What is progress, anyway?

Points of Progress writer Erika Page reflects on lessons learned during her year on the Monitor's progress beat.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Erika Page, who writes the Monitor’s Points of Progress, visits a Mary Baker Eddy Library exhibit dedicated to the feature, in Boston.

The notion of progress can be fraught. Whose progress? Whose ideals? Whose metrics? 

In the West at least, progress has long been inextricably intertwined with economic and technological growth. In the postwar period, economists like Walt Whitman Rostow envisioned progress as a linear path toward modernization. Wealthy nations had arrived. Poor nations could follow in their footsteps with the right economic policy and machinery. Yet that kind of progress has trapped humanity in a seeming paradox: unprecedented wealth and technological capacity paired with deepening inequality, polarization, and environmental degradation. 

The technocratic view of progress has earned its fair share of critics. Post-development scholars began insisting in the 1980s that “developed” societies offer no model to follow, given the damage done by overconsumption. They decried society’s obsession with economic and technological advancement, which tended to silence other cultural ways of thinking about progress. 

As the Monitor’s Points of Progress writer this past year, I’ve thought a lot about the meaning of progress. First, I learned what progress is not. It’s not a one-size-fits-all model. It’s not a tool to get others to do things your way. It’s not a smooth, caveat-free ride. In fact, it’s not a race with any particular destination at all. Instead, progress is incremental. It’s messy and imperfect. And it can feel painfully slow and incomplete.

Even as some 25,000 unhoused individuals moved into homes in Houston, for instance, another 500,000 Americans remained on the streets or in shelters. But that incremental step forward transformed lives. And how the city made it happen can be instructive for other communities.

At the Monitor, we take a somewhat unfashionable stance on progress. The idea is this: Some values are so innate to human nature, they are actually universal. Progress, then, occurs as these values unfold around the globe. Values like ingenuity, dignity, and cooperation are not ideological, nor do they prescribe a particular political solution. Looking back at the Points of Progress from 2022, I found these and other values paving the way for solutions to emerge, fine-tuned to the needs of the place.

Economic and technological advancements do matter. But maybe these are better seen as the result, rather than the source, of progress. The good news is that we can all tend and nurture the values that bring our humanity to light. That drives real progress.

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