Happy New Year everyone!
And yet, while the champagne is still chilling, I can practically see many of you rolling your eyes and groaning. For many, 2016 was quite the disaster. What good can Brexit possibly bring in 2017? Or Trump, to be sworn in as POTUS in a mere 20 days? Talks of Weimar are rife, as are fears of a new weapons’ race.
For others, of course, 2017 will be a year when finally Britain gets rid of its European shackles. And a year when the US gets a chance to return to a better past. But what kind of past is that?
How do you feel about the past?
No matter where you stand on these issues, 2017 will be a year to remember, from the looks of it. Love it or dread it, the future is upon us. And, interestingly enough, it is fairly easy to predict whether you are currently under a duvet awaiting the impending missiles, or in the middle of the square celebrating the promises held by the new year.
As The Economist points out in its review of “Progress,” a new book by Johan Norberg, humans, in general, are a gloomy species. Some 71% of Britons think the world is getting worse; only 5% think it is improving. Asked whether global poverty had fallen by half, doubled or remained the same in the past 20 years, only 5% of Americans answered correctly that it had fallen by half. People are predisposed to think that things are worse than they are, and they overestimate the likelihood of calamity. This is because they rely not on data, but on how easy it is to recall an example. And bad things are more memorable. The media amplify this distortion. Famines, earthquakes and beheadings all make gripping headlines; “40m Planes Landed Safely Last Year” does not.
This pessimism also has political consequences. Voters who think things were better in the past are more likely to demand that governments turn back the clock. A whopping 81% of Trump’s supporters think life has grown worse in the past 50 years. Among Britons who voted to leave the European Union, 61% believe that most children will be worse off than their parents. Those who voted against Brexit tend to believe the opposite.
So, which is it?
Mr. Norberg unleashes a tornado of evidence that life is, in fact, getting better. He describes how his great-great-great-great grandfather survived the Swedish famines of 150 years ago. Sweden in those days was poorer than Sub-Saharan Africa is today. “Why are some people poor?” is the wrong question, argues Mr. Norberg. Poverty is the starting point for all societies. What is astonishing is how fast it has receded.
In 1820, 94% of humanity subsisted on less than $2 a day in modern money. That fell to 37% in 1990 and less than 10% in 2015.
Not only have people grown much more prosperous; they also enjoy better health than even rich folk did in the past. This is due partly to galloping progress in medical science. When the swine flu pandemic threatened to become catastrophic in 2009, scientists sequenced the genome of the virus within a day and were producing a vaccine in less than six months.
The spread of basic technology, allowing for clean water and indoor plumbing, may have helped even more. Louis XIV’s palace was the pinnacle of 18th-century grandeur. Nonetheless, without flush toilets, it stank. “The passageways, corridors and courtyards are filled with urine and faecal matter,” wrote a contemporary observer. Now 68% of the world’s population have modern sanitation—a luxury denied to the Sun King—up from 24% in 1980.
Also, and despite the bloody headlines, the world is far safer than it used to be. The homicide rate in hunter-gatherer societies was about 500 times what it is in Europe today. Globally, wars are smaller and less frequent than they were a generation ago. The only type of violence that is growing more common is terrorism, and people wildly overestimate how much of it there is. The average European is ten times more likely to die by falling down stairs than to be killed by a terrorist. Evidence that the past was more brutal than the present can be gleaned not only from data but also from cultural clues. For example, children’s nursery rhymes are 11 times more violent than television programs aired before 9 pm in Britain, one study found.
So, what better book to celebrate a new year? Whether you are looking for something to restore your hope or something that will reassure that no, the world is not going to the dogs, this is the perfect gift for you and your loved ones.
Now, back to your champagne before it gets any warmer! Cheers, my friends, and may 2017 bring us nothing but prosperity and joy!