Donald Trump is not the first politician to base a campaign on nostalgia for the past and fear of the future. With a slogan of “Make America Great Again,” to an inauguration speech that spoke of American “carnage,” Trump tapped into the seeming popular misgivings about the world today with techniques used many times in human history.
With the media pounding a steady beat of news about war around the world, terrorism, crime, environmental catastrophes and a sense of growing danger, isn’t the world getting worse moment by moment? Wasn’t it better in “the good old days?”
These perceptions are actually false. According to Johan Norberg in his new book “Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future,” just the opposite is true.
What should be front-page news is that we are currently experiencing the greatest improvement in global living standards ever. Poverty has fallen more in the past 50 years than it did in the preceding 500. Poverty and illiteracy are falling faster than any time in history. Disasters and crime are actually declining. More people are successfully improving their lives, as well as the lives of their families. The world, it seems, is actually getting better.
Norberg initially found this difficult to believe himself. When it came to modern civilization, he was a pessimistic skeptic. The contemporary workplace was drudgery; consumer culture created poverty and conflict
After extensive historic research, however, the author found that “the good old days were awful.” Instead of a harmonious history of nostalgia, the reality was that without modern medicine, effective ways of growing food, education and electricity, the romanticized vision of the past is a false one.
Norberg explores 10 major areas where problems are being solved. These include food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the environment, literacy, freedom, equality and the next generation.
Poverty is one area that most people assume has not improved. However, according to statistics the author quotes from the World Bank, in 1981 54 percent of the developing world population lived in extreme poverty. Between 1981 and 2015, that was reduced to 12 percent.
That doesn’t mean that poverty is not a major world problem, Norberg writes, particularly in Africa, where the proportion in poverty has declined only slightly. Its rapid population growth means that 60 million more people are in poverty than 1990.
Literacy is another area where the world has seen major advances. In 1900 global literacy was at 21 percent. By 1950 it had risen to 40 percent and in 2015 it was 86 percent. Between 1970 and 2010, the global ratio of female to male literacy increased from 59 percent to 91 percent.
Also among the author’s selected 10 ways the world has progressed is diminishing violence. He acknowledges that many of us think of our world today as plagued by violence. Pointing out “war and violence used to be the natural state of humanity,” Norberg quotes experts suggesting “the dramatic reduction in violence may be the most important thing that has happened in human history.”
“Increasing wealth and health and smaller families seem to have made us value life more, and this has resulted in a stronger interest in peace,” he writes.
Increasing wealth also impacts the environment. Deforestation, for example, has stopped in wealthy countries. In the U.S., forest area is growing by 0.1 percent annually. Land used for farming has declined due to farming technologies. Urbanization also plays a part as people in cities use less energy and water than people in rural areas.
Norberg acknowledges that there are counterexamples to his views and that most people do not share his positive vantage of the world. Surveys show that the majority of people think the world is getting worse, despite all the statistics to the contrary.
Norberg says media that continually report only the most dramatic and shocking stories help to create this pessimism. Also, organizations such as political parties exploit the public’s fears to promote their own agendas. They often use the bias of “a golden age when life was supposedly simpler and better.” Norberg points out that virtually every culture throughout history has believed they were not up to the standards of their parents and ancestors.
Things are undeniably getting better today, but this doesn’t guarantee progress in the future. The greatest threat is “that people led by fear might curtail the freedom and the openness that progress depends on.”
Progress is not automatic, the author concludes. It is achieved by hard-working people with creative new ideas. Most of all, he says, each of us has a responsibility to help that progress continue. Start by reading this brilliantly positive book.