Why solving the world's biggest problems has never been easier

by Joanne Black / 11 February, 2018
Photo/Getty Images
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Self-proclaimed “new optimist” Johan Norberg argues that conditions for fixing the world’s biggest problems have never been better. 

The notion that life on Earth has never been as good for as many people as it is right now is not one that seems instantly to make sense. Johan Norberg admits as much in the epilogue to his book Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future:When you write a book with a positive message about the world, you are not exactly preaching to the choir.”

Progress was published in 2016, just before the US presidential election, and it is easy to get the impression from talking to Norberg that if he had foreseen a Donald Trump victory, the book might have been renamed Nine and a Half Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. That is because Norberg regards the opening up of economies – to trade and immigration as well as to knowledge, goods and experimentation – as one of the reasons for the level of progress, without precedent in human history, that we have achieved in the modern era.

It’s little wonder, then, that he is dismayed and perplexed by signs – the election of Trump and the Brexit vote – that so many people consider openness a threat. But it’s not enough to dent either his optimism or his central belief: that we should be less fearful and gloomy and, instead, celebrate the astonishing progress we have made in almost all important areas of life.

“Despite what we hear on the news and from many authorities, the story of our era is that we are witnessing the greatest improvement in global living standards ever to take place,” he writes. Rates of poverty and malnutrition are falling, literacy rates are up, fewer children are in forced labour and infant mortality is down: and all this is happening at rates faster than at any other time in history. Meanwhile, life expectancy at birth has increased more than twice as much in the past century as it did in the previous 200,000 years.

“The risk that any individual will be exposed to war, die in a natural disaster or be subjected to dictatorship has become smaller than in any other epoch. A child born today is more likely to reach retirement age than his forebears were to live to their fifth birthdays.”

War, crime, disasters and poverty still exist, of course, but these problems have always existed, he argues; they are just more visible than ever because of the reach of the media. “The difference now is that they are not only more visible, but also declining. What we see now are the exceptions rather than the rule.”

Johan Norberg.

The time of our lives

Norberg, a Swede who lives in Stockholm, is a documentary-maker and lecturer and is working on another book, following the success of Progress, which was named a book of the year in both the Economist and the Guardian and was translated into 20 languages. He was not always optimistic about the world, but during his historical research, he realised there was no better time to be alive.

It is not a widely held view. In Progress, he describes commissioning a study in which 1000 Swedes were asked eight questions about global development. “On average, every age group and every income group was wrong on all eight questions. They thought the world was bad and getting worse and consistently underestimated the progress that had been made.”

Almost three-quarters of respondents thought hunger had increased and slightly more thought extreme poverty had increased during a period when both had reduced faster than at any other point in history. Other studies confirmed that in the UK, only 10% of people correctly thought world poverty had decreased in the past 30 years. “Since they could also answer that poverty had remained the same, a random guess would have yielded one-third correct answers, so the British performed significantly worse than a chimpanzee.”

In the US, only 5% knew that world poverty had almost halved in the past 60 years; two out of three thought it had almost doubled. Our pessimism, Norberg thinks, is formed largely by the media, which focuses on the dramatic and surprising, “which is almost always bad news”. Writing in the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman quoted Oxford economist Max Roser pointing out that “a newspaper could legitimately have run the headline ‘Number of people in extreme poverty fell by 137,000 since yesterday’ every day for the past 25 years. But none would have done so because predictable, everyday events, by definition, aren’t newsworthy.”

15% of hunter-gatherers died violently. Photo/Getty Images

15% of hunter-gatherers died violently. Photo/Getty Images

But it is unlikely that the media alone is to blame. Even when good-news stories are available, people tend to remember the bad news. Norberg attributes this to our survival instinct: we must constantly be alert to risk, even though most of us are likely to face fewer dangers than members of any previous generation.

Norberg’s statistics support his contention that humans have never had it so good. Archaeological evidence shows that about 15% of early hunter-gatherers faced a violent death. Many early civilisations practised human sacrifice. In Europe in the 14th century, floggings, torture and gruesome forms of capital punishment were common.

“But in the early modern era, something incredible happened. The European homicide rate declined from 30-40 [per 100,000 people] to 19 in the 16th century and 11 in the 17th century. In the 18th century, the homicide rate reduced to 3.2. Today it is around one.”

Norberg attributes the decline partly to the rise of justice systems and central governments that began to offer most people a degree of protection, so families did not have to arm themselves or depend on the threat of violence.

“Nowadays, we are familiar with such behaviour only in the cultures of organised crime, drug trafficking and other sectors where people have no recourse to the law to solve their conflicts.”

In per capita terms, five times as many people died in the Mongol invasions as in WWII. Photo/Getty Images

In per capita terms, five times as many people died in the Mongol invasions as in WWII. Photo/Getty Images

A second contributing factor, he says, was the rise of moral individualism. “People began to be seen as responsible for their crimes and became liberated from the obligation to avenge their kin.” Third, as life expectancy increased, people had fewer children, so the value of human life increased.

The most violent mass deaths have been caused by wars, but, Norberg argues, present generations are far less at risk from war than their forebears were. We tend to think of the 20th century as the bloodiest ever, but Norberg argues that our judgment is clouded because we remember what is closest to us in time, so the most recent atrocities seem to us the worst. What we do not take into account, he argues, is the growth in human population.

The Mongol invasions of the 13th century killed 40 million people – fewer than the 55 million estimated to have died in World War II – but at the time, the world population was less than 500 million: in proportionate terms, the invasions were five times worse.

The death toll in the conflicts marking the collapse of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century or the fall of Rome in the first millennium were, proportionately, twice that of WWII. Further, those societies were more fragile, so the effect of war was compounded. In Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812, more than three-quarters of his 500,000-strong army died of pneumonia, typhus and dysentery.

None of that historical knowledge makes WWII any less horrifying, Norberg says, but context matters. We measure poverty and unemployment in percentage terms, and we should think of the risk of being harmed or dying in a war the same way. “No matter how counter-intuitive it might sound, there is actually a case to be made that the 20th century was the least-violent century ever.”

A German squadron in the Battle of Britain. Photo/Getty Images

A German squadron in the Battle of Britain. Photo/Getty Images

Long life

So, the statistical likelihood of facing a violent death is far lower than it was for our medieval ancestors. And life expectancy is another measure of how we have never had it so good.

It’s believed that, in prehistoric times, a hunter-gatherer could have looked forward to 20-30 years of life. Early traders, conquerors and explorers spread germs and disease, sanitation was abysmal and infection control almost unknown. Before the 19th century, not a single country’s population had a life expectancy greater than 40 years; in the 1830s, average life expectancy in Western Europe was 33 years.

But in the 20th century, there was a significant change: the global average life expectancy was 31 in 1900; it is now 71 years and climbing. Such broad generalisations naturally disguise quite different stories. In Europe in the 1850s, 36 years was the average lifespan; a century later it was 68 years. By that time, life expectancy in the poorest countries was at the level the rich countries had been experiencing 100 years earlier; in more than 100 nations, more than a fifth of children died before their first birthday.

But the factors that contributed so much to improving Western longevity soon made their presence felt in developing countries, too: vaccinations slashed the incidence of preventable illness; insecticides did the same for mosquito-borne disease; education improved sexual health and other disease control.

The story is by no means finished. In nearly 40 countries, Norberg says, more than 10% of children still die before their fifth birthday from diseases that developed countries have eradicated. But the overall direction he describes as “remarkably positive”.

Globally, between 1990 and 2015, maternal deaths per 100,000 births declined from 425 to 242, and most of that reduction occurred this century. The risk of dying in childbirth was reduced from 6.1% to 2.8% in sub-Saharan Africa, and from 2.5% to 0.5% in South Asia. These reductions were achieved by improvements in access to basic hygiene, safe water and medical expertise at 59% of the births worldwide in 1990 and at 71% today, Norberg writes.

These changes have contributed to an unprecedented growth in the human population, which occurs “not because people in poor countries started breeding like rabbits, as people sometimes assumed; it happened because they stopped dying like flies”. Generally, as child mortality rates fall, so do birth rates.

Improved access to clean water and education in sub-Saharan Africa has transformed lives. Photo/Getty Images

Improved access to clean water and education in sub-Saharan Africa has transformed lives. Photo/Getty Images

Healthy and wealthy

The wealthier a country is, the healthier it is. “No country with an income per capita above US$10,000 has an infant-mortality rate higher than 2%.” The obvious conclusion is that richer societies can afford to invest more in sanitation, clean water, food and medicine, but Norberg says that is not the major cause of the global improvements: rather, a “decent standard of living is getting much cheaper. This is the great health story of our time: low prices for a good life.”

“It is a result of globalisation, which makes it easier for countries to use the knowledge and technology that it took generations and vast sums of money to generate. It is difficult to develop cellular technology, the germ theory of disease or a vaccine against measles, but it is easy to use once someone else has [developed it]. The infrastructure that has been created for trade and communication also makes it easier to transmit ideas, science and technology across borders in a virtuous cycle.”

Importantly, the correlation between improved health and a country’s own economic growth is not as strong as the correlation between improved health and global growth. “In this era of globalisation, the most important factor behind a country’s success is the success of other countries. Even a country such as Haiti, one of very few countries that is poorer today than it was in the 1950s, has reduced its infant mortality rate by almost two-thirds. Haiti has lower infant mortality than the richest countries on the planet had in 1900.”

All these improvements may feel far from the experience of the average Westerner, but there are good stories to tell about more sophisticated disease treatment, too. Norberg says some of the progress in fighting cancer has been disguised by the fall in cardiovascular disease: people who used to die of heart conditions now live long enough to get cancer.

In Progress, Norberg uses tables to chart dramatic recent advances in literacy, wealth and well-being. Source/OECD 2014

In Progress, Norberg uses tables to chart dramatic recent advances in literacy, wealth and well-being. Source/OECD 2014

This may not feel like progress, but the incidence of most cancers is falling and, in the US, cancer deaths have dropped 22% in the past two decades.

However, continued human progress is not guaranteed. Late last year, it was reported that life expectancy in the US had actually fallen for the second consecutive year. It’s a trend unique among developing countries and, some have suggested, attributable to the opioid epidemic: in a health system dominated by private insurance companies, it is cheaper to prescribe pills, particularly painkillers, than to tackle pain with non-pharmaceutical treatments.

There always will be setbacks, Norberg says, and the opioid epidemic is an example. But those who say that the human lifespan cannot increase much further have consistently been wrong.

“In 1928, when US life expectancy was 57 years, statistician Louis Dublin calculated that the ultimate possibility was 65 years. Since he did not have numbers for New Zealand, he did not know that this cap had already been surpassed by the women there.

“Another research team repeated the exercise in 1990, and settled on a limit of 85 years. That was reached by Japanese females in 1996.”

Norberg concedes the possibility that a pandemic could take a terrible toll, but “on the other hand, the scientific and technological defences at our disposal are of an entirely different kind, and more people than ever can contribute.”

As people began leading longer and healthier lives, the investment in education became worthwhile and people could work harder. These factors, Norberg argues, are among the reasons world poverty is declining. Sustained per capita economic growth began in the Western world in the early 19th century and has increased more than fifteenfold since then. As developed countries have become wealthier, standards of living have improved and working hours have become shorter.

Many developing countries have followed developed countries with spectacular levels of growth, lifting millions of people out of poverty. “Almost nine in 10 Chinese lived in extreme poverty [currently defined by the World Bank as living on less than US$1.90 a day] in 1981. Only one in 10 does today.”

Source/OECD 2003

Source/OECD 2003

Shift in the balance

March 28, 2012, is reckoned to be the day that developing countries became responsible for more than half of global GDP; just 10 years earlier, their contribution had been 38%. “This convergence makes sense,” says Norberg. “If people have freedom and access to knowledge, technology and capital, there is no reason why they shouldn’t be able to produce as much as people anywhere else.

“A country with a fifth of the world’s population should produce around a fifth of its wealth. This has not been the case for centuries, because many parts of the world were held back by oppression, colonialism, socialism and protectionism. But these have now diminished, and a revolution in transport and communication technology has made it easier to take advantage of a global division of labour, and use technologies and knowledge that it took other countries generations and vast sums of money to develop. This has resulted in the greatest poverty reduction the world has ever seen.”

Globally, the risk of living in poverty has been reduced from 94% in 1820 to 11% today, despite the huge increase in the world’s population in that period.

Despite the debate about wealth distribution, Norberg argues that it is the average growth in a given country, rather than changes in income distribution, that assists the poorest citizens.

“When the Western world began to industrialise, around the year 1800, we were 200 million people and it took 50 years to double the average income. China and India have done the same thing with 10 times more people five times faster. So, in a way, you could say that globalisation is 50 times bigger than the Industrial Revolution.”

Source: FAO, 1947, 2003,2015

Source: FAO, 1947, 2003,2015

Norberg’s critics argue, among other things, that rather than comparing today’s development with that 200 years ago, the real question should be why humans have not achieved even more than they have, considering the advantages of knowledge and technology humanity now enjoys.

“Fine, go ahead and punish yourself that way if you like,” Norberg tells the Listener in a phone interview from Stockholm. “I would just say that it’s the fastest progress ever in mankind’s history and, although I tend to agree that we could have done more, compared with all the other episodes in mankind’s history, it sounds a little bit spoilt to complain that we have not gone fast enough.”

Norberg’s list of 10 reasons for optimism are: improved provision of food and sanitation; longer life expectancy; less poverty and violence; hope for the environment; improved literacy, freedom and equality; and “the next generation”. Norberg concedes that the case for optimism on the environment is less convincing than the evidence for other improvements.

“It’s the place where I cannot point to 200 years of improvement, progress and development. Rather, I point to 200 years of miserable failure and more environmental damage. But I try to show that we might have begun to turn the corner because knowledge is improving, technology is improving and I point to various technologies that might be able, in the future, to deal with this.” He accepts that “it’s more like a hopeful chapter than an empirical conclusion”.

The air in Delhi, centre, is unbreathable, but Norberg says the focus on greenhouse-gas emissions is wrong. Photo/Getty Images

The air in Delhi, centre, is unbreathable, but Norberg says the focus on greenhouse-gas emissions is wrong. Photo/Getty Images

CO₂ focus wrong

Controversially, he thinks the focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions is wrong if it hurts the ability to create wealth and provide technologies that help the poorest people.

“The biggest problems are still poverty and traditional environmental hazards such as polluted air and water. Forcing restraints and costs on the global population may make life more difficult for the poor today because we want to reduce the risks to the rich tomorrow. Banking everything on countering a single risk – even if according to computer models it is the worst risk of all – will make us more vulnerable to other problems.”

Many environmentalists argue that economic growth devours more resources and creates more waste, but Norberg is sure that growth will provide the tools to solve environmental problems. The solutions, he says, “will lie in laboratories, in modern technology and in new energy sources and different fuels, but it is too expensive, so far, to implement these all over the world. I think we’re getting there, but I understand why you wouldn’t be convinced.”

He rejects the case that the good times are over because the present and previous generations have been too profligate.

“I don’t buy that argument, because we don’t use up our wealth. That’s not how it works. If one generation works hard and creates a lot of things, that creates more for the future.”

Life expectancy, infant mortality and educational achievement have all improved. Sources: Statistics New Zealand website, New Zealand Official Yearbook 1969, Education Counts website

Life expectancy, infant mortality and educational achievement have all improved. Sources: Statistics New Zealand website, New Zealand Official Yearbook 1969, Education Counts website

However, he says, there are some instances of rivalry between generations. The most obvious is to be found in high house prices: the number of houses in the most desirable areas is finite and members of the baby-boomer generation had the benefit of loose monetary policy and access to mortgage finance at favourable rates, so were able to buy up property. That created a housing bubble in which younger generations lost out. “In that sense, we do have problems.”

Mostly, however, Norberg’s message is positive. When there is too much despair, there is a risk of populations succumbing to the idea that everything is chaos, and unfixable. It makes people more likely to elect “the strong man or big government” who promise to sort out the mess.

Overseas-aid organisations increasingly pitch a positive message when fundraising, because people will not go on giving money if they think nothing changes. On the other hand, if we become complacent, we will not put in the work to ensure that progress continues.

“But mostly I think people need some corrective information and some balance, because the only thing they get now is the breaking news and the horrors of the world and you need some longer-term perspective and some optimism.

“Right now, it doesn’t seem like the world is dying from exaggerated optimism.”

This article was first published in the February 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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