Progress and The Reasons For It


At a recent conference I attended, Bono (yes, that Bono) said something memorable. He said that when he was coming up as a band in the 70s and 80s, he and his bandmates began to understand that the world is more malleable than we were all led to believe as kids. 

We can actually make change in the world.

And we have already made great change in the world. I have mentioned Swedish economist Johan Norberg's book Progress before, but I have wanted to talk about its premise and some of its details.

His basic thought is that the "good old days were awful." Every generation harkens back to some idealized version of their youth, but when you look at those times in history, they are rarely 'good' — and our progress since those good old days signals an ever-brighter future.

Norbert shows us the data of the building blocks of more productive lives. 

In 1945, per the United Nations, 50% of the world's population was undernourished. In 2015, 11% of the world was undernourished (even with population growth). In 1980, according to the World Health Organization, 23% of the world had access to improved sanitation and 51% had access to clean water. In 2014, those numbers increased to 69% had access to sanitation and more than 90% had access to clean water. Numbers like this, show why life expectancy went from 29 years in 1770 to 70 years in 2010. 

Poverty, literacy, violence, freedom, and the environment have all improved around the world over the past 100 years — and even in the past 20! 

In 1791, 742 million people were ruled by arbitrary governments with only 33.5 million living in "reasonably free countries". Slaves outnumbered free people 23-to-1. In 1991, that ratio had fallen to 3:1. Today, the majority of the world lives in free and partly free countries, per Freedom House. On this front, the world has made more progress in the last 20 years than in the previous 2,000.

And think about this (emphasis mine):

Amazingly, a modern car in motion emits less pollution than a 1970s car did in the parking lot, turned off, due to gasoline vapor leakage.

How does this happen? Not by accident. People did it.

Specifically, Norberg credits the rise of science, knowledge, trade, and cooperation among the world's people. When we lift each other, it really does lift everyone. Norberg gives a clear example of this:

The economist William Easterly has shown that the correlation between a country's health indicators and its own growth rate is not as strong as the correlation between its health indicators and global growth. In this era of globalization, the most important factor behind a country's success is the success of other countries.

It is important to look at what we have accomplished. It also shows us what is possible, but that isn't the reason I wanted to do a deeper dive. The reason is, to quote the author again:

When we don't see the progress we have made, we begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain.

Stay the course my friends. There is work to do, and we can do it.