December 31, 2016

Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future

It's human nature to be pessimistic, but this can have political consequences.

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What’s it about?

Johan Norberg argues that people often think things are worse than they are. Bad things are more newsworthy and memorable. Nature blessed us with an ability to recall negative events easier than positive ones, and “40 million Planes Landed Safely Last Year” does not make a good headline.


  1. 71% of Britons think the world is getting worse; only 5% think it is improving.
  2. Only 5% of American’s guess correctly that world poverty has halved in the last 20 years. In both cases a Chimpanzee guessing randomly would do better.
  3. In two centuries the number of humans living on less than $2 a day has gone from 94% to 10%.
  4. Improvements in medical science mean lifespans have increased dramatically. 68% of the world has modern sanitation, a luxury 18th Century Kings lacked.
  5. Better nutrition and the spread of education means people are smarter too. IQ rates are rising all the time.
  6. Tolerance has spread. More people are able to read, hear, and imagine themselves in other people’s shoes.


Despite the bloody headlines, the world is far safer than it used to be. The homicide rate in hunter-gatherer societies was about 500 times what it is in Europe today. Globally, wars are smaller and less frequent than they were a generation ago.

The only type of violence that is growing more common is terrorism, and people wildly overestimate how much of it there is. The average European is ten times more likely to die by falling down stairs than to be killed by a terrorist.

Evidence that the past was more brutal than the present can be gleaned not only from data but also from cultural clues. For example, one study in Britain found children’s nursery rhymes are 11 times more violent than television programmes aired before 9pm.


Male blue-collar workers have seen no improvement in their earnings for several years. Technology could continue to destroy many low-skilled jobs. And nature is being thinned dramatically. Global Warming is a worry, too. Green technology is advancing and farming is becoming more efficient. Perhaps human ingenuity will triumph.

Take Away Points and Context

  • It’s human nature to be pessimistic, but this can have political consequences. A strong majority of voters in favor of Brexit and Donald Trump believe that life was better in the past.
  • Progress, both technological and moral, is all around. The Caste System is eroding in India, for example.
  • There will always be some losers from progress and it’s up to government and society to help those groups.


Full Article:

Better and Better: The state of the world

The Economist

Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future.

By Johan Norberg.

Oneworld; 246 pages; $24.99 and £16.99.

Progress. Your comments welcome below.

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