Is Progress Still Possible in This Heat?

08/03/2010 03:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Summer steam rises over Washington. Hot days and hot air. Climate change both environmental and political. Wilting hopes for legislation to address global warming have succumbed to the record heat.

As my former colleagues in the Congress swelter on Capitol Hill, as they strive to save our republic by reforming it, I seek refuge in the cool of my air-conditioned library, and read again an old book worth a new look by all would-be reformers.

The book is The Idea of Progress by J.B. Bury, first published in 1920.

I pulled a dog-eared copy down from a dusty shelf in an antiquarian book store the other day, and paid fifteen dollars for passage through its pages back to the unblinking idealism of my increasingly distant youth.

When I first read Bury's book, as an undergraduate, I believed passionately in "the idea of progress." All these years later, I still do. Yet, now as then, reading this half-forgotten tome raises fundamental questions about our ability to shape our future.

Climate change is, as I see it, by far the most urgent issue we must face to shape a brighter future. It is by no means the only one.

Caught in the middle between the competing forces of an increasingly irrational right and an increasingly illiberal left, we struggle today to make progress on a seemingly endless list of complex and contentious concerns of all kinds. Amid the din of our national debate, we might do well to pause and ponder Professor Bury's thoughts, long ago, on the meaning, and on the possibility, of human progress.

J.B. Bury was an Irish historian who taught a century or so ago at Cambridge University. His writings ranged from ancient Greece to Byzantium to the 19th century papacy. His book on the history of the idea of progress was among the last of many he wrote.

Remarkably, he wrote it during the immediate aftermath of the First World War. A compelling argument can be made that the idea of progress has never fully recovered from the unprecedented carnage of that conflict, which laid bloody waste to so many lost illusions.

In his book, Bury traced the gradual historical emergence of the belief that ours is not a static existence, and that humanity can, in fact, progress over time. He asked some basic questions that are still worth asking, and answering, today: What is progress? Is progress certain? Is progress even possible?

Beneath all the shouting and the shilling that pass for politics in America today, these basic questions are at the bottom of much that divides us in our current national debate. How each of us asks and answers these questions for ourselves has done much to define the terms and set the tone of this debate, and will have much to do with determining its outcome.

The idea of progress, Bury asserted, is "the directing idea of humanity." It is the idea that "civilisation has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction" toward the "increasing happiness" of all humankind.

Is this so?

Bury echoed the confidence of Kant, Voltaire, and other exponents of the Enlightenment that tomorrow can be better than today -- if we only persist in applying human reason to all the unreason in our imperfect world. Like Bury, we Americans are children of the Enlightenment. The American experiment in forming and furthering a "more perfect union" emerged from the faith of Jefferson, Madison, and our other Founders that there can be such a thing as human progress.

Justification for this faith is all around us. Miracle drugs. Magic technologies. Instant communications. Shorter distances. Longer life spans. Sustenance and shelter and sanitation. We are blessed with a bounty of freedom and equality in many ways far exceeding even the fondest hopes of our Founders.

But there is also an ever-increasing abundance of evidence that our vain and struggling species may no longer be moving in a "desirable direction" toward "increasing happiness" for all. Since Bury published his book in 1920, we have seen another world war, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Mao's "Great Leap Forward," Stalin's purges, and the killing fields of Cambodia. Today we confront terrorism, nuclear proliferation, Darfur, the Congo, AIDS, hunger, human trafficking, and much more. Burdened as we are by all the deprivation and degradation that surround us on our imperiled plant, can we still believe today as confidently as he did nearly a century ago in the ever-unfolding "progress" of humanity?

Perhaps most worrisome of all for we humans who call ourselves "Americans" is the fear that our democratic institutions may no longer be able to serve us as well as they have in the past. Historically, our representative democracy has been able to absorb all the inanities of our messy politics, and manage still somehow to help enable us, over time, to progress.

Today, we find ourselves asking if our most cherished institutions are up to the tasks of progress in the twenty-first century. Or could it be, instead, that we ourselves are no longer up to the tasks of making the democratic institutions we have inherited work as well as they should?

We Americans have always tried to make a better world a little at a time. For the most part, the American approach to progressive reform throughout the more than two centuries of the American experiment has been incremental.

We have differed on how we define progress. (More freedom? More security? Both?) We have differed on how we hope to achieve it. (More government? Less?) But we Americans have usually been united in our allegiance to the notion that, together, we can achieve some of all we hope to achieve now, and achieve the rest later. Only occasionally have some of us departed from an instinctive incrementalism to yield to an intermittent utopian impulse to achieve it all now, all at once.

Like most other Americans, I have always been an incrementalist. Yet I wonder now, in the heat of the summer, if we have time any longer for incrementalism. And I am struck by one sentence of qualification that Bury included when explaining his belief in the idea of progress in 1920:

"If there were good cause for believing that the earth would be uninhabitable in A.D. 2000 or 2100 the doctrine of Progress would lose its meaning and would automatically disappear."

In the wake of the recent Congressional abandonment of climate change legislation, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has just confirmed anew, based on the latest data, that global warming is real, and that we are causing it with our uncontrolled carbon emissions. What would Bury say about climate change?

Reading and re-reading his qualifying words about the long-term prospects for human progress, I give thanks for my sanctuary from all the heat, and I linger in the cool of the air conditioning. While it lasts.