Progress – Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future | Johan Norberg

Summary of: Progress – Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future
By: Johan Norberg


Embark on a journey through history in Johan Norberg’s ‘Progress – Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future’, a book that sheds light on how humanity has overcome challenges such as food scarcity, disease, poverty, violence, and environmental degradation. Discover how innovations in technology, trade, and property rights have fueled progress, and evaluate our achievements in eradicating hunger and raising life expectancy. The book also delves into the vital role of education and literacy in social transformation, alongside the encouraging global trends towards reducing discrimination and embracing equality. Comprehend the significance of cumulative human achievements as we venture into the future with knowledge, resilience, and hope.

Triumph Over Famine

The significant increase in food production through technological advances, property rights and global trade has greatly reduced undernourishment, which was once ubiquitous, and has led to the defeat of chronic hunger becoming a possibility.

Hunger and famine were common in Europe in past centuries with millions of lives being lost to food scarcity and desperation even driving many to cannibalism. However, with technological advances and global trade, the situation has greatly improved. Opening up borders to global trade and granting property rights to farmers allowed more food to be produced, leading to increased efficiency and productivity. Innovations like artificial fertilizer, modern milking machines, and combine harvesters contributed to the rapid increase in food production. For instance, a single combine harvester today can do as much work in just six minutes as 25 men once did in a day, resulting in a 2,500-fold increase in productivity.

The world has seen remarkable progress since the 1960s, with undernourishment dropping significantly. In 1945, about half of the world’s population did not have enough to eat. Today, that number has been reduced to around 10%. Countries with less than 2,000 calories a day reduced from 51 in 1961 to just one – Zambia – in 2013. Although chronic hunger still exists, the progress made provides hope for the future and the possibility of its defeat.

Advances in Medicine and Hygiene

From collecting garbage to sophisticated water systems, proper waste disposal and urban hygiene have played an integral role in preventing diseases and boosting life expectancy. John Snow’s discovery about the spread of cholera led to significant improvements in water systems and waste collection. These changes spread slowly to low- and middle-income countries, but since 1980, the world’s population with access to safe drinking water has risen from 52 to 91 percent. Evidence-based scientific approaches and medical breakthroughs, such as Fleming’s discovery of penicillin or mass-vaccination programs, have dramatically increased life expectancy across the globe. In our networked age, globalization helps to track outbreaks efficiently and develop vaccines swiftly. From living just 31 years on average in the last century to the current worldwide average of 71, medical advances have made extraordinary progress, making life longer, healthier, and safer.

The Power of Prosperity

Poverty has been the natural state of humans throughout history, but over the past two centuries, there has been an unprecedented increase in global wealth. The Industrial Revolution in England set the stage for this economic growth, and Asian nations like Japan and China followed suit. As a result, poverty rates have plummeted around the world, due in part to the dismantling of oppressive regimes, improved transport and communication infrastructure, and more open foreign trade.

The Decline of Violence

We live in an age of information and media saturation, which has led to an increased awareness of violence worldwide. However, this doesn’t mean that violence is on the rise. In fact, violence is declining. This is due to more sophisticated judicial mechanisms and the rise of humanitarian ideas since the Enlightenment. Homicide and torture rates have been steadily declining, and centralized governments and modern legal systems have been key to this transformation. The fall in homicide rates has been significant, dropping from 19 murders per 100,000 people in Europe during the sixteenth century to 1 homicide per 100,000 citizens today. Proportional punishment has also led to criminals being treated with greater leniency. Violence between states has also become less common due to global commerce and the potential public-relations disaster it causes. International institutions like the United Nations have also played a key role in regulating violence. This decline in violence has been effective in making armed conflict less common and less lethal, with the number of victims in wars between states dropping significantly from 86,000 in the 1950s to an average of 3,000 lives lost per conflict today.

Wealth: The Solution to Environmental Pollution

The book argues that contrary to popular belief, prosperity is a solution to environmental damage, not the cause. Rapid economic growth had led to high environmental costs, but as countries become more prosperous, conservation becomes important. London, for instance, has returned to pre-industrial pollution levels due to the development of cleaner technologies. Evidence from the world’s wealthiest countries suggests the best way to protect the environment is to reduce poverty. As countries first become more prosperous, damage to the environment increases, but when a particular level of wealth has been reached, environmental damage reduces. Poverty and environmental risks also interact in another way; the poorest countries are most at risk from natural disasters and climate change, but as they become more affluent, improvements in infrastructure, healthcare, technology, and warning systems limit potential damages. Therefore, creating more wealth is the best weapon against environmental pollution.

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