The Four Keys to Progress

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 had 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, Chile and Puerto Rico 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.

This is a startling transformation compared to how humans have lived over the past hundred thousand years. For most of human history, there was little if any progress. Most humans lived in societies that changed very little over the course of their lifetime. The vast majority of peoples in the past were trapped in circumstances that were very similar to their parents’ and their grandparents’. They knew that their children and grandchildren would live in very similar circumstances. The only changes that people experienced were wars, crop failures, droughts, epidemics and famines.

Virtually all of our ancestors lived in societies that were highly constrained by geographical limits. They 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.

Humanity lived in a stable state because technological innovation occurred very rarely, and any increased wealth either went to expanding the population or lining the pockets of entrenched elites. Individuals experienced progress, but societies did not.

Then within a span of a few lifetimes, billions of people started to experience progress. An elderly European who died in 1920 saw more progress in their lifetime than all the other previous generations of Europeans combined. An elderly person today has seen more progress for the entire world in their lifetime than all of human history combined. It has been a stunning transformation.

How did we get here?

As I argue in my book From Poverty to Progress, to move from poverty to progress, a society needs to acquire the four keys to progress:

  1. A highly efficient food production and distribution system. This enables large numbers of people to overcome geographical constraints so they can focus on solving problems other than producing enough food to survive.
  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 to compete against each other non-violently. This ensures that the benefits of innovation go to the masses rather than to elites.
  4. Widespread use of fossil fuels.

The degree to which peoples have enjoyed progress is largely determined by long-run historical factors that go back centuries or even millennia. These factors determined the extent to which societies acquired the four keys to progress. For most of human history, there was no progress, because these four key factors were either completely missing or were very underdeveloped.


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 on to something important. Most people rarely stop to consider the importance of cities to human history.

City dwellers are invariably wealthier than residents in rural areas, often dramatically wealthier. This is because of the cities unique ability to foster innovation and diffusion. Humans as individuals are undoubtedly more intelligent than animals. But the differences in intelligence between humans and chimps or dolphins are not enough to account for how far humans have diverged from other animals in their evolution.

It is only when large numbers of humans are in close geographical proximity that the humanity’s greatest advantage emerges. Density of interaction between humans creates a network of skills and social organizations that is far beyond what any other species has been able to achieve.

Humans in large groups have the ability to cooperate, specialize, learn new skills, copy ideas, test those ideas and constantly improve them based upon feedback from other humans. While humans in small groups tend to use the same technology for generations, humans in large groups can become a network that churns out new ideas and tests them for success in a rapid manner. And when those large groups of people are in constant contact with other large groups of people, the progress is even more rapid.

The large, dense population within cities also naturally promotes specialization, which leads to a broader skills base. A small town might have one restaurant. Because it is the only restaurant in the area, it must serve a cuisine that is acceptable to most of the town.

As the population size of the city increases, the number of restaurants naturally increases as well. But something even more important takes place. When there are a half dozen restaurants in a town, each one of them can cater to the tastes of a different segment of the population. One can serve Chinese cuisine, one can serve pizza and another can specialize in breakfast. Increase the population size to millions and suddenly you can have thousands of restaurants, specializing in increasingly narrow markets. Increased population promotes increased specialization. And each specialization requires a different set of skills.

Previously, we saw that technological innovation is exponential because it is partly based upon the number of technologies already in existence. The larger the number of technologies, the larger the number of potential combinations for new technologies.

But technologies do not combine themselves. Humans have to do that. And while isolated individuals can try a certain number of combinations, a large number of people living in close proximity are far more likely to try all possible combinations that their current technology base allows. And because technologies can only come into being when there are people with the necessary skills to make that happen, those people need to have a wide variety of skills.

Cities matter because they concentrate large numbers of people into a small area. Whereas rural areas of the past 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 copy from a wide variety of people. Cities enabled people to view how other people worked, view their technology and perhaps share ideas. Most of those people whom they shared with would be in their family or occupation, but some might be strangers engaged in other occupations.

Cities have always been havens of freedom. This is important because free people enjoy the benefit of their own skills and innovations, while slaves have no incentive to innovate. If a slave innovates something new, only the master benefits. While most pre-modern societies had some form of forced labor (slavery, serfdom, peonage, etc), trade-based cities make use of free labor in the marketplace. Forced labor could simply not compete with free labor in occupations that require skill, innovation and learning.

But not all cities are created equal. Some cities innovate at a far higher rate than other cities. As more and more trade-based cities evolved, some of them became the locus of emerging technologies. Important cities in history include those in Northern Italy during the Middle Ages (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 almost 1000 years, these cities have been the engines of progress.

 With the exception of innovation in the field of agricultural technologies and the extraction of minerals, virtually all innovation has come 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.

Even after cities evolved, a very small proportion of the population actually lived within them. In most Agrarian societies, cities with a population of over 10,000 inhabitants made 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.

Unfortunately, the more people that cram into a city, the less local land that is left over for agriculture. The density of people in a city makes it impossible for everyone to be farmers. To be a successful farmer while living in a city, 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 devote themselves full-time to 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. If they could not do so, the city would stop growing.


Despite their importance to innovation and progress, cities would not have been possible without a highly productive food production and distribution system. For all practical purposes, this meant agriculture. And not just any agriculture. It has to be very productive agriculture. Because I will go into greater detail about food production in later chapters, I will only make a few key points here.

Food is the critical historical constraint on innovation and progress. I know that this fact is very hard for modern readers to relate to, but it is true. Today when we are hungry, we go to the refrigerator or pantry. When we the refrigerator or pantry is empty, we go to the grocery store. Easy, right?

Well, no. Not for our ancestors. While getting enough food to survive is easy in modern societies, it was an epic task for our ancestors. For the overwhelming majority of our ancestors, the quest to acquire enough food to survive took up the majority of our working hours. It was an obsession, and all of society was organized around the most effective means to do so.

Before one can innovate, one must first survive. In order to survive, on must eat large amounts of 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. Our ancestors effectively traded time for food.

The vast majority of mankind has devoted the bulk of their waking hours towards the quest to produce enough food to eat. Very gradually over time, they innovated new technologies, skills and processes that enabled more effective means of producing and distributing food. This quest for food production was so all-encompassing that we can categorize entire societies by how they do so.

This quest for food greatly affected where we lived. Until the last few centuries, humans had to disperse geographically 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. The endless drudgery of acquiring food has stifled the human potential for innovation and progress for millennia.

There is only so much food that can be acquired from any one acre of land with simple technology. With technological innovation, we have been able to radically increase this amount, but for any given natural environment and suite of technologies, there is a fixed amount of food that can be produced per acre.

So humanity dispersed to survive. They had no choice. Survival comes first. But this largely undid all the benefits of humans living in dense populations that we learned about in the last section. Dispersal made it harder to copy technologies, skills and organizations that other people innovated. With far fewer models to copy, innovation and diffusion were far slower than they could have been.

Worse, the type of food that can be produced in any specific highly constrained. In some regions, fishing or hunting marine mammals is possible, but not in most areas. In some regions, hunting big game is possible, but not in most areas. In some areas, cultivating rice is possible, but not wheat or corn. In other areas, wheat is possible, but not in others.

Since food production and distribution is not something that one individual can do, the entire society has to be sculpted around the type of food that could be produced. Technologies, skills, organizations and values of a society were all greatly affected by what type of food could be produced in their geographical environment.

What is more, each one of these food types had very different amounts of energy and nutrients relative to the human work effort. This meant that some societies had huge advantages over others simply because they lived in regions with most cost-effective food sources.

Some geographical regions simply could not support much food production, so they doomed their residents to be trapped in poverty. A very lucky few were blessed with geography that enabled far more food production per unit of work. This left open the possibility of progress evolving within their borders.

These geographical differences account for a significant proportion in the equality between societies that exist to this day.

Decentralization & Competition

So effective 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, elites in those societies have other ideas.

Unfortunately, throughout most of human history the bulk of the food surplus has been extracted by political, economic or religious elites in the form of taxes and land rents. Rather than allowing specialists in cities to consume this food surplus, the elites spent the food surplus on conspicuous consumption, military conquest, signaling their social status and celebrating their religious or ideological visions. These elites effectively stifled the growth of trade-based cities, which in turn stifled the possibilities of progress.

Sometimes these elites extracted wealth from the peasantry individually, as in European feudalism, but more often elites establish centralized extractive institutions to do so on a vast scale. Usually operating as government-sanctioned monopolies, these extractive institutions channeled the food surplus generated by farmers towards elites. Unfortunately, through most of human history, the more productive farmers become, the more extractive institutions funneled that wealth to elites.

And even worse, elites funneled this food surplus into building powerful military machines that competed against each other to expand the scope of extraction into neighboring polities. The Chinese, Roman, French, Ottoman, Persian, Spanish and Portuguese empires are just a few of the dominant empires that have chosen this path. Many other potential empires attempted to do the same, but were outcompeted by their more famous competitor empires.

For this reason, the decentralization of political, economic, religious and ideological 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. When institutions compete peacefully, they have a strong incentive to embrace new technologies, skills and processes that give them a competitive advantage against other institutions.

Today we often hear activists complain about the entrenched power of elites, but those activists miss the point. Once mankind evolved past Hunter Gatherer societies, there have always been elites.

The key question is whether elites are able to establish government-sanctioned monopolies that rest upon violence, or whether elites are forced to compete against each other non-violently. When elites are forced to compete against each other non-violently, they must offer something to others to win that competition. This competition gives city-dwelling specialists a sphere where they can innovate new technologies, skills and organizations without being stifled by extractive institutions.

Modern societies have evolved a number of means to force elites to compete against each other non-violently. Political parties, rule of law and elections force political elites to compete against each other non-violently. Markets, property rights and corporations force elites to compete against each other non-violently in the economic sphere. The separation of church and state forces religious elites to compete against each other for worshipers non-violently.

And the specialization of institutions in a modern society means that an institution can compete in only one of those spheres. When elites compete non-violently, the rest of society has the opportunity to choose which sub-section of the elite most benefits society.

Today, we take all of that competition for granted, but for millennia Agrarian societies (as well as authoritarian regimes today) strictly limited competition by imposing government-sponsored monopolies. These monopolies enabled political, economic and religious elites to extract wealth from the masses. More recently ideological elites have played that role. Any new organizations that could create wealth that benefits the masses are a distinct threat to elite power, as they could become power bases for rivals.

Forcing elites to compete against each other non-violently is critical because it changes how people become wealthy. Rather than conquering new lands or squeezing taxes from the peasantry, modern elites become wealthy by creating wealth. They do so by innovating new technologies, skills and social organizations. The innovators gain vast wealth from those innovations, but the masses as a whole receive far more of the benefits.

Fossil Fuels

As we will see later in this book, a number of societies established three of the four key components of progress. These “Commercial societies” had highly productive agriculture, thriving trade-based cities full of free people with a wide variety of skills and institutions that forced elites to compete against each other peacefully. First emerging in Northern Italy in the 13th Century and then gradually spreading to modern-day Belgium and later Netherlands and southeast England, these Commercial cities were centers of innovation that brought a great deal of progress to their citizens.

The society that was able to progress the most before the Industrial Revolution, the Netherlands achieved its peak around 1670. The Dutch in the 17th Century relied on the following energy sources: burning wood, horsepower, wind-power (in the form of sailing ships and windmills), water-power (in the form of watermills) and peat-power (decayed vegetation). 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 widespread use of fossil fuels, which enabled humans to acquire huge amounts of concentrated chemical energy and transform it into useful energy to perform tasks. Most importantly, that energy can be used to innovate new technologies.

The Industrial Revolution in Britain added this fourth and final key to progress. The result was key technological innovations that transformed daily life. The railroad, steamship, steam turbines, automobiles, trucks, airplanes, electric motors, container ships and the electrical grid, are just a few of the thousands of industrial technologies that we take for granted today.

These fossil fuel-based technologies led 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 benefitted a very small portion of the world’s population. 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 highlights the negative consequences of their use, particularly pollution and climate change. But it is important to realize that fossil fuels, despite their drawbacks, are a key foundation of progress. Fossil fuels power innovation. Fossil fuels power economic growth. Fossil fuels power our education system, our transportation system, our health care system, and our military. Fossil fuels are key to generating all the wealth that 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 their use.


Progress is the outcome of an evolutionary process that goes back billions of years. This process started with the Big Bang, which allowed Physical/Chemical evolution to start. Eventually organic molecules combined to form replicating molecules. This triggered the start of Biological evolution. The world became more complex and changing. Then humans invented Cultural evolution, which enabled humans to channel energy into creating new technologies, skills and social organizations to solve problems.

The exponential process gradually built up the number of technologies over time until it hit a point where one person could perceive a difference within one lifetime.  Humans gradually evolved types of societies that were highly conducive to innovation. More importantly, they figured out how to ensure that the masses benefitted from that progress, rather than just elites.

Humans shifted from Cultural evolution to progress by accidentally inventing the four keys to progress:

  1. A highly efficient food production and distribution system. This enables large numbers of people to overcome geographical constraints so they can focus on solving problems other than producing enough food to survive.
  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 to compete against each other non-violently. This ensures that the benefits of innovation go to the masses rather than to elites.
  4. Widespread use of fossil fuels.

Progress evolved and the majority of mankind benefitted.

If you would like to learn more about this or other related topics, read my book From Poverty to Progress.


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

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