Fuck 2016. Worst year ever, right? From Trump to Syria, Bowie to Brexit—all you have to do is flip on your Twitter feed to see we live in a time of unprecedented war, insecurity, fear, and misery.
Maybe that’s totally wrong? Maybe, as Swedish writer Johan Norberg argues in his new book Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, this doom and gloom is not just incorrect, but the diametric opposite of what is actually happening in the world?
Norberg’s premise is that by any measure of human development—life expectancy, infant mortality, poverty, literacy, freedom, exposure to violence and disease, etc.—we are living in a golden age that is completely unprecedented in the history of humanity.
The data presented in the book is staggering. In 1900, average world life expectancy was 31 years old; it is now 71. In 1981, nine in ten Chinese lived in extreme poverty; it is now one in ten. For the last 25 years, 285,000 new people have gained access to safe water every day. One of the book’s most striking claims comes in the section on poverty: “If it takes you 20 minutes to read this chapter, almost another 2,000 people will have risen out of poverty.”
The case is compelling. For the 200,000 years or so since Homo sapiens first evolved, if we even survived infancy, we would have lived very short lives, in what we now class as extreme poverty, beset by diseases we didn’t understand, unable to read, at the mercy of arbitrary rulers, and very likely to die in various horrifically painful ways. In the last 25 years, however—for the first time in human history—extreme poverty has dipped below 10 percent of the population, mass famine has been virtually eliminated, and mass literacy has become the rule rather than the exception. Anyone alive right now is far less likely to die violently (from either war or homicide) than in any previous era.
So given all this good stuff, why is everyone so anxious, depressed, and angry all the time? Obviously it’s partly because of increased access to information—we can now see disasters unfolding in real time. But it’s also evolutionary; we evolved to constantly scan the horizon for threats. Only bad news catches our eye.
And this has political implications. Norberg is clear that he has written this book partially as a warning. The sense that “everything is going downhill” is exactly what feeds populist politics like Trump and Brexit. And these are precisely movements that threaten the very progress we’re talking about.
So, being as prone to pessimistic online bitching as anyone else, I caught up with Norberg to talk through some of his ideas.
VICE: Was there a trigger for this project?
Johan Norberg: Well, like everyone, I get worried and scared when I read the news—apparently the world is populated by serial murderers, terrorists, warmongers, and environmental polluters. So, as a kind of a corrective, I had to look at history and statistics and data, to see what is really happening. Are things really getting worse, or is it that we’re now paying attention?
That narrative can become self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling; if people think the world is crazy, they will turn to demagogues who say, “We can keep you safe… in exchange for you liberties.” The Trumps, the Marine le Pens, they have a strong agenda to trigger people’s fight or flight instincts. In the surveys, you can see the common denominator for those who voted for Brexit was that they were gloomy and thought things were going in the wrong direction.
The book is full of seriously impressive statistics. What are a few that particularly struck you?
The poverty statistics over the last few decades are some of the most wonderful news the world has ever seen. We’ve reduced extreme poverty from 37 percent to less than 10 percent in 25 years. Every minute that we are speaking, another 100 people rise out of extreme poverty. And this tells you something about how powerful this development is. The fact that we’ve increased life expectancy so much—almost entirely removing early death from the equation—is incredibly powerful. The chance of someone born today reaching retirement age is greater than the chance of anyone throughout history reaching their fifth birthday.
Even sub-Saharan African countries that are a bit behind on health and development are now showing dramatic progress. In Kenya, over one decade, they increased life expectancy by ten years. That meant that people aged ten years, but were actually further from death than they were at the start. That is monumental. Of course, there are still major problems, but for the first time in history, they are the exception rather than the rule.
This “25 year” thing comes up a lot. In the book, it almost seems like 1990 was some kind of magic year. That can’t just be because Public Enemy released Fear of a Black Planet. Was it the end of the Cold War, or what?
Well, I believe in liberalization and free trade, so it does fit my political prejudices. But it’s important to say that while 1990 saw an acceleration, this is really a 200-year story. For about 5,000 years of human development, nothing really happens, and then there’s an explosion. The acceleration in 1990 is impressive because the development that took the Western world 180 years is being replicated in the developing world in 25. This has a lot to do with the fall of wars, the fall of Communism, the fall of dictatorships in Latin America, and the opening up of the Chinese and Indian economies. The world began to reduce obstacles to trade, but also to communication, information, and technology. More people were liberated and educated in those countries, so they could put their knowledge and creativity at the disposal of the world.
Up until the 1970s, 90 percent of the Chinese population lived in extreme poverty, the worst statistics you could have at the time—then what you had is this amazing growth. In terms of brute numbers, it’s China and India and places like that that explain how a billion people were lifted out of poverty in such a short time.
There’s quite a dominant narrative in the West right now that this generation doesn’t have it as good as the last—that millennials are getting screwed by the baby boomers. Does this contradict your theory at all?
There is definitely an argument that the baby boomers made things quite convenient for themselves, and in some ways, this generation is not as lucky when it comes to things like pensions, where public money ends up, housing policy, and so on. And those are problems that we need to deal with in the political debate. But that mustn’t blind us to the economic, social, and technological progress that the present generation is experiencing to a larger degree than any other in history. Simply in terms of medicine and life expectancy—dealing with infant mortality, cardiovascular disease, and making progress against cancer, but also cell regeneration and biotechnology—this generation will live longer and better than any in history.
Then there’s technology—communication and the internet. In their parents’ generation, for someone from a poor background who wanted to learn, just to find the books was a struggle. Families would save for months to buy an encyclopedia—now it’s all free. In that way, this will be the happiest and luckiest generation ever.
Another narrative is that we live in an age of rising economic inequality.
In a way, we do; since the 1980s in Europe and the US, inequality has increased. If 2 billion people from the developing world are suddenly able to put their brains and hard work into the market, then it’s more difficult to work in the same type of businesses and factories. On the other hand, this process has also meant a reduction in price in almost everything—it’s cheaper than ever before to get your life’s needs met.
And inequality isn’t actually a problem in itself—only when it leads to less social mobility, but that’s more a problem of education. To me, the interesting thing is absolute living standards, not where you are relative to others. If you think about the life you may lead as compared to Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, yes, there are differences—they have private jets, better housing, and buy more expensive wine. But their everyday experiences are actually probably not that different. They use the same computer, the same cellphone—they don’t have access to that much better information or food intake.
Compare that to 200 years ago, when wealth differences were life and death. If you were poor you died young, you were illiterate—no travel, no technology. Warren Buffet doesn’t get 30 extra years of life because he had better access to food and nourishment when his brain was evolving.
You even argue that we’re doing better than ever on the environment. That might surprise a lot of people.
This is where some of the greatest challenges remain, particularly in terms of issues like global warming and the health of the oceans. But when you look at the environmental damage that immediately affects people’s health, we’ve actually made enormous accomplishments in a very short time. Even in the late 1970s, we just didn’t care much about the environment. But then wealth and knowledge increased, and things improved. In Britain, for instance, the six leading pollutants have been reduced by 60 percent. The air is cleaner, and rivers are cleaner—in the West, forests are growing back, and the rate of decline is slowing in emerging markets like China and India. We’ve reduced the number oil spills in the ocean by 99 percent.
The reason I am an optimist with regard to the outstanding problems is that increasing wealth and knowledge have solved problems before—we haven’t had to dismantle industrialized society. On the contrary, it was technological developments that saved us. We have the energy sources that will help us deal with global warming. Right now, they are a bit too expensive—so what do you do? You reduce the price with technological development—and you get richer! As China and India get richer, they will deal with these problems at a much faster rate than we did in the West.
OK, so if everything is so great, why doesn’t anyone seem to realize it?
I think our evolutionary pre-history is part of it. We’re a problem-solving species—but that means we look for problems and risks constantly. And now we have global media 24/7 and social media, so all risks and threats are reported. The new phenomenon in the world is not human suffering; it’s that everyone has a cellphone, so they can document it and send it around the world. It becomes a self-fulfilling narrative.
And we know from psychology how difficult it is to change people’s opinions and perceptions. If they’ve already decided that everything is out of control, they say, “Look, I can see there’s a military coup going on in Turkey—I can see the pictures on Twitter right now.” Then you tell them, “Yeah, but when you were growing up in the 1960s, there were about 15 military coups a year. That declined to about four per year in the early 21st century, and in 2016, we’ve had one… and it failed!” But strangely, in psychology, often when you show people contradictory data and statistics, it can sometimes actually serve to reinforce their prejudices.
Yeah, humans do seem quite good at screwing things up. What are the main risks to all this amazing progress?
This is where I am not a chronic optimist, as some people expect me to be. I have tremendous hope and belief in mankind’s ability to produce and accumulate knowledge and creativity, but am almost as pessimistic about what happens when mankind gains power over other people, particularly with governmental efforts to block certain technologies and put up barriers to trade and education.
The rise of populism in the West, which plays on anxiety and nostalgia—and the lack of understanding of the progress we have made—I think could wreak havoc. It is a threat to the openness that all this is dependent on. There could also be external shocks, such as geopolitical issues with Russia or China, or another financial crisis. We are building up problems in the financial sector right now.
These wouldn’t necessarily stop progress—in the 20th century, we dealt with protectionism, the Great Depression, and two world wars, and still more than doubled life expectancy and reduced poverty more than ever before. But if we began to dismantle our openness, then we would definitely impede the pace of progress.
By JS Rafaeli / Vice