Johan Norberg’s book, Progress, with it’s appropriately sunshine yellow cover and smiling graph, is all about the tremendous progress the human race has made in recent decades. The past 200 years has seen more progress than the previous 200,000 and Norberg has gathered all of this into a book of reasons to be optimistic about the world. Chaired by Julia Hobsbawm the event begins with Norberg joking that some people heard about it and thought it must be a Fringe comedy event rather than something at the book festival because how can the world be progressing in the year of post-truth and Trump tweets.
When asked most people will tell you that they think life at a time in the past was better than it is now. Norberg has found that for most people that mythically ‘better’ time was the period in which they grew up. For him it was 150 years ago in his native Sweden. He explains that he always saw photographs of these smart, smiling people standing outside their farms and imagined a life in which they all lived happily in an ecologically sound manner. But photographs are not reality. Photographs were taken in the good years. The years when the crops were good and they could afford such things as new clothes and photographers to capture their smiles. The rest of the time they were starving. As Norberg says, “They didn’t live ecologically, they died ecologically!”
In past centuries most people starved on a regular basis. France has been one of the richest countries in the world for a long period of time but until fairly recently they suffered at least 10-15 national famines every century. A significant portion of world history was spent in a ‘nutritional trap’, essentially meaning that people did not have the calorie intake to be able to work hard enough to produce the calories that were required for the work they needed to do. In the past 200 years we have completely turned that around. Now, instead of every second person spending their lives facing chronic under nourishment it’s just one in ten. Norberg talks of Norman Borlaug, calling him one of the greatest men in history for his research into high yield crops and farming methods. In one instance Borlaug’s team improved crop yield by 70% in one year despite numerous problems and delays, staving off a wartime famine in India and Pakistan. Those crops have since saved billions of lives.
Sanitation is another area that Norberg picks to highlight, beginning with the amusingly revolting picture of David Hume and Adam Smith strolling Edinburgh’s streets and thinking grand thoughts, only to run for cover on hearing ‘Gardyloo!’. In 1183 Frederick II held a feast in a castle in Germany attended by an assortment princes and dignitaries. At first the great hall where the feast took place only stank of sewage, then the floor began to sink and a number of the guests drowned in the contents of the cesspit beneath. Norberg contrasts that image with recent years where 285,000 people gain access to clean water every single day. He recently read two articles in the same newspaper that showed the stark pace of medical progress. The first discussed researchers claiming that Mozart had died of a sore throat. The second discussed the case of 10-year-old George who had received surgery to remove a brain tumour. Only this George was not a child, but a goldfish.
Norberg’s list of improvements over the last 200 years continue. No country in the world had a life expectancy over 40, now there isn’t a single country with a life expectancy under 40. Literacy rates once stood at 12%, now the 12% is the number of people unable to read or write and across the world 95% of people receive some form of education. 183,000 people are lifted out of extreme poverty daily, dropping the overall rate from 90% to just 9%. Improvements are concentrated in recent decades as well. The number of people dying in wars today is just a quarter of what it was in the 1980s. Overall we solve more problems than we create but we simply don’t see it.
“To be problem solvers we must be problem seekers.”
When asked just 5% of British people think the world has improved in recent years. Americans are only slightly more positive at 6%. More people think the moon landings were faked. Part of the problem is that bad news sells. We all say we want good news and want to see more of it but the reality is that articles containing bad news are the ones that get read. We always want to be aware of problems, real or simply potential, and social media makes it ever more difficult to escape. Norberg points out that it used to be that you sat down and prepared yourself and watched the evening news. You got all of the depressing news condensed into half an hour before moving on with your day. Now we are bombarded on every form of media 24/7. We are never prepared, it just appears, and no matter how many good things are happening there will always be an axe wielding serial killer somewhere in the world and that story will rise to the top.
Norberg is not optimistic about everything, to try to think that way would be naive. He does look at the news and worry. Politics can build but it can also destroy and the backlash against globalisation, against openness, against a free press worries him. However, despite all that progress is still being made, every day more people gain literacy and access to the internet and more eyes on a problem means a greater likelihood of a solution. The world is moving rapidly but discoveries are happening. The technology needed to deal with climate change is largely already present and even better, the price is coming down. The reason we are able to even worry about climate change in the first place is because we solved all the more pressing, immediate problems.
As the event draws to a close a show of hands reveals that we are all feeling much more positive than when the event started. Hobsbawm wonders if we all need a Norberg context filter on our Twitter feeds to remind us to keep that mindset. It’s a lovely idea but until that happens his book is a good alternative.