sustained indefinitely’.
  • Another model shows global material stocks (timber, metal, concrete, asphalt, bricks, sand and gravel, etc.) accumulating in buildings, infrastructure and machinery increased 23-fold between 1900 and 2010, and now totals 800 billion tonnes, two-thirds of it in industrialized nations . Material stocks would increase a further four-fold if stocks in developing economies converge with those in industrial countries. ‘Saturation, or significant decoupling of stock growth from economic development, is not in sight’, the study states.
  • A systematic literature review of 94 studies has concluded that that state of the global environment has continued to deteriorate. Despite a commitment by governments around the world to sustainable development, supported by an array of agreements, strategies, laws, and programs, ‘decades of scientific monitoring indicate that the world is no closer to environmental sustainability and in many respects the situation is getting worse’.

Apart from its unsustainability, there is the matter of progress’s impacts on wellbeing. By definition, progress should be making life better overall, and most conventional measures show this to be the case. However, evidence for modernisation’s damage to quality of life and wellbeing is growing. In the US, life expectancy fell in 2015 and 2016, the first two-year decline since 1962-63. A major reason is a massive rise in drug-overdose deaths, especially from opioids, which are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. More than a half of American adults regularly take, on average, four prescription medicines, with one in eight of those aged 12 and older using antidepressants. Is this progress?

Modernity’s impacts are also seen in surveys and studies of people’s deep concerns about their personal lives, their societies, the world, and the future. These perceptions may be intangible and at odds with objective conditions, but they are important to quality of life, with implications for both individual wellbeing and societal functioning. For example:

  • A 2016 survey of 22 developed and developing countries shows that people around the world believe ‘the system’ no longer serves them, and that life is getting worse. Across the countries, an average of 57% believe their country is in decline; 64% say traditional parties and politicians don’t care about them; 69% believe the economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful. More believe their generation has had a worse life than their parents, and that life for today’s youth will be worse than their parents’, than believe life is getting better.
  • A 2016 survey in 28 countries, both developed and developing, found that corruption, globalisation and technological change were weakening trust in global institutions; there was growing despair about the future, a lack of confidence in the possibility of a better life for one’s family. Two thirds of the countries were now ‘distrusters’, with less than a half of people trusting the major institutions of government, business, media and NGOs. Across the countries, only 15 per cent believed the present system was working; more than three quarters agreed the system was biased against regular people and favoured the rich and powerful; and more than two thirds did not have confidence that current leaders could address their country’s challenges.
  • A 2013 survey investigated the perceived probability of future threats to humanity in four Western nations: the US, UK, Canada and Australia. Overall, across the four countries, 54% of people rated the risk of ‘our way of life ending’ within the next 100 years at 50% or greater, while 24% rated the risk of ‘humans being wiped out’ at 50% or greater. Three-quarters (78%) agreed that ‘we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world’.

People’s concerns about modern life are finding political expression in increasing extremism, especially on the right, but also the left. This trend helps to explain the 2016 US presidential election results and recent political developments in the UK and Europe.

Changing the political and cultural status quo runs up against formidable obstacles. One is the inertia in the system, with currents ways of doing things locked into place by entrenched and self-perpetuating organisational values and attitudes, and the multitude of existing mechanisms by which the world is run. Another obstacle is the money and effort that vested political and corporate interests put into maintaining their advantage.

The status quo relies heavily on scientific legitimation. Obama’s vision of progress shows this. It is evident in the relentless and ruthless efforts of industry after industry to defend itself against evidence of harm by sowing scientific doubt about the evidence, buying influence, and shifting blame. More broadly, a massive and growing media-marketing complex culturally ‘manufactures’ modern, high-consumption lifestyles, defying what we now know about the costs to the environment and to health and wellbeing.

While science has largely underpinned the orthodox view, science, through research in many disciplines, is now exposing its limitations, flaws and hazards. It is in science’s hands to build on people’s justified unease and their valid insights into its sources to press on all institutions, but especially politics and business, the need for deep change if we are to safeguard humanity’s future.

At this level, the task is to enlarge political debate to question the worldviews that underpin politics. This would open the way for far-reaching policy choices that the current status quo precludes. Politics and the media define arbitrarily what warrants coverage and discussion, and much that is important is left out.

Climate change notwithstanding, there is almost no serious discussion of genuine sustainable development; nor is there a serious consideration of health and wellbeing that reaches beyond lifestyle factors and healthcare. Broadly speaking, the mainstream media treat recent political developments as an alarming aberration, and acknowledge neither their deep roots nor their potential to bring about transformative change.

There is no valid reason why the worldview of leaders could not be a central theme of political debate. This would be very different from today’s emphasis on ‘issue’ and ‘identity’ politics, whose elements are kept firmly within the conventional framework of progress. The interconnected challenges facing humanity cannot be solved by focusing on the discrete, specific problems that characterise and define today’s politics, however legitimate the concerns are in themselves.

Recent events have rocked the political establishment and threatened the existing order. The growing political volatility could open the way for the debate we need to have about the sort of societies we want to live in, and there are signs that this is happening, although an optimal outcome is far from certain. As problems multiply, intensify and coalesce, the world could become entirely preoccupied with managing the crises, and continue to neglect the long-term requirements of a high, lasting and equitable quality of life.

Science could play a decisive role in keeping the conversation focused on what really matters. This role will require greater collaboration between the natural and social sciences and the humanities; more engagement with other sectors of society such as politics, business, religion and the arts; and better communication with the public, going well beyond current improvements in these areas.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are useful, but remain embedded in the orthodox model of development. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides one model for how to move forward if it can be applied to the much larger task of genuine sustainable development.

Governments and leaders will not implement solutions to the threats facing humanity if they are not convinced of their extent and magnitude, which they are not at present. Perceived scientific legitimacy is a central justification for these political perceptions. Changing these perceptions is arguably science’s greatest challenge today.


Teaser photo credit: Photo by Jonathan Singer on Unsplash