Keys to Progress


After decades of reading and thinking about history, technology and progress, I have come to the conclusion that progress rests upon four key foundations:

  1. Highly-productive agriculture
  2. Trade-based cities
  3. Decentralization of economic, political and religious power
  4. Fossil fuels

In this post, I will make the case for the importance of each.

Trade-based Cities

Let’s start with cities. In the “Triumph of the City”, Edmund Glaeser calls cities “our species’ greatest invention.” While this might be a little bit of an exaggeration, Glaeser is much closer to the truth than most other thinkers. Most people take cities for granted, and rarely stop to consider the importance of cities to human history.

With the exception of innovation of agricultural technologies and perhaps the extraction of minerals, virtually all innovation comes from cities. This is quite extraordinary, given how few people have lived in cities until recently. For a good 100,000 years cities did not exist. Hunter Gatherers congregated in seasonal camps or fishing villages when and where food sources were highly concentrated, but they had at most a few hundred inhabitants.

As any history textbook will tell you, cities evolved after the invention of agriculture and the resulting trade that resulted. But for thousands of years, very few people actually lived in cities. In most Agrarian societies, cities with a population of over 10,000 inhabitants make up less than three percent of the population. And compared to modern standards, a “city” with a population of 10,000 would be considered more of a village today.

Cities mattered because they concentrated large numbers of people into a small area. The density of people made it impossible for everyone to be farmers. To be a successful farmer a person had to be able to walk to their field in the morning and back home every evening. The greater the distance between their residence and their fields, the less time that they could devote to farming each day. Once cities grew to a point where it was impossible to grow their own food, the inhabitants had to learn a non-agricultural skill that enabled them to earn an income by selling a product or service on the market. Then they could use that money to buy food on the market. To start many of these people were still part-time farmers, but they gradually transformed into urban specialists.

Whereas rural areas had low-density populations with people focused on the skills of growing food, cities had high-density populations with people specializing in a wide variety of occupations, each with their own skills, technologies and social organizations. And these people were in constant daily contact with each other, giving them the ability to learn from a wide variety of people. Most of those people would be in their family or occupation, but some might be strangers engaged in other occupations.

Cities also became havens of freedom. While most Agrarian societies had some form of forced labor (slavery, serfdom, peonage, etc), trade-based cities were dominated by free citizens. Forced labor could simply not compete with free labor in occupations that require skill, innovation and learning.

As more and more trade-based cities evolved, some of them became the locus of emerging technologies. The cities of Northern Italy during the Renaissance (Venice and Florence being the most important), Bruges and Antwerp in modern-day Belgium, Amsterdam from about 1580-1670, London, New York City to today’s Silicon Valley. These cities have played an enormous role in technological and organizational innovation because they had heavy concentrations of people with skills related to emerging technologies of their day. For at least 500 years, these cities have been the engines of progress.

Highly-productive Agriculture

Despite their importance to innovation and progress, none of these cities would have been possible without highly productive agriculture. This may be hard for many modern readers to conceive of. Today, when we get hungry, we go to the refrigerator. Then once per week we travel to the grocery store. Food does not seem to be at all related to innovation.

But throughout human history, food has been the critical constraint on innovation. Until the last few centuries, humans had to disperse in order to acquire food because the subsistence technology of the day was not productive enough for one family to grow enough of a food surplus to support urban specialists. This dispersion undermines the human networks that are essential for innovation.

Before one can innovate, one must first eat food. If one has to spend the vast majority of one’s time focused on acquiring food, one cannot devote much time to innovating non-agricultural skills, technologies and organizations. The endless drudgery of acquiring food has stifled the human potential for innovation and progress for millennia. For this reason, much of this blog will focus on food technology, particularly agriculture.

Decentralization of power

So food production leads to cities, and cities lead to innovation and progress. Sounds pretty simple. Unfortunately, it is not so easy. Whenever farmers create a food surplus that can potentially lead to the growth of dynamic trade-based cities, the most powerful elements in societies have other ideas. Unfortunately, it has been the sad state of human history that the bulk of the food surplus is extracted by political, economic or religious elites in the form of taxes or land rents. Rather than allowing specialists in cities to use this surplus for trade with cities, the elites spend the food surplus on conspicuous consumption, military conquest and celebrating their religious or ideological visions.

Sometimes these elites extract wealth from the peasantry individually, as in European feudalism, but more often elites establish extractive institutions to do it on a vast scale. Usually operating as government-sanctioned monopolies, these extractive institutions channel the food surplus generated by farmers towards elites. Unfortunately, for much of human history, the more productive farmers become, the more extractive institutions funnel that wealth to elites.

And even worse, the food surplus is often funneled into building powerful military machines whose prime purpose is the expand the scope of extraction into neighboring polities. The Chinese, Roman, French, Ottoman, Persian, Spanish and Portuguese empires are a few of the dominant empires who have chosen this path.

For this reason, the decentralization of political, economic and religious power is essential to innovation and progress. Ideally, this decentralization comes from the creation of institutions that compete against each other without the use of violence.

Today we often hear activists complain about the entrenched power of elites, but too often they miss the point. Once mankind evolved past Hunter Gatherer societies, there have always been elites. The key questions is the extent to which elites are able to establish government-sanctioned monopolies, or whether they are forced to compete against each other non-violently. Democracy, political parties, markets, corporations and separation of church and state are five key innovations that have forced elites to compete against each other. When elites compete, the rest of society has the opportunity to choose which sub-section of the elite most benefits society. This competition gives city-dwelling specialist a sphere where they can innovate new technologies and organizations without being stifled by extractive institutions dominated by elites.

Fossil Fuels

The society that was able to progress the most before the Industrial Revolution, the Netherlands in 1670, achieved its heights due to a highly-productive agriculture, large cities with a wide variety of people skilled in emerging technologies and decentralized political, economic and religious power. But the Dutch in the Golden Era lacked one key ingredient: huge amounts of energy that only fossil fuels could deliver.

The Dutch relied on horsepower, wind power (in the form of sailing ships and windmills), water power (in the form of watermills) and peat power (decayed vegetation) to fuel their society. This made the Dutch Republic in 1670, the wealthiest society that had ever existed, but it was still very poor by today’s standards.

The key missing ingredient was fossil fuels, which enabled humans to acquire huge amounts of energy and transformed it into useful energy to perform tasks. The Industrial Revolution in Britain added this fourth and final foundation of progress. The result was the railroad, steamship, automobiles, trucks, airplanes, container ships and thousands of other technologies that we take for granted today. Most importantly, it has lead to a standard of living for a typical person far beyond anything the richest men of the pre-Industrial era could imagine. Before the use of fossil fuels, economic growth and technological innovation mainly benefited elites and the very small portion of the world’s population that lived in cities. Today, to a large extent because of fossil fuels, economic growth and technological innovation benefits the vast majority of the world’s population.

Today virtually every mention of fossil fuels is highlights the negative consequences of its use: pollution, climate change. But it is important to realize that fossil fuels are a key foundation of progress. Fossil fuels power economic growth. Fossil fuels power technological innovation. Fossil fuels power our education system. Fossil fuels powers our transportation system. Fossil fuels powers our health care system. Fossil fuels power our military. Fossil fuels generate all the economic growth which pays for every government program we have.  Before we try to eliminate fossil fuels, we need to make sure that we do not also eliminate all the benefits that have come from its use.

Any way, that is my take. What do you think? What do you believe are the roots of progress?

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