The Forgotten Stage of Human Progress

Invention is easily overrated, and implementation is often underrated.

A light bulb shatters.
Al Barry / Stringer / Getty

Sign up for Derek’s newsletter here.

What if we invented a technology to save the planet—and the world refused to use it?

This haunting hypothetical first popped into my head when I was reading about Paxlovid, the antiviral drug developed by Pfizer. If taken within a few days of infection with COVID-19, Paxlovid reduces a vulnerable adult’s chance of death or hospitalization by 90 percent. Two months ago, the White House promised to make it widely available to Americans. But today, the pills are still hard to find, and many doctors don’t know to prescribe them.

The pandemic offers more examples of life-saving inventions going largely unused. Unlike Paxlovid, COVID vaccines are known to every doctor; they are entirely free and easily available. But here, too, invention alone hasn’t been enough. COVID is the leading cause of death for middle-aged Americans, and the mRNA vaccines reduce the risk of death by about 90 percent. And yet approximately one-third of Americans ages 35 to 49 say they’ll never take it.

My hypothetical concern applies even more literally to energy. What if I told you that scientists had figured out a way to produce affordable electricity that was 99 percent safer and cleaner than coal or oil, and that this breakthrough produced even fewer emissions per gigawatt-hour than solar or wind? That’s incredible, you might say. We have to build this thing everywhere! The breakthrough I’m talking about is 70 years old: It’s nuclear power. But in the past few decades, the U.S. has actually closed old nuclear plants faster than we’ve opened new ones. This problem is endemic to clean energy. Even many Americans who support decarbonization in the abstract protest the construction of renewable-energy projects in their neighborhood.

I see two lessons here. The first is about America, specifically. In the pandemic, we (at first) didn’t have enough masks or tests, then we didn’t have enough vaccines or pills. We don’t have enough homes, immigrants, doctors, or microchips. We’re not lacking in scientific breakthroughs. The U.S. is languishing because many of our policies are designed for scarcity. What we need is the opposite: an abundance agenda.

The second lesson is about progress, generally: Invention is easily overrated, and implementation is often underrated.

Many books about innovation and scientific and technological progress are just about people inventing stuff. The takeaway for most readers is that human progress is one damn breakthrough after another. In the 19th century, we invented the telegraph, then the telephone, then the light bulb, then the modern car, then the plane, and so on. But this approach—call it the eureka theory of progress—misses most of the story. In the 1870s, Thomas Edison invented the usable light bulb. But by 1900, less than 5 percent of factory power was coming from electric motors. The building blocks of the personal computer were invented in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. But for decades, computers made so little measurable difference to the economy that the economist Robert Solow said, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

In a cover story for this magazine several years ago, I insisted that America suffered primarily from an invention recession—a serious deficit of new ideas about hardware. Now I think that I, like others, probably got this wrong. The U.S. could absolutely use a better “science of science” to produce more breakthroughs—in biotech, artificial intelligence, and clean energy. But the insistence on invention often overlooks the fact that we’re running low on the capacity to deploy the tech we already have.

Progress is a puzzle whose answer requires science and technology. But believing that material progress is only a question of science and technology is a profound mistake.

  • In confronting some challenges—for example, curing complex diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia—we don’t know enough to solve the problem. In these cases, what we need is more science.
  • In other challenges—for example, building carbon-removal plants that vacuum emissions out of the sky—we have the basic science, but we need a revolution in cost efficiency. We need more technology.
  • In yet other challenges—for example, nuclear power—we have the technology, but we don’t have the political will to deploy it. We need better politics.
  • Finally, in certain challenges—for example, COVID—we’ve solved most of the science, technology, and policy problems. We need a cultural shift.

Today, I’m launching a new project at The Atlantic called “Progress.” It will comprise my newsletter; monthly office hours, when I’ll take questions about my writing; and some larger forthcoming initiatives and events. I see this project as spanning all of the subjects I just listed: science, technology, politics, and culture. But at bottom, this project is about attention. I’m frustrated by the state of political discourse, and I want to help shift the way we think about progress—in particular, the way we think about abundance. I want to make people see that stasis can lead to more pain than change.

Here’s an example. One important value for conservationists is being against waste. That’s why they push recycling and renewable energy. But many of these environmentalists and conservationists also oppose specific clean-energy projects on the basis that human construction can disrupt the local environment. This isn’t a totally unreasonable concern. At scale, though, it’s keeping us from decarbonizing the grid. We need to reframe the problem: Imagine a world where we invented a technology to save the planet and simply refused to use it. Wouldn’t that be wasteful? If it is a sin to waste one ounce of plastic, it is a calamity to waste a decade of clean-energy construction.

If we focus on the worst consequences of creating abundance, we’ll come away with a cavalcade of scarcity: too little wind, solar, nuclear, and geothermal energy; too few doctors, psychologists, nurses. That’s the world we have. We need to invent a better world. We need to build what we’ve already invented.