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BOOK REVIEW: Humanity’s triumphs over ten scourges

Mar 23 2017 05:02
Ian Mann*

Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, by Johan Norberg

THE headline of a Financial Times article ahead of new year 2015 read: ‘Battered, bruised and jumpy – the whole world is on edge’.

Fifty-eight percent of those who voted for Britain to leave the EU said that life is worse today than it was thirty years ago.

General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified to the US Congress: “I will personally attest to the fact that... [the world] is more dangerous than it has ever been.”

How are we to deal with this? Is this the worst of times, or was Franklin Pierce Adams right when he said: “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”  

When we look at the facts it is difficult to romanticise the good old days: the truth is that the good old days were awful. The great story of our era is that we are witnessing the greatest improvement in global living standards - ever.  

This book is about humanity’s triumphs over ten scourges including poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour, infant mortality and violence.

Nobel winning economist Angus Deaton, the world-leading expert on health and development, explains that in 18th and early 19th century Britain the lack of calories led to people not being able to work hard enough to produce enough food to be able to work hard. As a result, they were stunted, skinny and short, which required fewer calories and made it possible to work with less food.

Getting enough food for the body and the brain to function properly is the most basic human need, but throughout history most people have not been able to achieve this. The French and English in the 18th century consumed fewer calories than the current average in sub-Saharan Africa, the region most tormented by undernourishment. Famine was believed to be the lot of humanity.

This has not happened, and here are some reasons why.

The 20th century invention of artificial, cheap and abundant fertiliser was one of the most powerful weapons against hunger. It was soon used all over the world and resulted in the world population rising from 1.6 billion people in 1900 to 6 billion today. 

Norman Borlaug developed a high-yield hybrid wheat that was parasite resistant and wasn’t sensitive to daylight, so it could be grown in varying climates. It was quickly introduced all over Mexico and in 1963, the harvest was six times that of 1944. Overnight, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat.

Similarly, India and Pakistan became self-sufficient in the production of cereals and today produce seven times more wheat than they did in 1965. Colleagues of Borlaug developed high-yield rice varieties that quickly spread around Asia. Borlaug is credited with saving over a billion lives and received the Nobel Peace prize for his ‘Green Revolution’, which has given poor countries better crops and bigger yields and has alleviated rural poverty.  

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, in 1947 about 50% of the world’s population was chronically malnourished. By 1970 they estimated that 37% of the developing world population was undernourished, and today the figure is about 13%.

In the first decade of the 21st century, 1.7 million children died because of malnutrition (a shockingly high number!) but it is a 60% reduction from the 1950s, despite a doubling of the world population. To put this in a wider perspective: from 1900 to 1909, 27 million people died in famines, and more than 15 million died every decade from the 1920s to the 1960s.

'Democracy a potent weapon against famine'

“Strange as it sounds,” the author Johan Norberg points out, “democracy is one of our most potent weapons against famine.” There have been famines in communist states, absolute monarchies, colonial states and tribal societies, but never in a democracy. This is probably because rulers who are dependent on voters do everything to avoid starvation, and a free press makes the public aware of problems.

However, food is not enough to sustain life: we also require safe ways getting rid of refuse and waste. Without sanitation life is just as miserable, and potentially as dangerous. The concentration of people in cities makes sanitary problems acute. In 1900 the horses in New York City fouled the streets with more than 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60 000 gallons of urine daily!

In response, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century many cities built modern water and sewer systems and began garbage collection. With this advance came the effective filtering and chlorination of water supplies, with the acceptance of the germ theory of disease.

“Since 1990, 2.6 billion people have gained access to an improved water source, which means that 285,000 more people got safe water every day for twenty-five years,” Norberg explains.

Asking why some people are poor, is the wrong question. “We do not need an explanation for poverty, because that is the starting point for everybody. Poverty is what you have until you create wealth.”

The definition of poverty in France used to be the inability to buy bread to survive another day. In the richest countries in Europe in 1820, the per capita gross domestic product was the equivalent of around $1 500 to $2 000. This is less than in present-day Mozambique and Pakistan. The average world citizen was as poor as the average person in Haiti, Liberia and Zimbabwe today.  

With violent crime making the headlines every day, and the tragedies of 9/11, Syria, the horrors of Islamic State and terror attacks on major European cities, it is easy to think our era is especially plagued by violence.

Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has done exhaustive research on the history of violence. He concluded that the dramatic reduction in violence in our times “may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history”.

Bloodthirsty nursery rhymes

Nineteenth-century folk tales popular with children were filled with murder, cannibalism, mutilation and sexual abuse. Many nursery rhymes include the same themes. A study comparing violence on British television before 21:00 and nursery rhymes concluded that nursery rhymes are eleven times less safe for children.

Torture and mutilation was the norm in all great civilisations. The best minds in the medieval period were occupied with coming up with ways of inflicting as much pain as possible on people before they confessed or died.

According to Steven Pinker’s sources, the average annual rate of violent death for non-state societies – from hunter-gatherer tribes to gold rush societies in California – was 524 per 100 000. The homicide rate in the US, which is much more violent than Europe, is now lower than 5 per 100 000.

With the rise of more humanitarian attitudes, a sharp mind and tongue is now valued more than a sharp sword. The fitness and readiness to strike out is now being replaced by a readiness to control one’s emotions. With families having fewer children, the perceived value of each human life has increased.

There are still those who gladly inflict pain on their victims, but now even sadists and psychopaths have the right to a fair trial.

The number of fatalities from terrorist activity has increased fivefold since 2000, according to the Global Terrorism Index.  Terrorism is spectacular, dramatic and frightening - which is the whole point. But it kills very few. Since 2000, around 400 people have died from terrorism in the OECD countries annually, and mostly in Turkey and Israel. More Europeans drown in their own bathtubs, and ten times more die falling down the stairs.

“When we don’t see the progress we have made,” says Norberg, “we begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain.” This book is not only an intellectual pick-me-up, but was also written as a warning - it would be a terrible mistake to take the progress we have made for granted. 

Readability:     Light ---+- Serious
Insights:         High +---- Low
Practical:         High ----+ Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of the recently-released Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.

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