The first techno-futurist bestseller, published in France in 1795 and quickly translated into English and other languages, envisioned not only longer life spans, increased agricultural productivity, and more efficient use of resources but also wiser citizens and better governance. Lending poignancy to this last prediction, the author of the Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, the Marquis de Condorcet, wrote it while he was in hiding from the Jacobin radicals who seized control of the French Revolution from mid-1793 to mid-1794. Condorcet, a mathematician-turned-scientific-administrator who'd briefly risen to political power in the middle stages of the revolution, died on the run not long after finishing the book. It was "a singular instance of the attachment of a man to principles, which every day's experience was so fatally for himself contradicting," quipped English clergyman Thomas Robert Malthus.
Malthus wrote this in the 1798 first edition of his famous An Essay on the Principle of Population, which name-checked Condorcet in the subtitle and set out to refute the late Frenchman's optimism. "Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio," Malthus argued. "Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second." (Example: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc., vs. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.) The inevitable consequence: "misery and vice."
Thus began one of the great debates of modernity, one that continues to this day in altered but recognizable form. His untimely demise aside, Condorcet has been the clear winner so far. "Who would take it upon himself to foresee where the art of converting the elements to the use of man may one day lead?" he'd asked hopefully. Some interesting places, it turns out.
Population has grown exponentially, but so, with some fits and starts, has the food supply. Average global life expectancy has risen from about 30 years in 1800 to almost 73 in 2019. Although consumption of natural resources rose spectacularly during the Industrial Revolution and is still rising in the developing world, in recent decades rich countries have seen a steady fall in per capita energy use. Many of Condorcet's predictions about political and social change have also come true, with democracy spreading, slavery and colonialism withering, and women gaining more equal status. There's been quite a lot of misery and vice along the way, but on the whole, hope and ingenuity have won out over despair and simple math.
Expecting future generations to figure everything out reduces the odds of there being future generations
Which is where the stories in this year's Sooner Than You Think issue come in. Among other things, they describe attempts to build batteries and irrigation systems with smaller environmental footprints, improve our urban and rural infrastructure, and make sneakers for people who need alternatives to conventional lace-ups. Some of these efforts involve technological breakthroughs, whereas others are more about breaking through political barriers. Some are moonshots; others, deceptively simple tweaks. All require bringing some overdue willpower to bear against challenges big and small.
Tales of innovation and ingenuity have of course become a business-media staple in recent decades. Advances in computing, communications, medicine, energy production, and other fields have also helped create a new generation of techno-futurists who can sound an awful lot like Condorcet, albeit often with a sales pitch attached.
Yet somehow or other, we haven't overcome all humanity's challenges. A deadly global pandemic—and the sputtering of U.S. life expectancy even before it arrived—have made clear that we're still a long way from "the end of infectious and hereditary diseases" that Condorcet foresaw. The rise of democratic governance has been stalled for a while now, with the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index showing declines in every region of the world in 2020. The internet, a communications advance that surely would've thrilled Condorcet, who attached great import to the rise of the printing press, has (like the early printing press, in fact) proved to be a disseminator of error and strife as well as knowledge. Global warming, the modern crisis most in line with Malthusian worries about humanity outstripping Earth's ability to sustain it, is looming ever larger as a threat to prosperity and even life and limb.
Malthus's own answer to such worries was a gloomy fatalism: Don't help the poor, because then they'll just have even more kids and increase the misery. His intellectual descendants through the centuries have tended to be more activist, with proposals ranging from the awful (the eugenic weeding out of society's "degenerates") to the entirely sensible (regulation and taxation of pollution).
Amid a flareup of Malthusian concerns a half-century ago, the emphasis was on controlling growth of both population and economic activity. Mass starvation was imminent, biologist Paul Ehrlich warned in The Population Bomb in 1968. The Club of Rome's 1972 The Limits to Growth used computer models developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to predict societal collapse as a result of famine, resource depletion, and/or pollution sometime in the 21st century. The subsequent oil crisis seemed to confirm that humanity was running up against a resource wall.
The oil shortages soon ended, and even though the world's population kept expanding at about the rate both books predicted, famines became rarer. The Limits to Growth didn't foresee big problems until well into this century and thus hasn't been entirely contradicted by events (yet). But Ehrlich had predicted a "substantial increase in the world death rate" in the 1970s and '80s; instead it fell 30%, which is what kept population growth in line with his projections even as birthrates declined. He lost a famous bet with economist Julian Simon over whether mineral prices would keep rising in the '80s.
These discredited predictions engendered something of an overreaction. Simon and his intellectual allies and heirs became increasingly dismissive of environmental concerns and convinced that market forces would solve all. The rest of us became more likely to tune out warnings of imminent doom.
But the Green Revolution in agricultural productivity that derailed Ehrlich's predictions wasn't some market-driven inevitability. It was pushed into reality by agricultural scientists, American charitable foundations, and governments around the world. It also hasn't come without costs. The ag boom in the developing world has led to the loss of lots of forests that used to store carbon. Heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides globally has brought other not-great side effects.
In other words, progress is complicated. This was actually a key point of Condorcet's Sketch, which consisted of a description of nine past ages of human development followed by a 10th epoch stretching into the future. It was the elimination of erroneous beliefs that had enabled humanity to move forward, he argued, and there were surely still many, many errors left to be corrected. It was precisely this that underlay his hopes for the future—humanity still had so much room to improve.
Condorcet was a semi-illustrious figure with quite illustrious associates. Voltaire was a mentor, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson his friends, the Marquis de Lafayette a witness at his wedding. His writings before the French Revolution tended toward the dense and equation-filled and gained in prominence as social scientists embraced his zeal for applying mathematical and statistical reasoning to questions of human behavior, if not necessarily his techniques.
The hastily written Sketch appealed to a broader readership and attracted more criticism. "Condorcet! Thou wert as superficial in Legislation as abstruse in Geometry," harrumphed U.S. President John Adams in the margins of his copy. The historical analysis in the book is suspect, some of the language and attitudes dated, and the argumentation not always clear. It's possible that the book's remarkable success in predicting the course of the past two centuries was more about good timing than eternal truth. "There was virtually no growth before 1750," economist Robert Gordon wrote a few years ago, "and thus there is no guarantee that growth will continue indefinitely."
Still, Condorcet's book deserves at least as much attention as Malthus's more famous response. Sketch mixed faith in technological progress with an awareness that great turmoil often accompanies innovations, a preference for free markets with pleas for stronger governance. It preached neither complacency nor resignation but a sort of urgent, hopeful activism.
There's one thing the sudden, world-changing onset of Covid-19 has put in perspective: We really do need to deal with some of the problems that informed people have been worrying aloud about for decades. Expecting future generations to figure everything out reduces the odds of there being future generations. The pandemic has also made clear that individual action isn't enough to counter all the threats we face. We are in this together.
Innovations of the sort described in these stories cannot be expected to fix all the problems that ail the planet and the human race. Unlike gloomy fatalism, however, they're a start.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.