Progress – Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (2016) by Johan Norberg is an excellent, short summary of recent history that looks at how much better life has become for many more people as the world’s population has grown, lives longer and is richer since the Industrial Revolution. It summarises similar facts to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now and The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley, Factfulness by Hans Rosling and Your World, Better by Charles Kenny. The book makes a good summary of the work started by the economist Julian Simon in cataloguing how the world has changed in recent history.
Norberg uses a lot of statistics like those from the excellent Our World in Data site hosted by Oxford University. The book is broken up into 10 Chapters. These look at Food, Sanitation, Life Expectancy, Poverty, Violence, The environment, Literacy, Freedom, Equality and the next Generation.
The section on food looks at how for most of human history there were regular famines. Incredible statistics are shown about how in 1950 50% of the world regularly suffered from undernourishment while today it’s shrunk to 10%. There are many descriptions of famines of the past in Europe and around the world.
The chapter on Sanitation describes how clean water was a rarity for most of humanity for almost all of history and how children would frequently die from waterborne diseases. All this leads to the massive increase in life expectancy that has happened across the world in the last 150 years or so which is described in the next chapter.
The decline of poverty, from almost all of humanity to around 10% in 2015 is amazing. Norberg looks in detail at the Industrial revolution and how between 1820 and 1850 real earnings in England rose by almost 100% and points out that previously a doubling of real incomes had taken 2000 years.
The chapter on violence shows how violence has declined despite the horrific global wars of the Twentieth Century. In the chapter on The Environment the change from Industrial towns having terrible pollution, such as London’s ‘Pea Soup’ fogs that would kill thousands of people to having air as clean as in the Middle Ages today. Or how in Pittsburgh the lights had to be kept on during the day until about 1970 because the pollution was so bad. Norberg points out that people who are not starving and are better off, say on about $5000 per year will pay to reduce airborne pollution.
The chapter on Literacy then looks at how we have gone from societies where almost everyone is illiterate to societies where almost everyone can read and write. The chapter on Freedom looks at how democracy has spread around the world, particularly since the end of colonialism and the fall of the Soviet Union.
Norberg then looks at how Equality for women has gone from being nowhere 200 years ago to today with women having many, many more rights and being free of ‘legal’ rape from their husbands. The vast improvement in gay rights is also described. As is the change in approval for inter racial marriage from a small minority to a vast majority in democracies.
Finally Norberg describes how it is very likely, if merely that trends continue that the world will be even better off in the future. He talks about visiting people in Vietnam and how their lives have improved in the past decades. He also points out that when asked about global trends people do worse than random because they think the world is getting worse. He points out that news describes calamities but ignores the fact that every day people have been getting a bit richer across the planet.
The data that Norberg puts forward is vehemently opposed by some people on the Left. There are plenty of left wing economists like Noah Smith or Paul Krugman who are quite happy with his fact based approach but some people seem to see it as an affront.
Progress is an excellent short book that clearly and succinctly describes the state of the humanity. It’s definitely worth a read.