Reviewed by Terence Jagger
As Carly Simon sang in 1971, These are the good old days. This is a fascinating book, and one you shouldn’t really read in one go – there are just too many sparky and surprising things going on to remember everything, and it covers a huge range. But the basic premise is simply grasped – that in spite of the horrors of the daily news and our tendency to think that everything is going to the dogs, things are not only getting better on almost every front, but are now at big all time highs now. The really surprising thing to me was the level of improvement over the relatively recent past, and the breadth of improvement across the globe; it would be obvious to most of us how much health or food supply had improved since mediaeval times in the UK, but what is staggering is what the numbers tells us about periods as small as the past hundred years, and right across the world.
Norberg’s book is in the intermittent tradition of presenting the evidence for optimism (or cornucopianism, as I have seen it described) – the case that, in almost every way, things are getting better and better, and indeed have never been so good – and our very pronounced tendency to think the opposite is a combination of selective memories, ignorance, and of course our powerful and wholly admirable inclination to stamp out various forms of disadvantage, poverty and disease completely. And of course, total numbers (eg of people in poverty or without clean water) now can be huge, measured in hundreds of millions, and this is shocking and makes a deep impression in its own right, irrespective of arguments about percentages and comparisons with the even bigger numbers who have good food and clean water.
The most famous example of this attempt to put the positive view is of course the Simon-Ehrlich bet about commodity prices, which economist Julian Simon argued would fall (if they were not government controlled) due to improving technology, substitution for scarcity and new discoveries. Ehrlich argued that increasing demand against finite supply would inexorably drive prices up. Ehrlich chose the commodities, five important metals, and the time period – and he lost on every one. The optimists are also powerfully represented by two other books well worth reading – Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (2011) and Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001) – and Norberg’s new book, the shortest and least technical of the three confirms, on many measures, widespread and continuing improvements in humanity’s lot – and it is all data based and historical, and does not rely on any political views of the future of interpretations of, for example, climate change or human population growth to bolster its arguments.
Obviously, I can’t give you all the examples Norberg puts in 200 pages, but here are a few, arranged under the same groupings as his chapter heading:
• Food: Undernourishment worldwide has dropped from 50% to just over 10% since 1945; in the mid 19th century in western Europe, average food consumption was below today’s African levels; deaths from famine so far this century are a fiftieth of what they were 100 years ago, in spite of a fourfold increase in population.
• Sanitation: the proportion of the world’s population with proper sanitation has increased from 24% to 68% since 1980; in the past 25 years, over 400 million Africans have gained access to clean water. Of course, there is still much to do, and poor sanitation is one of the biggest causes of illness and death every year.
• Life expectancy: Before 1800, not a single country had a life expectancy of more than 40 years – and now it is 71 worldwide; life expectancy has increased in every continent by over 20 years since 1950, in spite of famines, AIDS, and war; in several countries, life expectancy sometimes rose so quickly – Kenya 2003-2013 is an example– that people gained 10 years expectancy in ten years, their average remaining life not actually falling at all for a decade!
• Poverty: GDP in the world’s richest countries in 1820 was less than in present day Mozambique or Pakistan; people in extreme poverty were 84% of the global population in 1820, 54% as recently as 1981, and just under 10% in 2015; poverty is shrinking while the population grows, even in absolute terms, though there are still 700 million below the line.
• Violence: In the 20th century, all violent deaths (including Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and two world wars) were 60 per 100,000 a year, maybe a tenth of the level in pre-state societies (though this is obviously hugely speculative); deaths by homicide in the 14th century were 30 or 40 times current levels in the UK – its now about 1 per 100,000; while the 20th century represents an all time high in terms of actual numbers of deaths from war, totalitarian abuse, etc, in percentage terms, there have been periods as bad in the past – 5% of the then world population was killed in the An Lushan revolt in Tang China (no, I hadn’t heard of it either) in seven years.
• Environment: Remaining stocks (years supply) of almost all natural resources have increased over the past half century, as we use more skilfully, find more, extract more completely; deforestation has stopped in wealthy countries – in many, it is reversing – even in China, that process has started, but it has not yet reached Amazonia; oil spills at sea have fallen 99% since 1970. There is masses wrong with the environment, to be sure, and we need to do a lot about species and habitats, but things are better than they seem, and capable of improvement.
• Literacy: Literacy increased in India from 12% to 74% in 60 years (though India still has the world’s largest illiterate population); today, 14% of the world’s population can’t read, whereas in 1820, only 12% could.
• Freedom: Countries in which slavery was legal dropped from 60 in 1800 to none today, though 35 million people continue to be slaves illegally, and many people are in states of subjection little better than slavery; in 1900, nobody in the world lived in a country where every adult man and women had an equal vote – by 2000, it was around 58% (accepting that the votes mean more in some places than others); in 2015, 63% of countries were electoral democracies.
• Equality: Female suffrage is the rule in over 180 countries now, compared with exactly none in 1900; there have been huge advances in tolerance of acceptance of homosexuals and non-white ethnicities. (Norberg, surprisingly, doesn’t deal with the complexities of wealth equality, but the Gini coefficient measure shows that globally inequality is declining rapidly across most of the population, although the absolute gap between bottom and top is wider than ever – as the poorest are still earning almost nothing and the richest have wealth beyond the dreams of avarice – but in the middle, millions, even billions of people are moving up rapidly).
Norberg’s final two chapters look forward to the next generation, with compelling and even moving examples, and ask “So why are you still not convinced?”. The answer is that we are very ignorant – polls regularly show that people massively over-estimate crime, hunger, violent deaths, whether in their own country or overseas – except in their own local area. Also, when they think about an issue, available memories to help them are news stories about famines, natural disasters, mass shootings, because they imprint more firmly on our minds – indeed, the we might not see the other story at all, because “everything fine” never sold many newspapers. But its not just us – a Chaldean inscription of 3,800 BC says:
We have fallen on evil times
And the world has waxed very old and wicked.
Politics are very corrupt.
Children are no longer respectful to their parents.
So read this book, it might make you feel better!
Terence Jagger is a determined optimist, convinced that everything will be fine – though some mornings when he wakes up, that takes a bit of effort to believe.
Johan Norberg, Progress – Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (One World Publications, 2016). 978-1780749591, 218pp., hardback.
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