We are living at the best moment of our collective history, says hard data.
We are living at the best moment of our collective history, and nevertheless, there is a widespread belief that the world is going dramatically downhill. This is the main thesis of the book Progress: 10 Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, by Johan Norberg. The book, which aims to open the eyes of society and promote the value of progress, was published in English in 2017 and is now being published in other languages.
According to Juan Ramón Rallo, who wrote the prologue to the Spanish edition, Norbert shows with hard data—contradicting popular opinion and many forecasts—that “our planet is making huge strides on all basic indicators that we use to measure social progress.” The author reviews data, anecdotes, and historical events of great relevance, and their evolution and effects on the present and the future. All of this, he does to remind us that the past wasn’t always better. In fact, the book begins with this quote from Franklin Pierce Adams: “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.” Starting with that thesis, Johan Norberg develops his arguments focusing on 10 key points:
- Nutrition: Norberg reminds readers of the countless famines that have occurred for various reasons, such as bad harvests, and points out that the situation in Asia has been even worse than in the West. He explains that in the past a lack of adequate nutrition held back the intellectual development of society. However, he emphasizes that, according to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), the worldwide malnutrition rate has diminished from 50 percent in 1945 to 11 percent in 2015. Aware that the worst indicators on this scale are from Africa, the author also dedicates part of his analysis to the positive changes that have taken place in countries such as Angola, Cameroon, and Mozambique.
- Sanitation: The existence of sewerage, of sources of potable water, and of proper waste management helps avoid illnesses that can shorten the average life expectancy. Norberg points out the global progress that is being made in this area, although he criticizes the phenomena of water pollution and poor water management that leads to waste. The author also studies the progress taking place in this respect on the African continent.
- Average lifespan: From 1770 to 2010, the average life expectancy at birth has grown from 29 to 70 years. In this regard, Norberg reminds his readers that “during a good part of human history, life was a difficult and short experience. Not only did we have much fewer commodities; the incidence of diseases, famine, and lack of sanitation was so acute that the lifespan of the average citizen was significantly shortened.” Currently, despite problems that continue to afflict humanity, such as infant mortality or certain diseases, the statistics are improving.
- Poverty: In the 18th century, the majority of the population lived in abject poverty. With data such as this, Norberg shows that poverty is “everyone’s starting point” and reviews the historical evolution of poverty on a global scale. The statistics are clear: from 1820 to 2015, according to the World Bank, the percentage of the global population earning less than a dollar a day diminished from 85 percent to 23 percent. Globalization and capitalism are analyzed in depth in this chapter.
- Violence: Norberg indicates that the media contribute to the belief that we live in a violent world. Nevertheless, war and violence were much more prevalent in past epochs of human history. In this regard, the author cites cognitive scientist Steven Pinker to assert that “the dramatic reduction of violence could be the most important event in human history.”
- Environment: “If our hunger for energy has created a problem of climate change, it will also be our hunger for energy that will solve it.” This is Norberg’s approach to the environmental issues created by progress. According to him, social and economic development also leads to the development of more human talent to deal with problems; in this way, the more eyes are trained to look at a problem, “the more brains will be committed to solving it.”
- Literacy: According to the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), 200 years ago only 12 percent of the population knew how to read and write. “Literacy was limited to political authorities, members of religious institutions, and the merchant class,” Norberg explains. The reason was that many of the elite thought that, if poor people had access to education, they would feel dissatisfied with their condition, and there would be greater social unrest. Nonetheless, the author explains how and why societies realized, little by little, that universal literacy was necessary, and it began to be more widespread. Thus, in 2015, the worldwide literacy rate of young people reached 91 percent.
- Freedom: In the year 1800, there were still 60 countries with laws allowing slavery. In this regard, the author reviews the history of individual freedoms and of the hierarchies that have been created around the world throughout the centuries in the context of various political systems. Norberg recalls the words of Milton Friedman in 1991: “We are still far from the ideal of a completely free world, but in historical terms, the progress in our lifetimes has been incredible: more has been achieved in the last two centuries than in the previous two thousand years.”
- Equality: Minorities are also an important issue. In this regard, Norberg explains that “in almost all corners of the world, there are still prejudices, hostilities, or hate crimes, but there are more and more places in which the government is committed to protecting equality before the law, fighting discrimination against minorities.” Thus, despite the continuing evident inequality of many groups, Norberg invites us to appreciate the steps that have been taken towards equality.
- The next generation: Humanity has achieved great things with only a part of the population having access to knowledge. Today, the opportunities to develop and access that knowledge are much greater than before; consequently, the author says that “it is easy to predict that we are heading towards a world with fewer limitations, which will unleash an enormous creativity at the service of our wellbeing.”
Despite the undeniably positive perspective of the author, he wisely admits that it would be a mistake to assume that progress is guaranteed. He warns, “We continue to suffer from many problems, and there are more than a few movements and social and political currents that aspire to destroy the pillars of progress: individual freedom, economic openness, and technological progress.”
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