Getting Better All the Time

It’s easy to get caught up in all the bad things that are happening around the world. There are always plenty of leaders unfit to lead, plenty of disasters big and small raining misery down on us and our fellow humans. But while it’s good to shine a light on the darkness, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture—and the bigger picture, despite what you might think, is very positive. The good old days, as Johan Norberg puts it in the title of the introduction to Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, are now.

Don’t believe it? Let me throw a few facts at you:

  • Famine, for much of human history, was a regular, recurring phenomenon all around the world. Today, Malthusian fears notwithstanding, the global death toll from famine is just 2% of what it was 100 years ago, even though world population has increased by a factor of four.
  • As late as 1980, just 52% of the global population had access to safe water. By 2015, that figure had risen to 91%. Over the same period, access to proper sanitation facilities rose from 24% to 68% of world population.
  • Thanks to things like more food, clean water, and proper sanitation, but also to breakthroughs in the fight against deadly diseases, global life expectancy has risen from 31 years at the start of the twentieth century to 71 years in the second decade of the twenty-first.
  • After millennia of poverty being the norm for the overwhelming mass of humanity, the Industrial Revolution allowed the West to create incredible wealth, essentially eradicating extreme poverty in this part of the world. The East Asian tigers followed suit starting in the 1950s, and now China and India are doing the same.

Norberg gives us many more bits of data that should make us thankful to be living in the remarkable present instead of the miserable past, and he tells the story of how we got to this point. Yet he does have a word of caution for us: “This book is about humanity’s triumphs. But it is not a message of complacency. It is written partly as a warning. It would be a terrible mistake to take this progress for granted.”

As he writes, terrorists, dictators, and authoritarian politicians in industrialized democracies want to destroy the individual freedoms, open economy, and technological progress that underpin the unprecedented development of recent times. The danger is that if we mistakenly believe things are just getting worse, we will run to the strongman for protection, finding instead servitude and stagnation.

Still not convinced the world is getting better? Worried, despite the progress sketched above, about rising violence, the deteriorating environment, and widening inequality? Stay tuned for Part II of my review of Progress.