I’ve got some good news for you, and some bad news. Let’s start with the good, because we need it right now.
At the moment, we are witnessing the greatest improvement in living standards ever to take place. Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in human history. Life expectancy at birth has increased more than twice as much in the last century as it did in the previous 200,000 years.
The risk that an individual will be exposed to war, die in a natural disaster, or be subjected to dictatorship has become smaller than it was in any other epoch. A child born today is more likely to reach retirement age than his forebears were to live to their fifth birthday.
War, crime, disasters and poverty are painfully real, and during the last decade global news media has made us aware of them in a new way – live on screen, every day, around the clock – but they are not new, they have always been with us. The difference now is that they are rapidly declining. Today they are the exceptions – horrible, wide-ranging exceptions that affect, hurt and kill people, but still exceptions.
This progress happened because people got the freedom to explore knowledge, experiment with new technologies and solutions and exchange the results, and so can come up with ever better ways of satisfying our needs and solve our problems. The individual human being is therefore, as economist Julian Simon pointed out, the ultimate resource, much more important than all the natural resources we fret about. It’s also a resource that can be mass-produced by low-skilled labour.
This development started in Western Europe and North American in the early 19th century, because markets were opened and governments were limited. But since the fall of communism and military regimes, and the start of globalisation, this is being repeated on a much larger scale in poor countries. Since 1990 world hunger has been reduced by 40 percent, illiteracy and child mortality by half and extreme poverty by more than two thirds. Every minute that you spend reading this article, 100 people rise out of poverty.
And it’s not just the poor of the world who benefit. The more people who can make use of mankind’s accumulated knowledge to contribute more science, technologies and business models, the better off we all are. It’s difficult to invent the cell phone or a vaccine against measles, but once it’s been done, it’s easy to use it everywhere. Foreign trade has increased the purchasing power of Western consumers by almost 50 percent.
And since I grew up in the early 1980s, we have seen tremendous improvements in technology, in everything from treating cardiovascular disease to the internet, the leading pollutants have been reduced by 75 percent and homicide rates have been halved. And oh, we’ve had another ten years of life expectancy.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that almost no one gets this. And that has very dangerous implications.
When I recently tweeted a graph that summarized how poverty, hunger, child mortality and illiteracy had fallen dramatically in the last 25 years, a British woman retweeted it immediately with the addition ”Startling graphics that confirm my general hell-in-a-handcart feeling.” She had read the graph upside down! And she thought that it confirmed everything she thought she knew about the world.
She is not alone. Only six percent of the British think the world is on the whole becoming a better place. More people believe in ghosts and astrology than in progress. “Doom and gloom, everywhere”, as a woman on the street responded when public radio asked her to describe the state of the world.
It’s not a strange reaction. When I follow the breaking news I also get the impression that the world is falling apart, even though more people died of terrorism in the 1970s, the proportion of war fatalities has declined by almost three quarters, and the number of military coups has been reduced by around 90 percent.
That’s because the role of the media is to tell us about the most shocking and dramatic thing that happened in the world in the last few hours. That is what we want to know, after all, as the problem-seeking species that we are. And this means we will always hear about awful things, and almost never think about the progress that has been made. The risk of famine in northern Nigeria is news, but the fact that 8 million Nigerians have been liberated from chronic undernourishment since 1990 is just statistics in an academic report somewhere.
And since we now live in a world with global and social media there is always something new, disturbing or shocking to report on every minute. Disasters and human tragedies are not new, but cell phone cameras are. In combination with our natural sense of nostalgia, and some very real problems like the financial crisis and the migration crisis, this gives most of us the impression that the world is a more dangerous place than it used to be. The problem is that pessimism is politically potent. As H L Menchen pointed out, clever politicians keep the populace alarmed “and hence clamorous to be led to safety”.
Frightened people become more authoritarian and protectionist. They want safety at any cost, so they often turn to strong men and big governments that offer them this safety, in exchange for their liberties. To a Trump, a Putin or a Le Pen.
The problem is that this often results in intolerant policies and attacks on open societies and free trade – which happen to be the factors that contribute the most to human progress.
So this is a weird period in time, when we are making faster progress than ever before, but the lack of recognition of this progress results in a rise in nativism and populism that is threatening to undermine it. It’s not the old debate about whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, it’s about one group thinking that the glass is not sufficiently full, and in frustration deciding to break it.
To make the world safe for further progress, we have to recognize and tell the story about the amazing progress people make when they are allowed to be free. We can’t take it for granted.
Johan Norberg is a Swedish historian and the author of “Progress: Ten Reasons to Look to the Future.” This is an article from Bright Blue’s magazine The End of the Establishment?