Book Review: Progress by Johan Norberg

Whenever I tell people that I cycle to work each morning I am met with furrowed brows and scrunched mouths. “Isn’t that a bit dangerous?” People ask me, before reminding me of the poor man who was recently crushed beneath an articulated lorry. Well, actually no, it isn’t. Too often we form judgements based on memorable events rather than common ones. So the headlines telling us of tragedies on two wheels give us the impression that when setting out to cycle in London, you are putting your life on the line.

The same can be said of almost any other unfortunate event. It is undeniable that people around the world are for the most part, merchants of misery, always ready to remind us that Brexit will be a disaster, or that global warming will be the death of us all.

Which is why reading Economist Johan Norberg’s latest book Progress was such a joy. He draws attention to the fact that pessimism across the globe is widespread - from the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff testifying before Congress that “the world is a more dangerous place than it has ever been”, to Pope Francis claiming that globalisation has condemned many people to starve. Then he gives us ten good reasons, in ten good chapters why this sentiment is wrong.

Norberg zooms you through food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the environment, literacy, freedom and then equality before rounding things up with a chapter named “the next generation” in which he asserts that “the future is in our hands”. Along the way, you are bombarded with facts, figures and pleasantly surprised by the occasional graph, so that by the end you scratch your head and question just how on earth it could be possible that so many despair so much.

Occasionally the book reads a little staccato like, and on at times the speed at which the facts are hurtled your way can feel somewhat swamping. But overall it is hard to come away from the book feeling anything other than optimistic.

This all gives me the impression that this could have been a very long book, and I am glad that Norberg did not make it so. Not because what he wrote was in any way boring or irrelevant –it was the exact opposite. But because Norberg’s ten chapters are the literary equivalent of the miniskirt – long enough to cover what needs to be covered, but still short enough to keep things interesting. They’re full of things great for throwing into a conversation. His anecdote about his great-great-great-great Grandfather shows just how far we have come in such a short period of time. More people have been lifted out of poverty in the last 25 years than have been in the last 25,000 years.

All the time, Norberg gives credit to globalisation and the rise of free markets, and rightfully points out that as humans have become freer, they have become more prosperous. Defying prevailing thought about how Globalisation has been bad for the environment, he shows how it has been anything but by using many examples, one being how more efficient agricultural technology might mean that we have reached “peak farmland” and how as a result by the year 2100 a plot of land the size of France may be returned to nature.

Progress is a thought provoking book. It is well worth a read.