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There is no famine in South London today

Gonzalo Castro de la Mata's picture

Not a likely headline in today’s world, and yet this is among the most important news in recent history. Since Homo sapiens appeared on the planet, societies have experienced steady progress on all issues related to their wellbeing: access to food, sanitation, life expectancy, poverty, violence, the environment, literacy, freedom and equality. More importantly, progress in the last two centuries has accelerated to the point that the great majority of humans today live longer, better, healthier and richer lives than did their parents and grandparents.

“Progress” is indeed the title of the recently published book by Swedish author Johan Norberg. In it, and after building and analyzing a robust set of metadata compiled from the OECD, the World Bank, UN agencies and other reliable sources, he concludes categorically that “by almost any index, things are markedly better now that they have ever been for almost everyone alive.”

Some examples. Norberg points out that harvests failed frequently in Sweden in the 17th century, and a single famine between 1696 and 1697 killed one in 15 people. There were even some accounts of cannibalism. As economies in Europe grew, per capita consumption of calories increased from around 1,800 in the mid-18th century to 2,700 in 1850. Famines disappeared, and Sweden was declared free from hunger in the early 1900s. But progress is not circumscribed to Europe. Globally, undernourishment fell from 50 percent of the world’s population in 1945 to about 10 percent today. Similarly, access to water and sanitation has increased steadily in its coverage, going from 50 percent to 92 percent in terms of access to clean water, and from 25 percent to 68 percent in terms of sanitation in the last 50 years. The consequence is the removal of one of the main sources of death and disease.

As a result of these and similar improvements in areas such as poverty, violence and illiteracy, life expectancy has also grown markedly, increasing from 31 years in 1900 to 71 years today. As life-expectancy increases, the notion that we approach death by one year for every year we age is no longer true. In fact, in the 20th century we approached death by seven months for every year we aged! Equally important, we live in a world where freedom is much more common than oppression, and where the number of “free countries” greatly exceeds that of “not free” or “partially free.”

Despite a few exceptions, progress has been both relentless and widespread, and more and more people live in countries where property rights, economic freedom and civil liberties continue to strengthen over time. Why then do most people believe that things are much worse today than before? According to Norberg, and this brings the story to its full circle, good news does not make headlines, and thus the phrase coined by him and used as the title of this blog: “There is no famine in South London today.”

The author concludes, however, on a cautionary note: “The fact that things have getting better – overwhelmingly so – does not guarantee progress in the future.” This is indeed the main reason why we need to be vigilant and continue to work towards the full achievement of the values of a better society.

As American satirist James Branch Cabell said: “The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.” If we continue on track, there is every reason to be optimistic about the future.

Photo credit: Aigul Eshtaeva / World Bank. At the geography class in Ashimov school of Tuyp region.

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Submitted by David on

Norberg's book is very compelling and he marshals a huge array of information to make his point. The question which needs to be asked is how is it that against this background so many in the world have been allowed to develop a sense that times are worse than before. More work needs to be done to create an environment where the "good news" headline of the post does indeed become more common. Norberg's book does much to assemble the foundation of evidence which should be used wherever possible to provide the needed perspective.

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