Social Progress: A Difficult Conversation

Johan Schot |

We need to talk about Social Progress. We need to understand Social Progress. We need to create Social Progress. No policymaker, politician or parent is going to disagree with that trinity of sentiments. But let’s pause – what actually is ‘Social Progress?’ What does it now even mean? Does it mean ‘more is more’? Or have we tipped to the paradoxical point of ‘less’ is indeed ‘more’? Many would argue so.

The cracks in neoliberal, market-led economies with their accompanying motto ‘Globalisation Rules’ have rapidly become deep caverns. Seismic events such as Brexit and the rise of Trump in the US go some way to demonstrating the real sociopolitical consequences of our current national and global construction of ‘progress’ and the results of its accompanying inequalities. As economies crawl, sustainability screams and the climate pleads, it’s clear the world needs new ideas and definitions for ‘progress’. In a foreword from the Science Policy Research Unit’s 50th Anniversary brochure, I comment on our global situation:

“We see that the world is facing an increasing number of crises and persistent problems. The modern way of provisioning our basic needs is not sustainable in the long run, and is already causing climate change, profound societal turmoil, tensions and conflict on an unprecedented scale. It is clear that we cannot globalise our current ways of providing food, energy, mobility, healthcare and water.”

What therefore might be the answers? What should social progress look like for the 21st century? The International Panel on Social Progress of which I am part aims to highlight action-driven solutions in its forthcoming 2017 research-based report, ‘Rethinking Society for the 21st century’.  This report brings together 250 social scientists contributing to 22 chapters across a diverse topic range. Once released it will give essential momentum, knowledge and resource to politicians and ministers, the media, academics and teachers, charities and campaign groups who believe in and strive for a redefinition of what global progress can look like. It gives the chance to prompt conversation and debate on what ‘progress’ now means.

But isn’t this just ‘experts’ again the ‘populists’ will cry – telling us what to do, believe, feel? It is maybe. Yet it is also people who have concrete research, ideas and evidence based on a plurality of narratives and many years of examination. They do not emotively reach for the scapegoat named ‘Other’. They are looking for wider frames of reference with solutions still untold. Although, these ‘experts’ recognise and understand that our sociopolitical problems are real too. The social scientists behind the report, although ironically and conversely, stand as well in the ‘we need change’ camp. Like the stretched, put-upon communities, who at referendum Brexit, let out a collective kick to the gut of our ruling hegemonic paradigm, neoliberalism. Without ‘progress on progress’, social change and development shall continue to falter and our issues continue to grow and morph sprouting even less palatable intended and unintended outcomes. Reports such as the International Panel on Social Progress’s ‘Rethinking Society for the 21st century’ go some way to offering thoughtful ideas, promoting debate, giving glimmers of foresight, and very possibly, answers.

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