Johan Norberg on positivity and progress

From Saturday Morning, 8:12 am on 10 December 2016

The human race has never had it so good, according to Johan Norberg, author of Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future.

Longer lives and reduced poverty are signs we must be doing something right, he says.

Over the last 15 years – for the first time since the Industrial Revolution – there has been a decline in global inequality and an increase in “global justice”, says Norberg.

Two hundred years ago, no country in the world had an average life expectancy over 40 years old. Today, none has a life expectancy under 40.

Twenty-five years ago, 37 percent of the world’s population lived in poverty. Today, it’s 9 percent.

And for the first time in history, geography is no longer destiny. Where you are born determines less and less the kind of life you will lead.

Johan Norberg

Johan Norberg Photo: Supplied

So why aren’t we, as a species, worrying less?

“I think our ancestors survived because they worried. They passed on their genes to us, but also their stress hormones.”

Worry can also be viewed as a sign of privilege.

“As the old saying goes, 'If you don’t have food, you have one problem in your life. If you have food, you have thousands of problems'.”

Horberg admits he was once a worrier himself. As a young man, his pessimism led into anarchism.

“I thought governments and big industry were kind of ruining the planet and it would be better to go back in time and back to nature."

It was learning about history which changed his mind, he says.

“I began to think ‘Where would I have been in a world without the Industrial Revolution? Probably nowhere because the life expectancy was too short.

“My ancestors in Northern Sweden, they didn’t have enough food. They had to put bark from the trees in bread to make it go further.”

Horberg admits his optimism doesn’t extend to the future of politics – his hopes are in humanity.

“When people are free to explore new knowledge and implement it and exchange the results, they do amazing things.

“They just want to make life a little better tomorrow than it was today for their families and neighbourhoods and customers.”

Johan Norberg is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington DC and at the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels.