The Roots of Progress

The virtuousness of technology

March 31, 2017

One more key idea from A Culture of Growth:

A critical cultural belief that drives economic growth and complements the belief in the “virtuousness of technology” is a belief in progress, and specifically in economic progress.

In a later passage, Mokyr elaborates:

What has not received enough attention in the recent literature in which economists have begun to reexamine the effect of culture on economic development is the matter of cultural beliefs regarding the relationship between humans and their physical environment and the virtuousness of technology. If the natural environment is treated with too much respect or fear and if the aversion to playing God or angering a deity was too strong, the willingness of humans to manipulate their physical settings for their material benefit could be impeded. Similarly, if nature is regarded as unfathomable and beyond human comprehension, or as totally arbitrary and capricious, there can be little advantage in controlling it for human purposes.

What struck me in particular about this passage was the notion of treating nature with “too much respect or fear”, which reminds me of the anti-technology attitudes of some in the environmentalist movement (or, I would argue, inherent in the movement).

Part of why I am interested in studying human progress is to understand, not only its history, but its future—what will sustain and accelerate it, and also what might threaten or halt it. Progress isn’t natural—indeed, for most of human history there wasn’t much of it—and it certainly isn’t inevitable. If we don’t understand the roots of progress, we will lose it.

Books in this post

A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy