Saturday, April 1, 2017

What reasons do we have to look forward to the future?

In his book, Progress: ten reasons to look forward to the future, Johan Norberg spends a lot of time looking back on progress that has been made. 

In brief, his ten reasons for optimism are:
  1. The incidence of famine has declined. Only a few hundred years ago famine was a fairly regular phenomenon, occurring more than twice a century even in countries like France. In recent years the death toll from famine has been only about 2% what it was a century ago, even though the world population has increased fourfold.
  2. Sanitation improvements since the “Great Stink” in London in 1858 have helped improve longevity and reduce infant mortality over much of the world. About two-thirds of the world’s population now has access to proper sanitation facilities.
  3. Average life expectancy in the world is now 71 years, having risen from 31 years in 1900.
  4. Poverty has declined because of economic growth. In the early part of the 19th century the standard of living of the average world citizen was equivalent to that of the average citizen in the poorest countries today (e.g. Haiti, Liberia and Zimbabwe).
  5. Violence has declined. For example, the annual European homicide rate declined from 30 to 40 per 100,000 people in the 14th century to around 1 per 100,000 in recent years.
  6. Although environmental damage tends to increase initially with economic growth it subsequently tends to decrease as people become wealthier. Technological advances seem likely to enable future generations to reduce climate change risks and still enjoy higher living standards.
  7. Literacy levels have risen with economic development. The global literacy rate rose from around 21% in 1900 to 86% in 2015.
  8. Freedom has increased. Slavery is now banned just about everywhere. Democracy now limits the abuse of government power in many parts of the world. Economic freedom has risen: the global average rose from 5.3 to 6.9 on the Fraser Institute’s ten-point scale between 1980 and 2013.
  9. There has been growing recognition of equality of rights, irrespective of ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.
  10. Children are now seen as worthy of being given the best conditions for a long and happy life, rather than as resources for the household economy to exploit.

Many readers of this blog will probably be thinking at this point that they already knew most of that. However, readers of this blog tend to be exceptionally well informed. In the epilogue of his book Johan Norberg provides evidence that in the broader population most people consistently underestimate the progress that has been made. For example, in the U.S. apparently 66% of the population think that world poverty has almost doubled in the last 20 years, and only about 5% are aware that it has almost halved over that period.

This book provides a vast amount of useful ammunition for those of us trying to get the message across that “the good old days” were not so great.

However, I doubt whether the ten reasons provided will actually encourage many pessimists to look forward to the future. It is too easy to acknowledge the progress that has been made and yet to hold to pessimistic views of the future. The author acknowledges that being worried about the future may be in our genes:
The hunters and gatherers who survived sudden storms and predators were the ones who had a tendency to scan the horizon for new threats rather than those who were relaxed and satisfied”.

The author also acknowledges threats to progress such as large scale war, more extensive terrorism with advanced technology, climate change and more large scale financial crises. He is most concerned that “people led by fear might curtail the freedom and the openness that progress depends upon”.

On a more optimistic note, he observes that in our era of globalization many countries now have access to the sum of humanity’s knowledge and are open to the best innovations from other places. “In such a world, progress no longer depends on the whim of one emperor”.

Johan Norberg’s message is not one of complacency. He claims that the book was written as a warning not to take progress for granted and that is the message of his final sentence:
If progress is to continue, you and I will have to carry the torch”.
That means, in my view, that we will need to encourage people to contemplate optimistic visions of how the future might evolve.

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