The Fallacy of Progress


Inherent even in the definition of progress is the assumption that progress is beneficial to humanity. progress as beneficial is a fallacy. Progress often brings detrimental changes or neutral changes to humanity rather than positive changes. Progress is an illusion. Change and technology are not equivalent to progress because change and technology are not necessarily beneficial to humanity.


A working definition of progress is: economic growth, improved technology, and the American Dream. Specifically beginning in the later 195h century, progress often refers to an age of steel, gold, coal, petroleum, cotton, steam, and electricity.

Starting in the 1970s fads in popular culture resulted in the phrase "you can't stop progress" being invoked frequently. Usually the phrase referred to real estate development and/or gentrification. Such as: "A new building is going up after the old building was knocked down. You can't stop progress." Even this casual usage is based upon assumptions that technical change and economic growth are a priori beneficial, which is clearly not the case. Refer to appendix below "Usage History of the Expression You Can Not Stop Progress."

The appeal of novelty is sometimes used as a justification for belief in progress, either consciously or unconsciously. Refer to the appendix below "Appeal to Novelty Fallacy"

Newton's Third Law of Progress Motion

The elements of fallacy in progress were well expressed by Issac Newton in his Third Law of Progress Motion:

For every event deemed to be progress, for each aspect which can be construed as an advantage, there is an equal and opposite disadvantage.

Historic metal dairy carrier containing glass milk bottles.

Progress Case Study: The Milkman Era vs. The Supermarket Era

The Milkman Era

Process: A wire metal carrier would reside permanently on customer's porch. In some cases the metal dairy carrier would reside in an insulated dairy-supplied box. Once or twice a week, generally early in the morning, the milkman would deliver the product in the metal carrier and/or swap the current carrier for a new carrier. The delivery would generally be a standard order plus or minus custom items, often specified on a cardboard order sheet also in the carrier. Milk was delivered glass bottles, sealed with a little waxed foil The milkman would pick up empty glass bottles at the same time as delivering new product. The dairy would clean the empty bottles and reuse them. A specific dairy employed the milkman, created the products, packaged the products. Billing was usually monthly.

Advantages: Very little waste. Glass bottles are reused. Wire metal carriers are reused. Direct delivery to customer requires no intermediaries. Products are as fresh as possible.

Disadvantages: Process is limited to the products produced by a specific dairy. Require the customer interacts with a product specific vendor. Product needs to be brought inside to refrigerator before spoilage occurs. Infrastructure requires a substantial number of local dairies, each the the center of a certain delivery radius. Suburban sprawl was an anathema to dairy home delivery.

The Super Market Era

Process: Fewer larger dairy farms produce the raw product. In some cases milk is trucked in refrigerated trailer to a processing facility. In other cases the processing facility in in the same location as the dairy farm. Products are centrally packaged into either wax cover cardboard or plastic containers. Packaged dairy produced delivered in bulk to super marker. Customer purchases dairy products at supermarket along with other food products. Containers either enter landfills or arrive at recycle centers.

Advantages: Economy of scale for dairy farm, dairy processor and supermarket. Enhanced customer convenience of one-stop super market for most products, including dairy. No need for customer to interact with product specific dairy vendor.

Disadvantages: More landfill waste. Fewer larger dairies encourage societal trends toward oligarchy. Diary products may be less fresh.


The efficient and ecological sound dairy-milkman-customer process is appealing. IN a vacuum, the milkman system is net superior to the supermarket. system for diary products. However, systems do not exist in a vacuum which makes these systems close to a drawn However, even at a draw, change and technical "progress" as represented by the supermarket era is not beneficial to humanity.

New construction in the Anaheim platinum triangle redevelopment area. The completely serviceable buildings in the foreground are scheduled for demolition.

Progress Case Study: Anaheim Platinum Triangle Redevelopment

Extant Development

Attributes: Single story commercial use buildings. Low vacancy. Less tax revenue per square foot.

Advantages: Fully operational. No demolition required. Low density. Low traffic impact. Relatively quiet. Existing businesses do not need to be displaced.

Disadvantages: Nothing is perfect.

New Development

Attributes: Final product is multi-story mixed use. Requires complete demolition of existing structures. Higher tax revenue per square foot.

Advantages: Trendy "back-to-the-city" high density fad. Addresses some portion of housing shortage. One-time revenue for construction companies.

Disadvantages: Displaced businesses need to relocate. Higher traffic impact. Relatively noisy. Higher density housing is not necessarily more affordable.


Redevelopment of real estate accounts for the plurality of usage for the phrase "you can't stop progress." The new development has a different set of trade-offs compared to the extant development. The redeveloped product is not more beneficial to humanity compare to the extant product. The before and after states in this case study presents a situation where advantages and disadvantages balance each other. Change and technology are not necessarily beneficial to humanity.

Progress Case Study: Horse Drawn Era vs. Internal Combustion Vehicle Era vs. Electric Vehicle Era

  Horse Drawn Vehicle Era Internal Combustion Vehicle Era Electric Vehicle Era
Daily Operation Humans and industrial goods move either by human power or beast of burden power. Feeding and care-taking of horses. Humans and industrial goods move by mechanized means. Gasoline and vehicle maintenance. Humans and industrial goods move by mechanized meads. Electricity and vehicle maintenance.
Industrial Growth Impact Iron. Blacksmiths. Wheelwrights. Horse breeding. Stables. Horse feed. Steel. Rubber. Oil drilling and refineries. Asphalt. Concrete. Road construction. Interstate highway system. Proliferation of gas stations. Large scale battery production. Steel. Rubber. Electricity production from various sources.
Societal Impact Limited mobility. Most people do not travel more than 25 miles during lifetime. Need to process 8.5 tons of manure per horse per year, perhaps as fertilizer. Greater mobility. Cross country travel possible via gas station infrastructure and ability to refuel in minutes. Traffic congestion. Smog. . Limited range and lack of predictable charging infrastructure inhibits cross country travel. Charing takes hours. Large automotive battery disposal. No change to traffic congestion.
Direct air quality impact Sulfur, hydrogen sulphate, methane, ammonia from horse manure. Vehicles directly produce carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, and particulate matter Negligible.
Indirect Air quality Impact Soot from blacksmiths. Oil refineries produce sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, dioxins, hydrogen fluoride, chlorine, and benzene. Electricity generated from coal produces carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, particulate matter, mercury, lead, and soot. Electricity generated from natural gas produces carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and particulate matter. Electricity generated from nuclear produces heavy metal radioactive waste.
Advantages Relatively easy repair of carriages. More personal interaction. General public can travel cross country. Major expansions of multiple industries raises overall standard of living. Refueling is relatively quick Vehicle sources smog reduced.
Disadvantages Thousands of horses in cities create huge concentrations of manure and urine. Increase in animal cruelty. Need for large scale horse stables. Vehicle produced smog prevalent. Industry produced smog prevalent. Greenhouse gases. Eventual global warming. Internal combustion vehicle repair much more complicated that carriage repair. Less personal interaction. Industry produced smog prevalent. Greenhouse gases. Eventual global warming. Electric vehicle repair much more complicated that internal combustion vehicle repair. Less personal interaction. Charging station limit travel radius. Long charging times extend trip times.


The net human advantages of internal combustion and electric vehicles exceed human disadvantages, at least in the short term. Even with a net improvement in some aspects of the human condition, long term effects of massive industrialization prove to be net advantageous. Change and technology are not necessarily beneficial to humanity.


The three case studies suggest cases where (a) the pre-progress situation was move beneficial to humanity, (b) the pre-progress and post-progress situation have neutral benefit to humanity, and (c) the post-progress situation is a new positive benefit to humanity, at least in the short term. Change and technology are not necessarily beneficial to humanity.

Appendix: Appeal to Novelty Fallacy

The appeal to novelty is a fallacy in which one prematurely claims that an idea or proposal is correct or superior, exclusively because it is new and modern. In a controversy between status quo and new inventions, an appeal to novelty argument is not in itself a valid argument. The fallacy may take two forms: overestimating the new and modern, prematurely and without investigation assuming it to be best-case, or underestimating status quo, prematurely and without investigation assuming it to be worst-case.

Investigation may prove these claims to be true, but it is a fallacy to prematurely conclude this only from the general claim that all novelty is good.

The appeal of novelty is sometimes used as a justification for belief n progress, either consciously or unconsciously.

Appendix: Some Dictionary Definitions of Progress

Appendix: Progress Difficulties per Robert Nisbet [2]

Difficulties with progress as of the late twentieth century:

Appendix: Usage History of the Expression "You Can Not Stop Progress"

Ngram history of the phrase "you can not stop progress." Expression became widely used starting in the 1970s.

Appendix: Going Going Gone Vanishing Americana List per Susan Jonas [1]

Quintessential aspects of mid-twentieth-century life that are disappearing forever:

Bibliography and Additional Reading

Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trip. Basic Books, 2000.

Finkelstein, Norman H. The Way Things Never Were: the Truth about the "Good Old Days". Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, 1999.

[1] Jonas, Susan, and Marilyn Nissenson. Going, Going, Gone: Vanishing Americana. Chronicle Books, 1998.

Lange, Caroline. "A History of The American Milkman." Food52, 26 Sept. 2018,

[2] Nisbet, Robert. "Nisbet, 'The Idea of Progress' (Bibliographical Essay).", Literature of Liberty, Mar. 1979, publications/ essays/ nisbet-idea-progress-bibliographical-essay.

Jeffrey Sward, July 2019