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Progress: How far have we come? | Chapter 2


Published October 3, 2022

The world today isn’t perfect, but we’ve come a long way, especially over the last 200 years. From better communication and transportation to improved healthcare and education, humanity has made great strides. What can we learn from this history and experience? How much is luck, and how much can government, policies, and institutions make a difference? Let’s look at what we can do to keep us on the path of progress.

Discussion Questions:

If life has improved so much over time, why do many people act or feel as though conditions have gotten worse?

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It’s no secret the world today has flaws—pandemics, inequality, terrorism, environmental issues…Are you bummed yet? 

It can feel like these problems are front and center everywhere we look, from social media to conversations with family to the politicians calling for big changes to our government. 

It’s easy to feel hopeless and overwhelmed when it comes to topics like the economy, but let’s put our present-day circumstances in perspective. Believe it or not, we’ve come a long way!

Welcome to the year 1800. Things are pretty bad. First of all, hundreds of thousands of black people are enslaved in the U.S., and the practice won’t be outlawed for more than 60 years. 

Life is a constant struggle for nearly everyone, and most people don’t have much hope of improving their circumstances.

While some people can read and write, there aren’t many schools, and your teacher might swat you with their cane or a ruler if you aren’t paying attention. 

Women aren’t allowed to run for office or even vote.

If you want to express your frustration about these injustices to a friend who lives out of town, you can write them a letter by candlelight and hope the relatively new U.S. Postal Service manages to deliver it. That’s about as efficient as communication gets at the moment. 

Folks who want to escape the rapidly overcrowding cities of the East Coast and stop sharing a single bathroom with 20 neighbors can try their luck homesteading on the Great Plains. That covered wagon travels only about 15 miles per day, though, so it might take you a while to show up and start construction on your sod house. Hang in there. And try not to die of dysentery.

Let’s jump forward a bit more to the 1950s. Most people have cars now! They’re terrible for the environment, and seat belts aren’t popular or even widely available, but they’re faster than the old wagon. 

Technology has improved, too. More and more families have a television set with a few channels, and they might have a phone line shared amongst neighbors. Even better, antibiotics and vaccines have saved millions from diseases like polio, measles, mumps, and rubella. And women and minorities have the right to vote. Nice!

There’s been great progress, but life isn’t all Elvis Presley and poodle skirts just yet. Many schools are segregated, and racism is widespread. A typical school day might also include an air raid drill. With the U.S. in the midst of the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the threat of nuclear attack is on everyone’s mind. 

On the bright side, the number of people in the world living in poverty has begun to drop. It’s better than it was, but still nowhere near perfect.

And now, we’re back to present day. Like we already discussed, the modern world has flaws, but you know what else we have? Fewer people living in poverty than ever before. 

In just the last 30 years, billions of people have seen increased economic opportunity, especially in China and India, where most people had barely enough income to survive. We still haven’t wiped out poverty entirely, but we’ve made huge strides in the past few decades.

We also enjoy longer life expectancies. Health care has dramatically improved with new technology, just like most of the other things in our lives. We have mind-blowing amounts of information right at our fingertips with smartphones and computers. 

Racism hasn’t been eradicated, and world peace is still a ways off, but it’s hard to argue that life on earth hasn’t significantly improved over the last century or two. 

So, as we think about what the future should hold, let’s ask ourselves what caused these dramatic improvements in the quality of human life. What can we learn from history and experience? How much is luck, and how much can government, policies, and institutions make a difference? Let’s look at what we can do to keep us on the path of progress. 

And hopefully keep moving a little faster than this.