What is progress and have we experienced it in a meaningful manner? Have we made life better for ourselves, or improved the planet? Or have we bankrupted our environment and cursed our progeny to a life in the Stone-Age?
The short answer is: Yes.
There is ample evidence for both arguments. Human welfare has most definitely improved, epecially in the last 100 or so years. But with improvements in health, quality of life, and longevity, have come new problems — lifestyle diseases, over-population, environmental degredation and rampant inequality. For a doctor on Madison Avenue, for example, the world has never been a better place. For a Lybian fleeing war in a rubber boat in the sweltering Mediterranean… well, not so much.
There are many starting points for a discussion such as this, and I’ll consider more of them in later essays. But a good place to consider both sides of this argument is in historians’ assessments of imperialism. In the nineteenth century European powers expanded their sphere of influence dramatically. What ensued once Europe went global were bloodbaths and progressive revolutions in equal measure — the making of the modern world in all its guts and glory.
Britain, for example, having originally made inroads into India in the eighteenth century via the East India Company, came to control the entire sub-continent of 300 million people with a force of under 100,000. And the British empire is a great example for our debate: there is plenty of evidence that Brits were responsible for the killing of millions of native peoples (British policies in Bengal, which they conquered in 1764, were responsible for some 10 million deaths through starvation). Their racist administration oppressed those with darker skin, and their businesses carted off millions of tons of raw materials out of which to squeeze a profit for their investors in London. Profit drove expansion, but science was a willing handmaiden, as much of the profit derived from advances in transportation and weaponry. Meanwhile, an ideology of white, Christian, British, superiority rendered it all perfectly decent.
All this catastrophic decency, however, had unintended consequences, as is the way with warfare and conquest in general. There is plenty of evidence that the British, along with other…