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Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future

Johan Norberg

(London Times)

It is easy to think the world is bleak, but poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in history, argues Johan Norberg in his new book.

Terrorism. Isis. War in Syria and Ukraine. Crime, murder, mass shootings. Famines, floods, pandemics. Global warming. Stagnation, poverty, refugees. Doom and gloom. This seems to be the story of our time.

Humanity has almost completely solved the problem of hunger and sanitation, leading to improved health and a dramatic improvement in life expectancy.

These perceptions feed the fear and nostalgia on which Donald Trump has built his US presidential campaign. Some 58% of those who voted for Britain to leave the European Union say life is worse today than 30 years ago. Many experts and authorities agree. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently testified to Congress that the world 'is more dangerous than it has ever been'. Pope Francis claims that globalisation has condemned many people to starve.

On the political left, Naomi Klein argues that we are destabilising our planet's life support system. On the right, the philosopher John Gray thinks 'homo rapiens' is approaching the end of civilisation.

I used to share this pessimism, but no longer. Despite what we hear, the great story of our era is that we are witnessing the greatest improvement in global living standards ever. Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in human history.

Life expectancy at birth has increased more than twice as much in the past century as it did in the previous 200,000 years. The risk that any individual will be exposed to war, die in a natural disaster, or be subjected to dictatorship has become smaller than in any other epoch.

War, crime, disasters and poverty are painfully real, and during the past decade global media have made us aware of them in a new way - live on screen, every day, around the clock - but despite this ubiquity, these are problems that have always existed, partially hidden from view. The real difference now is that they are rapidly declining. What we see now are the exceptions, where once they would have been the rule.

Consider the future facing a typical 10-year-old girl born 200 years ago. She lived in a brutal world. Torture and slavery were still common. Peacetime was an intermission between wars.

This little girl would have been stunted and skinny due to chronic undernourishment and recurring famine. Her family would not have had access to clean water or a lavatory. Her surroundings would have been littered with garbage and faeces. She could be taken away by tuberculosis, cholera, smallpox or measles - or starvation. At birth, she could not have expected to live longer than around 30 years. She would have had five to seven siblings, and she would already have seen at least one or two of them die. She would not receive any schooling, and would have been put to work at an early age, perhaps as a domestic servant. She would be considered the property of her father until ownership passed to her husband. If he beat or raped her, there was no law banning it.

She would not be able to organise politically to change this, since she would not have the right to vote. If she wanted to leave it all behind, there were no cars, buses or planes. The first trains existed, but only to transport coal in parts of England and Wales.

In the late 18th century, before the little girl was born, the Rev Thomas Robert Malthus had concluded that human numbers would always outrun the amount of food available. He saw that population doubled at an exponential rate - from two to four to eight to 16 - whereas agricultural production only increased at a linear rate - from two to three to four to five.

Whenever food was abundant, it would result in more surviving children, which would result in even more deaths later on. Humanity would always suffer from famine, Malthus concluded.

Since then, humanity has experienced a revolution in living standards. We have now almost completely solved the problem of hunger and sanitation, which has helped improve health and more than doubled life expectancy.

In contrast to what Malthus and many others feared, improved life expectancy resulted in smaller families, more literate children and the eradication of extreme poverty.

The rising middle class, anticipating longer lives for their children, began to abandon violence as a way of solving private and political conflicts, and it began to pay to invest in the future. Wealth and knowledge contributed to the advent of democracy and human rights, including rights for women and ethnic minorities.

This in turn has made it possible for more people to contribute to our stock of knowledge and wealth. Humanity has climbed the development ladder. Every major breakthrough has facilitated the next one, but has also reinforced the gains we have already made. Literacy has increased wealth, and that new wealth has also made it possible to extend literacy further. Better access to food and healthcare has made it possible to work more, so that we can ensure even better nutrition and even better health.

Humans are not always rational or benevolent, but in general they want to improve their lives and the lives of their families, and with a tolerable degree of freedom they will work hard to make this happen. Step by step, this adds to humanity's store of knowledge and wealth.

The young are inspired by possibilities that never would have occurred to their parents and the societies they grew up in. Soon every person in almost every country will have a smartphone or a computer with a connection to almost anyone else on the planet. We know more than ever, we are more literate than ever, and we can find almost anything we are interested in, in just a few seconds.

Considering what humanity has been able to accomplish when only a fraction of us had access to a fraction of that knowledge, and could collaborate with only the people we met and knew of, it is easy to predict that a world without such limitations will unleash incredible creativity.

We are already seeing the immense human capacity for adaptation and invention in our response to persistent forecasts down the years of pending environmental doom. From the 1950s to the mid-1980s, world population doubled from 2.5bn to 5bn, and many neoMalthusians predicted mass starvation.

'The battle to feed all of humanity is over,' Paul Ehrlich wrote in The Population Bomb in 1968. 'In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines - hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.'

No one fought more bravely for humanity than Norman Borlaug, an agronomist who grew up in the US Midwest, where he noticed that horrible dust storms and crop failures had the least impact where farmers had begun using high-yield approaches to farming. He became obsessed with creating higher-yield crops to fight global hunger.

Working at first in Mexico in the 1950s, Borlaug crossed thousands of strains of wheat to create hybrids and also showed farmers how modern irrigation and artificial fertiliser increased the yields. Overnight, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat, its 1963 harvest six times larger than in 1944.

Borlaug moved on to India and Pakistan, where populations faced the threat of massive starvation. Today they produce seven times more wheat than they did in 1965.

Since 1990-2, the number of hungry people has been reduced by 216m. As the population has grown by 1.9bn at the same time, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation estimates that about 2bn people have been freed from a likely state of hunger in the past 25 years.

Quite possibly, however, the most important long-term effect of the Green Revolution is that it has reduced the number of mouths that will have to be fed in the long term. When children began to survive into adulthood, parents began to have fewer children. Between 1950-55 and 2010-15, the number of children per woman declined from 6.1 to 2.6. The neo-Malthusians claimed this wouldn't happen, but in fact it has happened much faster in low- and middle-income countries than it did in the West. The demographic transition that took the western world 200 years was repeated by the developing world in just 60 years.

That same 10-year-old girl today, even if she lives in one of the world's poorest countries, has better access to nutrition than a girl in the richest countries 200 years ago. The risk that she will lead a life of extreme poverty has declined from 90% to less than 10%. She goes to school just like almost everyone in her generation, and she has a good chance of living in a democracy, where women have individual rights and protections.

She faces a lower risk of experiencing war than any other generation in human history. Her risk of dying from a natural disaster is 95% smaller than it would have been 100 years ago, and she will not even hear of a major famine anywhere. It is fair to assume that people in general do not share my hopeful view of the world. A couple of years ago I commissioned a study asking 1,000 Swedes about global development. Their lack of knowledge was stunning. They thought the world was bad and getting worse, and they consistently underestimated the progress made.

Most cultures have had similar mythologies relating a prehistoric lost paradise with which the decadent present is compared. Even during the intellectual Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries - when we began to believe that progress was possible and the world could steadily improve if human reason were set free from tradition and suspicion - some thinkers such as Rousseau and the Romantic philosophers thought the world they had created was infinitely worse than what had existed before it. This has been a strong undercurrent in the West ever since, despite all the progress that has been achieved.

My emphasis on humanity's triumphs is not a message of complacency. It would be a terrible mistake to take this progress for granted. There are forces at work in the world that would destroy the pillars of this development - the individual freedoms, open economy and technological progress. Terrorists and dictators do what they can to undermine open societies, but there are also threats from within them.

There is widespread resentment against globalisation and the modern economy from populists on both the left and the right. We can see the familiar hostility to the cosmopolitan, urban and fluid society that there has always been from those who are socially conservative, but today it is combined with the sense that the world outside is dangerous, that we must build literal and figurative walls.

There is a real risk of a nativist backlash. When we don't see the progress we have made we begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain. Sometimes it seems we are willing to try our luck with any demagogue who tells us that he or she has quick, simple solutions to make our nation great again, whether it be nationalising the economy, blocking foreign imports or throwing the immigrants out.

If we think we don't have anything to lose in doing so, it's because we have a bad memory. We must remember the amazing progress that has resulted from the slow, steady, spontaneous development of millions of people who were given the freedom to improve their own lives, and in doing so improved the world. It is a kind of progress that no leader or institution or government can impose from the top down. It is surely humanity's greatest achievement.

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If the old adage is true that bad news sells, this book will languish unbought on bookshop shelves before heading for some landfill site. Progress is an unabashedly upbeat book. Johan Norberg's argument is simple: the human race has never been richer, healthier, freer, safer, better-fed or educated. And things will continue to get better if we keep faith in human ingenuity, globalisation and free markets.

That should be self-evident but as Norberg, a Swedish broadcaster and journalist, points out there is a growing 'resentment against globalisation and the modern economy from populists on both the left and the right'. These malcontents menace the technological progress, individual freedoms and the open economies that made humankind°«s great leap forward possible.

Norberg reminds us that life was nasty, brutish and short for the vast majority until the European enlightenment and then the industrial revolution began to free and enrich us. We barely had a pot to pee in. In 1820, GDP per head in western Europe was the equivalent of about $1,500 to $2,000 (°Ú1,130 to °Ú1,507) in modern prices; this is the kind of abject misery that you only see in places such as Haiti or Zimbabwe today. A little under half of the British population lived in what today we would term as extreme poverty. Thanks to industrialisation, per capita GDP in western Europe has increased more than 15-fold since 1820. Within 80 years those in extreme poverty in Britain had fallen to one in ten. The West had escaped the poverty trap.

The developing world has got richer at an even faster tilt. 'When the western world began to industrialise around the year 1800 we were 200 million people and it took 50 years to double the average income. China and India have done the same thing with ten times more people five times faster.'

It is worth reminding ourselves of the human cost of poverty. In the 1830s life expectancy in western Europe was 33 and before 1800 not a single country had a life expectancy greater than 40. Two outbreaks of cholera in London between 1848 and 1854 killed 25,000 people. Sweden, the land of Ikea and Volvo, was only declared free of chronic hunger a century ago; and France in the 18th century suffered 16 national famines as well as many local ones. Hunger has not disappeared. In the 21st century the death toll from famine thus far is 600,000. A lot but still less than 2 per cent of what it was a century earlier and these famines are not the result of crop failure but conflict in countries such as Sudan and Somalia.

Norberg borrows from Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature to show that we are becoming less violent. The past century seems bloodsoaked until you consider that a third of the German population perished during the Thirty Years' War (1618-48) or that the Mongol invasions of the 13th century led to 40 million people being killed out of a population of 500 million. The An Lushan Revolt in 8th-century China saw up to 13 million die: 5 per cent of the world°«s population in a seven-year-period.

What about the terrorism? He says that 'more Europeans drown in their own bathtubs, and ten times more die falling down stairs' than die at the hands of terrorists.

Such is Norberg's enthusiasm for spreading the good news, it can at times feel like being assailed by a street evangelist. Rather than being megaphoned with biblical verses, he has statistics (did you know that the height of the average western European increased by 12cm over the century from 1870?). Nor is it wholly new ground: Matt Ridley's excellent Rational Optimist makes the same case with a touch more finesse. Still, Norberg has a strong case and he makes it with energy and charm. A pertinent book for grumpy times.

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