Despite doubts, life is actually getting better

Johan Norberg, Oneworld, 246 pages, $24.99. Humans are a gloomy species. About 71 percent of Britons think the world is getting worse. Only 5 percent of Americans believe (correctly) that global poverty has fallen by half in the past 20 years. This is not simple ignorance, observes Johan Norberg, a Swedish economic historian. People are predisposed to think that things are worse than they are because they rely not on data, but on how easy it is to recall an example. Bad things are more memorable. Norberg unleashes a tornado of evidence that life is, in fact, getting better. 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. 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. Poverty is the starting point for all societies. What is astonishing is how fast it has receded. In 1820, 94 percent of humanity subsisted on less than $2 a day in modern money. That fell to 37 percent in 1990 and less than 10 percent in 2015. Not only have people grown much more prosperous; they also enjoy better health than even rich folks did in the past. This is due because of 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. This book is a blast of good sense. The main reason why things tend to get better is that knowledge is cumulative and easily shared.