A Q&A with development economist Charles Kenny.
Along many crucial metrics, the world is — for all its devastating challenges — becoming a much better place. Child mortality has dropped dramatically worldwide, as have the most extreme forms of global poverty; there are more people in the world than ever before, but contrary to dire predictions, they are living longer, safer, freer lives. Progress isn’t a unidirectional thing — and along many important dimensions we are failing catastrophically — but a person born into the world today has a longer, richer life ahead of them than at any time in history.
That’s the approximate thesis of the 2011 book Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding — And How We Can Improve the World Even More, by development economist Charles Kenny, and a recurring theme in his later books: The Upside of Down, Results Not Receipts, and, most recently, The Plague Cycle, an accidentally well-timed exploration from 2020 on how infectious disease outbreaks have shaped human history.
This June, the Breakthrough Institute, a climate and environment think tank, awarded Kenny its lifetime achievement award, the Paradigm Award, for his work, and I conducted a Q&A with Kenny about his work, the world, and how he sees the future of human progress. The full conversation is available on YouTube; below is a transcript edited for length and clarity.
You’re a very prolific author — preparing for this, I read Getting Better, The Upside of Down, The Plague Cycle, Your World Better, and a lot of papers and articles. I’m curious what you see as ideas you keep returning to across that work.
The thread that I hope drives through the work I do is that it is looking at big, big global trends and how things are changing: pointing out the positive, pointing out progress, and trying to look for pragmatic ways to make that progress continue.
I want to think about progress, if you will, as “stuff” progress and “nonstuff” progress. There’s nonstop progress in “stuff”: the physical things, the stuff that engineers and physicists and chemists and biologists deal with.
Improvements in child health have largely been driven by technological advances in agriculture, in health, and especially antibiotics and vaccines and so on. And even when you look at problems of the environment, there’s progress — pollution is down globally from its peak, we’re doing reasonably well with the ozone layer.
You know, we actually solve those problems. We do manage to fix them in the end, quite often too late. Quite often, millions of people have unnecessarily suffered or unnecessarily died. But we do seem to actually in the end largely fix those problems.
I do think, and especially after the last few years, you have to ask if we do as well with progress, which is “nonstuff” — the relations between people, progress toward tolerance.
I think we have seen a lot of that. I’m on Team Pinker. I think the better angels are winning. But the battle is longer and harder and with larger regress than it is on the side of more material progress.
In a case like climate change, we see sort of a fascinating “stuff” and “nonstuff” problem, where we need to do the engineering and we need to get people to enable the conditions for that engineering work to happen fast enough and then put it in place. Pandemics are another case like that.
So take pandemics. You can see the last three years in sort of two different ways. One is of immense human progress, driven by human cooperation. So when I got my first Pfizer shot, we were talking about a vaccine that was developed more rapidly than any vaccine in history. It was developed in an effort that involved the world. So you had the Hungarian scientists working in the United States who did some of the underlying research. And in Emma Rene, you had the children of Turkish refugees in Germany who actually developed the vaccine. You had the Greek [immigrant] who moved to America and ran the company that produced it. In my case, you had the Vietnamese woman who actually stuck the injection into my arm, now living in the United States: global cooperation at its best. It was a sign of what we can accomplish.
And yet, at the same time … I got my shot fairly early on, at which point almost nobody, including a whole lot of people who needed the shot way more than I did in developing countries, had got it. And only recently can we now say that this is the fastest vaccine rollout in history worldwide. It has been the fastest vaccine rollout in history for rich countries for a while. For low-income countries, it only became the fastest vaccine rollout worldwide about three or four months ago.
So we failed miserably on the grounds of equity. And also, of course, we failed really badly at implementing effectively a whole bunch of interventions that we’ve known have worked against this kind of disease for 100 years.
It speaks to this kind of dichotomy that, on the one hand, we do have this fantastic scientific progress helped along by global collaboration. And on the other hand, we have institutions and politics and stuff that fails to deliver that progress in a way that would have the maximum benefit.
Now, the overall picture is positive, right? Two hundred years ago, we wouldn’t have known that Covid was a separate disease. Would we even have noticed the uptick in deaths? I’m not sure, because so many people were dying of infectious diseases.
And even if we had noticed it was a separate disease, we could have done nothing about it. And so here we are in this much better place. So there’s that sort of positive side of the story. But at the same time, there’s so much further we have to go when it comes to using that power we now have.
I think that it’s very easy in some ways to look out at the world and all the things we didn’t have 200 years ago and just marvel at how far we’ve come and how fast we’re moving. I think it’s also really easy to look out at the world and be kind of horrified at how badly we’re doing on how many fronts. I think it’s very hard to hold both of those in your head at once and put them together without choosing one over the other. And I think that the common thread in all of your work is a deeply felt “yes, we’re doing so well and yet we’re doing so much worse than we could be doing.”
Yes. The fact of progress makes us morally bound to make it happen more. The fact that we can do this, the fact that things aren’t inevitable and won’t always be terrible, means we should be out there making them better.
And I think it’s a really important part of the progress movement, such as it is, that it cannot just be a movement that says, “Hey, things are getting better, we’re set. We need to push back against degrowth people, but otherwise, you know, we’re good.”
We need to push back against degrowth people, don’t get me wrong. But we also need to take [progress] as a call to action. It is a reason to do more, to try harder, to make this world better for more people.
That we can do it means we must try harder to do it.
When you look at the state of the progress movement today or the state of the fight against climate change or the state of the fight against pandemics, where do you see us falling, on that narrow line between too much doom and too much satisfaction?
With climate, I feel that the doom has won out. You mentioned a while ago that you were looking for a book for your child on climate change that wasn’t all doom and you couldn’t find one. And I think that does reflect sort of the general discourse on climate in a really disappointing way.
Whereas with pandemics, Covid has “gone away” and apparently we don’t need to spend money on pandemic preparedness. It surprises me a little that it’s turning out that way.
So when you look at the progress movement, what are you most excited about? What seems to you like work that you’d particularly want to see happen?
I am very keen that it is a movement around action rather than complacency. One of the things I admire immensely about Breakthrough is that they are very much about action rather than complacency.
They come out with a lot of sensible recommendations around how if you spend more on research, you might get more new inventions. If you bring in more really smart people from other parts of the planet, they might invent really cool stuff. It’s not rocket science, but it’s really important to say and it has the advantage of being true.
And so I feel that there is a growing movement around how we make the United States [and] the world as a whole better off: We’re better off building on progress rather than better off controlling it, we’re better off making change happen in a positive direction.
What do you think of as the distinction between controlling change versus just ensuring change happens in a positive direction?
You can go back or you can go forward. The problems we have today are better than the problems we had yesterday. So if your solution to the problems we have today is go back to the problems of yesterday, that’s a bad solution. Which leaves you the other option, which is to come up with new solutions. And, you know, if there is a heart to the progress movement, I hope it’s that.
What would you say to skepticism of progress that’s coming from people feeling like promises were made about the future that the future didn’t live up to, that progress hasn’t delivered on its promises?
There is something to that. I don’t think it’s that we don’t have flying cars, or that progress in some material areas hasn’t been as fast as we want. This comes back to the “stuff” versus “nonstuff” progress. The more that what people want is nonstuff, other people’s time, other people’s respect, you know, things that you can’t produce out of a factory, the harder it gets to actually really progress.
I’m a bit of a skeptic about happiness literature. I don’t think that we ought to be maximizing subjective well-being on a scale of 1 to 10 as a sole public policy aim. But I do think the subjective well-being literature points you in a bit of a direction. [Subjective well-being] has been flatlining in many countries around the world, many rich countries around the world, over the last 10, in some cases, 20, 30, 40 years — it depends what question you ask, but there’s good reasons to think we’re not seeing a massive increase in happiness.
And so, you know, if people thought that what material progress was going to deliver was sort of human perfection, they’re right to be disappointed, I guess I would say. I think they were naive to expect that to begin with, but that’s easy to say after the fact.
I guess I do find it sort of worrying that material progress hasn’t produced more happiness progress or subjective well-being progress. And maybe you’re right and cost disease is a huge driver of that. But I would’ve expected that the world getting richer will improve human happiness; it bothers me to not see that in surveys.
I think it has improved human life. I am going to come back to mortality: Far fewer people are dying before their time, and I think that’s fantastic.
Now, you can’t see that on a poll question of “when you take the life as a whole, do you consider yourself very happy, somewhat happy? Not happy at all?” But it’s still progress.
So it behooves us to have a range of measures for what counts as human progress, and relying on just one poll question would be an unwise way to go.
The other thing I’d be really interested in is what ways you think the progress movement is maybe barking up the wrong trees or not focusing on the most important questions it could be focusing on or just could be doing more.
So this may be more of a swipe at effective altruism, which I really admire, but I think there is a temptation to look for solutions that the individual can have a big role in carrying out, if you will. And more and more of the big problems we want to overcome are about collective action. While I think there are a lot of individuals on this planet who’ve done incredible things to invent new stuff or create in a particular way, most of the story of progress isn’t about that. It is about large communities coming together to act often through the market, sometimes not through the market.
And, you know, I kind of wish more of the heroes of the movement were bureaucrats, which is a hard sell. I was actually recently thinking about this and racking my brain, about how this could be solved, and Hidden Figures, maybe, is a movie that does celebrate, you know, bureaucrats coming together to get somebody to the moon.
So maybe we need more of that, please, and more of that in the overall approach: that this isn’t something about fantastic individuals. Individuals can be fantastic, and there are many of them. This is about collective action.