An Introduction to Progress: Mankind’s Greatest Achievement

We live in a world of progress. People living in Western nations today have a level of affluence far surpassing anything ever seen on planet Earth. Even the poor in Western nations have a level of affluence that is higher than all but the richest people in 1970.

All across the world nations are being transformed from oppressive poverty to a level of affluence that was once only possible in Western nations. Japan, South Korea, China, India, Singapore, Botswana and Chile all transformed themselves within one generation. Even in some of the poorest nations of Sub-Saharan Africa levels of education, health, literacy, sanitation, longevity, transportation, communication, and housing are rapidly increasing.

Progress is mankind’s greatest achievement. It has transformed our lives in so many positive ways… But we take it for granted.

What is progress?

There is no universally agreed-upon definition of “progress.” In my book, “From Poverty to Progress: How Humanity Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going,” I use the following definition:

the sustained improvement in the material standard-of-living of a large group of people over a long period of time.”

In particular, I focus on changes to standard-of-living that are rapid enough and sustained enough that one person could notice positive changes within their lifetime.

Have humans always experienced progress?


It has taken humanity hundreds of thousands of years to get to the point of self-sustaining progress. Today’s progress is a startling transformation compared to how humans have lived over the past hundred thousand years. In the past humanity lived in something close to a stable state because technological innovation occurred very rarely.

Our ancestors lived in a world where acquiring food took up the bulk of their waking hours. Entire societies were structured around the quest to acquire enough food to survive and reproduce in their local environment. This quest was so all-encompassing that little time was left to solve other problems. In order to innovate, people needed to live in close proximity to each other, but in order to acquire food, they needed to spread out. Therefore, the need for food has been the key limiting factor on innovation.

The type of food that could be acquired was highly constrained by fundamental geographical limits. In particular, the biome (i.e. dominant vegetation) that a society inhabited and its access to domesticatable plants and animals largely determined whether agriculture based upon animal-drawn plows could evolve. Other factors such as altitude, soil type, growing season, distance from rivers and more complex societies like the Middle East placed additional constraints.

How a society acquired its food, in turn, placed powerful constraints on how rapidly the society could innovate technologies, skills and social organizations and copy the innovation of others. Where geography made animal-driven plows possible, complex Agrarian societies evolved. Where geography made animal-driven plows impossible, humans could not evolve past less complex types of societies. Those societies had no chance of experiencing progress.

Even in geographical regions that could support Agrarian societies, two forces prevented progress. The first is that most of the food surplus went into having more babies, who then ate away much of the food surplus. Second, powerful political, economic and religious elites constructed institutions that extracted the food surplus to the benefit of themselves. They used this extracted wealth to flaunt their social status with a lavish lifestyle, build conspicuous monuments, and construct powerful militaries capable of conquering other peoples. This extraction of wealth undermined the rate of innovation and hamstrung the potential for progress.

Because of these geographical, demographic and political constraints, most societies of the past were trapped in poverty. There was little an individual could do other than survive and live a life almost identical to previous generations.

How did humanity transition from poverty to progress?

To transition from poverty to progress, a society needs to acquire the Five Keys to Progress.

I believe that the Five Keys to Progress is an essential unifying concept for understanding progress. The Five Keys to Progress are so critical because they are the necessary preconditions for a society to transition from a state of poverty to a state of progress. The Five Keys are also actionable in today’s world. In other words, the concept not only helps to understand the world, but also how to make it better.

The Five Keys to Progress enable us to cut through all the clutter of history and modern times so that we can focus on what really matters. The Five Keys to Progress enable us to answer some of history’s most difficult questions, as well as provide policy solutions and practices that can make the world a better place.

Using the concept of the Five Keys to Progress, it is easier to understand:

  • The historical origins of progress.
  • Why progress took so long to get started.
  • How and why progress started in Northwest Europe
  • How and why progress spread to different societies over time
  • Why so many poor nations were left without progress for centuries
  • Which forces threaten progress today.
  • What policies and practices wealthy nations need to adopt to keep their progress going
  • What policies and practices developing nations need to adopt to enjoy greater progress

So what are the Five Keys to Progress? To transition from poverty to progress, a society needs to acquire:

  1. A highly efficient food production and distribution system. This enables societies to overcome geographical constraints to food production so that large numbers of people can focus on solving problems other than getting enough food to eat.
  2. Trade-based cities packed with a large number of free citizens possessing a wide variety of skills. These people innovate new technologies, skills and social organizations and copy the innovations made by others.
  3. Decentralized political, economic, religious and ideological power. Of particular importance are elites being forced into transparent, non-violent competition that undermines their ability to forcibly extract wealth from the masses. This also allows citizens to freely choose among institutions based upon how much they have offer to each individual and society in general.
  4. At least one high value-added industry that exports to the rest of the world. This injects wealth into the city or region, accelerates economic growth and creates markets for smaller local industries and services.
  5. Widespread use of fossil fuels. The incredible energy density of fossil fuels inject vast amounts of useful energy into society enabling it to solve a wide variety of problems. Without this energy, life would return to the daily struggle for survival that dominated most of human history.

Once a society achieves the five keys to progress, it can escape the poverty trap imposed by geography, demographics and politics. The masses can begin to enjoy a long-term increase in their standard-of-living. Human history can be viewed as a vast evolutionary process that led to the accidental discovery of the Five Keys to Progress.

Each of the Five Keys are necessary for a society to experience progress, but none are sufficient by themselves. It is only when a society combined the first four keys that it created sufficient conditions for pre-Industrial progress. When a society adds the fifth key to the other four, it creates sufficient conditions for Industrial progress in the modern era.

When and where was progress invented?

Progress was invented by the Commercial city-states of Northern Italy about 800 years ago. Examples include Venice, Florence, Milan and Genoa. This area had unique geographic and political characteristics. While other societies were Agrarian societies, where monarchs, clerics and soldiers dominated over an ocean of peasants toiling in the fields, these people invented Commercial societies. These societies were strikingly modern in their characteristics because they possessed four of the five keys to progress: trade-based cities, productive agriculture, decentralization of power, and high value-added export industries.

How did progress spread?

Once four of these five keys were discovered in Northern Italy, they slowly and unevenly diffused throughout the world. There were six historical breakthroughs that enabled progress to accelerate and diffuse to new parts of the globe:

  1. The emergence of Commercial societies in Northern Italy about 800 years ago.
  2. The diffusion of Commercial societies from Northern Italy to Flanders (modern-day Belgium, then to Netherlands and finally to southeast England.
  3. The migration of Europeans to much of the rest of the world. The migration of peoples from Commercial societies to North America was particularly important.
  4. The Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 1830s, which added the fifth key to progress (widespread use of fossil fuels).
  5. The Allied victory in World War II, which ended the military threats of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Fascist Italy.
  6. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Today, Industrial technology enables entire societies to overcome geographical constraints that have trapped them in poverty for millennia. Entire nations and sub-national groups have transformed themselves within one generation – a stunning achievement.

How does this progress work?

As long as the Five Keys to Progress remain in effect, progress comes from the interaction among the following:

  1. Technological innovation. This includes radical innovations such as the railroad, electrical grid, computers and the internet, as well as the ongoing incremental improvement and differentiation of thousands of other existing technologies.
  2. People learning new skills to support those technologies. Without these skills, technologies are not useful; a fact that is often forgotten.
  3. People cooperating within organizations. Those people work together using a wide variety of skills and technologies to accomplish a common goal.
  4. Competition between organizations for scarce resources. In the past this was usually food, while now it is usually revenue. This forces organizations to embrace new technologies, skills and processes in order to out-compete other organizations. It also forces people within the group to cooperate more closely, enables new organizations to be founded and older organizations to fail.
  5. People copying successful technologies, skills and organizations and then modifying them to solve different problems. This enables innovations that work to spread into new companies, new sectors of the economy and new geographical regions. This step is critical to ensure that progress is widely shared.
  6. Vast amounts of useful energy being injected into the system. Without energy, none of this can happen. Today the vast majority of that energy comes from fossil fuels.

These factors are the “proximal” causes that keep progress going, while the Five Keys to Progress mentioned previously are the “ultimate” causes that trigger the start of progress in the first place.

The key factor promoting progress is technological innovation. Technological innovation works the same today as it did 1000 years ago. Innovators combine together collections of simple technologies, skills or ideas to create the first instance of a more complex technology.

Just as material objects are built up from smaller particles – quarks, atoms, molecules and compounds – so are technologies. Each of the simpler component parts already existed, but the combination is unique and new. If the new technology solves a problem better than the existing technologies, it stands a chance of diffusing through society and promoting progress.

A key part of innovation is copying. No inventor could invent a new technology if they were forced to rediscover all of its component parts. Without copying, innovation is impossible.

As technologies become more numerous and complex, there are more individual components that can potentially be combined with other components. This combinatory process enables innovation to grow exponentially (i.e. the rate of innovation grows as the number of existing technology grows).

Technological innovation also drives an increase in the number, complexity and diversity of skills. Technologies cannot exist without human skills. Even the simplest technology requires some amount of skill to use. In addition, conceiving of the technology, designing it, building it and repairing it are important related skills. Until people possess these skills a technology cannot come into being, or if it does, it would not last very long.

Therefore, as the number and complexity of technologies increase, so does the number of skills within a society. Unfortunately, there are only so many skills that any one person can master. This means that as the numbers of technologies grows, people must increasingly specialize in narrower skills.

Technological innovation and skills acquisition also increases the number, size and diversity of social organizations. As skills become more specialized and diversified, something is required to knit these specialized workers together to focus on a common mission. That something is social organization.

Social organizations have existed throughout human history. Because there are not enough resources to support an unlimited number of organizations, they are forced to compete with other organizations to survive. In the distant past, organizations competed for food. Today organizations compete for revenue.

In this way, organizations are much like biological organisms. While biological organisms compete for energy and nutrients, corporations and other institutions compete for revenue. Political parties compete for voters. Religions compete for souls. Non-profits compete for donations. They all much make use of technologies, skills and internal processes to do so effectively. Those that fail to do so will tend to shrink in size. The worst will go bankrupt. The only exceptions are government-sanctioned monopolies without competition.

So we can see that once a society has evolved to enable technological innovation, it kicks of a self-sustaining feedback loop that creates progress. As long as they are forced to compete for revenue against other organizations, they have no choice but to create benefits for the masses.

I want to point out that the forces that make progress work have been present in all human societies. All societies have some amount of technological innovation. All societies learn new skills. The vast majority of people in almost all societies have cooperated together in some form of social organization. Those organizations typically competed against each other. And, of course, all societies use large amounts of energy.

So all societies have all of these factors present, but yet few of them, until today, have generated progress that benefits the masses. Something was missing. Or more specifically, five things were missing: the Five Keys to Progress discussed above.

What are the principle constraints on progress?

Though industrial technology has greatly reduced geographical constraints to progress, there are other barriers to progress that remain. Traditional ethno/religious/racial identities intensify resentments against successful people and nations, thereby undermining the desire of the poor to copy more successful models. Traditional elites understand that progress creates new sources of wealth that potentially undermine their power. To preserve their power, they deliberately intensify ethno/religious/racial identities against more successful groups.

Radical ideologues on both the left and right also try to intensify resentments of less successful groups as a means to achieving power. Even worse, they seek to dramatically centralized political and economic power and subordinate that power to ideology. This undermines the decentralized trial-and-error experimentation that is necessary to promote progress.

Rather than copy the successful, traditional elites and ideologues want the people to resent the successful. They foster the belief that different standards-of-living are caused by the successful hurting the less successful. This stark zero-sum viewpoint seriously undermines the ability of entire peoples to experience progress. The ability of individuals and peoples to ignore the siren call of ideologies and group identities and be willing to copy the successful from other cultures will largely determine whether they enjoy the benefits of future progress.

In whatever domain one chooses, there is one golden rule: copy the successful. While it is not always easy to know exactly what it is about the successful that needs to be copied, copying is the fastest route to success. Unfortunately, many individuals and even entire peoples waste their time and energy resenting the successful, trying to hurt them or isolating themselves away from the perceived harm. This viewpoint undermines their own chances of enjoying the benefits of progress and leading a happy and successful life.

How does having an awareness of progress help?

With an awareness of the progress that previous generations have left to us, a feeling of gratitude for benefitting from their efforts and a willingness to learn how they achieved that progress, we are in a much better position to solve the problems of today. While today’s problems seem insurmountable, we must never forget that previous generations solved far bigger problems with far fewer resources. Knowing this, we can look forward to the future with both hope and the necessary problem-solving attitude.

For more on this topic, read my book “From Poverty to Progress”

About the Author:

Michael Magoon is the author of the “From Poverty to Progress” series of books. The first book in the series is already published with many more to follow.

The writings above are under the same copyright as the main book “From Poverty to Progress
Copyright © 2021 Michael Magoon

All rights reserved

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