Geography Optimism and progress

We already have a ‘Progress Studies’ – so why do we need a new one?

progress Joseph Wright

Joseph Wright: A Philosopher Lecturing with a Mechanical Planetary, 1766 (Source

  • What is progress?
  • How can it be measured?
  • What are the prospects for future progress?
  • How can social and economic progress occur with minimal impact on the environment?
  • Why is is that progress made by humankind since 1800, and especially since 1950, has been unappreciated by so many people?

Many of these questions have been with us for centuries.  But three trends in the last five years or so have moved them towards the centre stage among academics, social commentators and politicians:

  1. A questioning of social democratic norms and a retreat from some aspects of globalisation, as exemplified by the Brexit vote, the continued popularity of Donald Trump, and a shift towards populism in many parts of the world
  2. An increase in concerns about environmental sustainability, particularly regarding climate change and plastic pollution
  3. An increasing number of commentators are becoming more vocal in championing a more rational, humanist, and positive view of the world.  These people – who range from academics to public health professionals and data scientists to journalists – have been given the contentious collective term ‘new optimists‘*

Is the time right for ‘Progress Studies’?

Partly as a response to these trends in the zeitgeist, Patrick Collison (an ‘entrepreneur’) and Tyler Cowen (an economics professor) are promoting the establishment of a new field of study called ‘Progress Studies’:

“Progress … is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up.” (Collinson and Cowen, 2019)

Collinson and Cowen appreciate the challenges facing this nascent discipline: they admit the costly and time-consuming process of reorganising departments, timetables, staffing and degree programmes (not to mention, I would add, complications in secondary education and the transition to higher education).

Undaunted, they propose a ‘school of thought’, akin to climate science, which would arise from a ‘decentralised shift’ of some of the time and priorities of academics.  In time, communities, journals, and conferences would be devoted to these questions.

Fragmented scholarship?

They appreciate that “[p]lenty of existing scholarship touches on these topics, but it takes place in a highly fragmented fashion”, and they point to several subjects which can claim to have contributed to studies about progress.  They focus on economics, business studies, psychology and history (specifically ‘applied history’).

I would add philosophy to this list – for what would Progress Studies be without a robust philosophical base?  It could consider, for example, what the telos (final goal) of progress should be, and it could consider the notion that citizens might only sign up to progress if it is imbued with meaning for them (see, for example, Laïdi, 1998).

Politics is also absent from Collinson and Cowen’s list – but the chances of continued progress (of any conception) would be stymied without political backing, or at least aquiescence.  Sociology can stake a claim too: Diane Coyle (2019) points to a Twitter exchange in which Professor Gina Neff argues that “the rise of the industrial revolution gave rise to the entire disicpline of sociology to empirically measure the changes happening to people & society as the the economy changed. It was ‘Progress Studies 1.0’, if you will.” (Neff, 2019).

We already have a ‘Progress Studies’ – Geography

However, the authors’ most egregious omission is Geography.  I argue that Geography is the most well-equipped to deal with the complexities and spatial variances of progress.  Aside from my own bias as a geographer, why do I hold this point of view?

– Many of the questions posed by Collison and Cowen are spatial, and therefore inherently geographical: one such question they pose is “Looking backwards, it’s striking how unevenly distributed progress has been in the past. … Why did Silicon Valley happen in California rather than Japan or Boston? Why was early-20th-century science in Germany and Central Europe so strong?”

– There is a well-established discipline of Development Studies, which is linked to Geography and has manifested itself as an undergraduate degree course as well as in Development Education Centres.  The existence of Development Studies as an IGCSE subject (it is to be withdrawn in 2021) and a World Development A Level (2009-2018) shows that it has had a foothold in formal secondary qualifications too.

– Geography has a long history of questioning very the notion of, let alone the definitions of, progress.  Diane Coyle (2019), an economist, states that “the standard indicator of real GDP growth, which leaves out much of what people value, will no longer do….How should it be measured and monitored, and who experiences it?”.  This is commonly understood by school age geographers; Economics has no monopoly on such questioning.

– The discipline is powerful – it can pose ‘Big Geographical Questions‘ which recognise complexity; it has also thrived on the challenge of tackling ‘wicked problems‘ and can interrogate and respond to them.

– Geography is proving its worth in a world which is crying out for knowledge and understanding over ignorance.  To hand the reins of ‘Progress Studies’ over to members of other disciplines might be unwise, as they may understand some concepts in depth, but their worldview is incomplete.  One example of this is Coyle (2019): this article implies a level of ignorance about the extent of progress across the world which some of the ‘new optimists’ would find ironic: she states that “if most people do not experience progress, then society isn’t really progressing at all” – when in fact, most of the people in the world are experiencing progress (see, for example, Norberg, 2017, Roslings et al, 2018, Pinker, 2018).  I contend that a more valid concern is that large numbers of global citizens do not appreciate this progress, not through willfulness or a lack of intelligence, but thanks to a complex interplay of psychological heuristics, media biases, and educational inertia.

Stand up and be counted!

Practitioners of geography are still wrestling with conceptions of progress – and will do indefinitely.  I have argued elsewhere that one of the challenges facing current geographical education is that it seems to be skewed towards negativity and is one of the midwives of the ‘age of anxiety’ (Alcock, 2019a, 2019b, Standish and Alcock, 2019).  Nevertheless, if Progress Studies is to develop as a discipline, Geography should stand up and be counted as the strongest candidate for ‘owning’ it – and for responding to the debate which has surrounded its proposal.

[I welcome responses, enlightenment and challenges to these thoughts!]


Alcock, D. (2019a) ‘An Optimistic Education: Rebalancing the curriculum to more accurately convey human progress’. Impact: Journal of Chartered College of Teaching, Issue 6:

Alcock, D. (2019b) ‘Optimism, Progress and Geography – Celebration and Calibration’. Teaching Geography, 44(3), 118-120.

Collinson, P. and Cowen, T. (2019) ‘We Need a New Science of Progress’ in The Atlantic, 30 July:

Coyle, D. (2019) ‘The Puzzle of Economic Progress’ in Project Syndicate, 13 August:

Laïdi, Z (1998) A World Without Meaning (Routledge)

Neff, G. (2019) Tweet,7:15 AM · Jul 31, 2019:

Norberg, J. (2017) Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (OneWorld)

Pinker, S. (2018) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. UK: Penguin Random House.

Rosling, H., Rosling, O. and Rosling Rönnlund, A. (2018) Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World – and Why Things are Better than you Think. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Standish, A. and Alcock, D. (2019) ‘Social Progress, Optimism and the Curriculum: Where is the Intergenerational Conversation Going Wrong?’ – paper submitted to Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, 6 December

* Note on The ‘New Optimists’: Building on the ideas of Ester Boserup, Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg, their number includes Steven Pinker, Max Roser, Matt Ridley, Johan Norberg, and Hans, Ola and Anna Rosling.  Whilst they are by no means a coherent entity, and they span the political spectrum, what these so-called ‘new optimists’ share is a desire for a more optimistic – or at least, in the words of Rosling et al (2018), a ‘possibilistic’, view of the world.