Yes, the world faces severe cultural and philosophical headwinds. But it would be wrong to think it’s going to hell in a handcart, nor by any more up-to-date means of transportation.
In fact, according to Johan Norberg, author of new book Progress, “2016 is the best time to be born in all of human history so far.” True, “only 4% of Brits and 6% of Americans believe that the world is getting better.” And probably a similar number of NZers and Australians feel the same.
But despite this universal sense of dread, humans are actually more safe, wealthier, healthier, more free, less hungry, and more literate than ever before, Johan Norberg argues in his book Progress, which is published on September 1.
Norberg, an author and lecturer in economic globalisation, says that the key reason we are so anxious about the state of the world is that we are sharing information so much more quickly through 24 hour news channels and the internet.
And for abundant reasons, which he explains, these are not good places to get all your news – or even (because the succcessful conclusion to a story is never aired) to get the full stories.
So progress is not inevitable, and those mamy cultural headwinds continue to make it more difficult, buy based on the data, Norberg has ten reasons everyone’s sense of doom is misplaced [read his piece for the fuller story]:
1. There are much fewer hungry people in the world.
The proportion of people worldwide who are undernourished has dropped from 50% in 1945 to just more than 10% in 2015…
2. More people have access to clean water than ever before.
More than 90% of the world's population now has access to safe water…
3. We are staying alive, on average, for much longer.
Older people who are nostalgic about the past ought to be thankful that they are still alive, according to Norberg's findings… ”Nothing happened in life expectancy for 100,000 years and then in 200 years we’ve doubled it," Norberg said. "It continues to outperform what all the scientists expected” …
4. The proportion of people in extreme poverty has shrunk.
In 1820, 94% of the world's population lived in "extreme poverty," according to Norberg. Now that figure is less than 11%. Moreover, much of that improvement has taken place in recent years. Every day between 1990 and 2015, 138,000 people were lifted out of extreme poverty…
5. Despite what it feels like, there is much less violence in the world.
While tragic wars in the Middle East and elsewhere rage on and dominate our news headlines, there are actually fewer people killed in these conflicts than in the wars of previous generations.
"We have probably never lived in such a peaceful era as the one right now," Norberg said… [Meanwhile], the murder rate in Europe has dropped from a peak of more than 40 per 100,000 people in the 14th century, to one per 100,000 today…
6. We are making progress in reducing pollution and protecting the environment.
"If you look at the leading pollutants that we worried about in the 1970s — those which pollute our rivers and forests and so on — they've been reduced by something like 60% since the 1970s," he said. "We've reduced the amount of oil spilt in the ocean by 99% since the 1970s." … "[And] we must not forget that when we are creating these problems we are often solving other problems which are worse for mankind." …
7. The world is getting more literate every day.
The percentage of people who can read and write has increased from 12% to nearly 90% in the last 200 years…
8. Individual freedom and democracy has spread.
Legal slavery has transitioned from being the norm to unheard of since 1800.
While slavery and human trafficking still exists in crime syndicates and the underworld, just 200 years ago it was legal in many countries. The global slave trade began shrinking when it was abolished in all British colonies 1834 and has since been made "formally banned everywhere," Norberg said.
Even being a tax slave in a welfare state is better than being a literal slave in a slave state.
Alongside the abolition of the slave trade, the world has become much more democratic. [Not an undiluted virtue, it must be admitted – Ed. ] "By 1950, the share of the world population living in democracies had increased from zero to thirty-one per cent, and by 2000, increased to fifty-eight per cent, according to Freedom House, the civil liberties watchdog." ..
9. Societies are more open to all genders, races and sexual orientations than ever before.
The rights of ethnic minorities, women, homosexuals, and transgender people were almost unheard of in even the freest western democracies 100 years ago, Norberg argues. For example, in 1900, only New Zealand gave women the right to vote.
10. The next generation will have it even better.
The rate of child labour is constantly dropping (from 168 million in 2012 to 245 million in 2000). In turn, rates of child death are falling, and education is rising. Moreover Norberg argues that the number of people who own smartphones (soon to be three billion) will have a profound impact on the people's breadth of knowledge.
As Norberg himself understands, none of this progress is inevitable.
"If people don't understand the progress we have made, if we don't understand the alternative to the kind of open liberal societies that we live in, then there’s a huge risk," Norberg said. "We could throw it away, in exchange for the temptation of any kind of demagogue who promises us anything in return for our liberties."
Nonetheless, the world’s Atlases are still transforming the planet to make the human environment better – and still succeeding despite the many forces arrayed against them.
So instead of concentrating only on the headwinds, let’s keep our eyes on that wonderful prize: human progress.