Book Summary: “Progress” by Johan Norberg

Title: Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future
Author: Johan Norberg
Scope: 5 stars
Readability: 5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Norberg documents the enormous progress for humanity over the last 250 years in:

  • Food
  • Sanitation
  • Life Expectancy
  • Poverty
  • Violence
  • Environment
  • Literacy
  • Freedom
  • Equality

If you would like to learn more about Progress, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • Despite all the focus in the news and politics about problems, today humanity is better off than it has ever been… by far
  • Volumes of statistics in a wide variety of domains document it.
  • Taking this progress for granted is one of the greatest threats to the continuation of this progress.

Important Quotes

“Despite what we hear on the news and from many authorities, the great story of our era is that we are witnessing the greatest improvement in global living standards ever to take place.”

“Humans are not always rational or benevolent, but in general they want to improve their lives and the lives of their families, and with a tolerable degree of freedom they will work hard to make this happen. Step by step, this adds to humanity’s store of knowledge and wealth. In this era, more people are allowed to experiment with different perspectives and solutions to problems than before. So we constantly accumulate more scientific and other knowledge and every individual can contribute and achieve on the shoulders of hundreds of millions who have come before in a virtuous cycle.

This book is about humanity’s triumphs. But it is not a message of complacency. It is written partly as a warning. It would be a terrible mistake to take this progress for granted. We have lived with these problems for most of history. There are forces at work in the world that would destroy the pillars of this development – the individual freedoms, open economy and technological progress”


“Getting enough energy for the body and the brain to function well is the most basic human need, but historically, it has not been satisfied for most people. Famine was a universal, regular phenomenon, recurring so insistently in Europe that it ‘became incorporated into man’s biological regime and built into his daily life”

“In the mid-nineteenth century, the average daily calorific intake in western Europe was between 2,000 and 2,500 – below what it is in Africa today. In 1950, it was already around 3,000”

“the FAO estimates that about two billion people have been freed from a likely state of hunger in the past twenty-five years.”

“Even better news than the decline of chronic undernourishment is the disappearance of major famines”


[In USA] “clean water was responsible for forty-three per cent of the total reduction in mortality, seventy-four per cent of the infant mortality reduction and sixty-two per cent of the child mortality reduction”

In 1980, no more than twenty-four per cent of the world’s population had access to proper sanitation facilities. By 2015, this had increased to sixty-eight per cent. Nearly a third of the current global population gained access in the last twenty-five years – 2.1 billion people.”

Life Expectancy:

“the bulk of humanity’s mortality reduction has been experienced by only the last four of the roughly 8,000 generations of homo sapiens since we evolved around 200,000 years ago.”

“Average life expectancy in the world was thirty-one years in 1900. Today, amazingly, it is seventy-one years.”

“It is a result of globalization, which makes it easier for countries to use the knowledge and technology that it took generations and vast sums of money to generate….“Interestingly, even though there is a strong relationship between health and wealth, it is difficult to find a relationship between health and recent growth rates.”

In this era of globalization, the most important factor behind a country’s success is the success of other countries. Even a country such as Haiti, which is one of very few countries that is poorer today than it was in the 1950s, has reduced its infant mortality rate by almost two-thirds.”

“As people got healthier and secured a stable supply of food, they could work harder and better. As life expectancy increased, skills could be built up for longer and were put to better use.”


“Why are some people poor?

That 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.”

“Despite a few ups and downs, humanity had experienced almost no economic development until the early nineteenth century”

“In the early nineteenth century, poverty rates even in the richest countries were higher than in the poor countries today. In the United States, Britain and France, around forty to fifty per cent of the population lived in what we now call extreme poverty, a rate that you have to go to sub-Saharan Africa to find today. In Scandinavia, Austria-Hungary, Germany and Spain around sixty to seventy per cent were extremely poor. Homelessness was a common phenomenon.”

“The key to Asia’s development was its integration into the global economy. Better transport and communication technologies and more openness to trade and investment in recent years have made it possible for low- and middle-income countries to prosper. Even poor countries that opened their economies could find a niche in a free trade world by producing simple but labour-intensive goods such as clothes, toys and electronics. This led to a constant upgrading of skills and production, so that they became better at more qualified, technology-intensive production, and eventually knowledge-intensive production, such as finance, law, PR, research and education. This in turn gave other poor countries an opportunity to step into the old labour-intensive niche. This is why East Asian economies have been likened to a flock of geese. From their different positions in the flock, they have all moved forward to better positions, step by step.”

“Between 1960 and the end of the 1990s rich countries still grew faster than poor on average. Only thirty per cent of developing countries grew faster than the United States. ”

“Between 2000 and 2011, ninety per cent of developing countries have grown faster than the US, and they have done it on average by three per cent annually. In just a decade, per capita income in the world’s low- and middle-income countries has doubled”

“With a $2 a day threshold for extreme poverty, adjusted for purchasing power in 1985, ninety-four per cent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty in 1820, eighty-two per cent in 1910 and seventy-two per cent in 1950”

“By all our best estimates, global poverty has been reduced by more than one percentage point annually for three decades.”

“It seems like the best way of making growth pro-poor is to make it high and keep it high. A study of 118 countries over four decades shows that almost all the income growth for the poorest in society has been led by average growth in those countries, rather than changes in income distribution…. So the amount of wealth being generated has a greater effect than its distribution.”


“The dramatic reduction in violence ‘may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history”

“The first step in the pacification process was associated with the early agricultural civilizations. They were more hierarchical and could be unbelievably brutal towards their citizens, but they did reduce the constant raiding and feuding of non-settled communities, and led to something like a five-fold decrease in rates of violent deaths”

“But in the early modern era, something incredible happened. The European homicide rate declined from thirty to forty, to nineteen per 100,000 in the sixteenth century and eleven in the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century it came down to 3.2 and today it is around one. In his study of historical homicide rates, Manuel Eisner explains that this process began in England and the Netherlands, the centres of modernization where urbanization, the market economy and literacy had gone the furthest. Then it spread to Scandinavia”

“The next step in the pacification process was the institution of judicial rules and central governments.”

“If there are no centralized methods for arbitration and punishment, individuals have to be ready to defend themselves and their kin, and to build a reputation for being violent and unforgiving. ‘… This might make sense for the individual, but it also creates violent codes of honour, where men are always ready to fight back as soon as they are affronted in any way.”


“Today, it seems like technology and affluence are not an obstacle to environmental sustainability, but rather its precondition. The world’s most polluted places are not London, New York and Paris, but cities like Beijing and New Delhi. The Environmental Performance Index is an attempt to measure environmental sustainability around the world, focusing on nine issue areas comprised of twenty indicators. ‘Wealth emerges as a major determinant of environmental performance’ was one of its first conclusions. The wealthier the country, the more it had done to clean up the environment and to make it safe for humanity”


“Literacy – the ability to read and write texts – is one of the most important skills, since it is the capacity to acquire even more capacity. It makes it possible to make much greater use of knowledge that others have. This often reduces poverty directly since it makes it possible to pick up skills and ideas that make you more productive and able to use technology better.”

“Literacy is what’s known as a classical relational good – the more people who can read and write, the more you stand to benefit from being able to read and write. And if a sufficient proportion is literate, business and culture is transformed so that it becomes punishingly difficult to participate in society if you are illiterate. In most societies, as literacy becomes more broad-based, the trend becomes self-sustaining.”

“This means that today, only fourteen per cent of the global adult population can’t read and write, whereas in 1820 only twelve per cent could.”


“Between thirty and sixty per cent of Africans were slaves before the Europeans took control of the slave trade there, taken by Arabs or other African tribes.”

“There can hardly be a stronger example of human progress than the fact that slavery, which existed in almost all countries as late as 1800, is now formally banned everywhere.”

“One classic study found that ‘the level of economic development, as measured by per capita income, is by far the best predictor of political regimes’. The most important factor is not that economic development directly results in democratization, but that when a regime changes for whatever reason – it can be the death of the dictator, popular protests or anything else – democracy is far more likely to survive in a fairly wealthy country. At a GDP per capita below $1,500 annually, there is a much greater risk that a new democracy will founder.

But as incomes rise, the chance that a democracy will survive grows dramatically. In fact, the study found that a democracy has never died in a country with a per capita income higher than that of Argentina in 1975 – around $8,000.”


“Racism has been a natural part of most people’s mindset since ancient times and hostility towards (and even enslavement of) other ethnic groups was a regular occurrence. History is one long record of hatred against peoples that were considered inferior.”

Greater Women’s Rights

Greater Gay Rights


“We cannot call it ignorance if you can’t beat a random choice; we must have inaccurate assumptions based on misleading or outdated information.”

“These assumptions are often formed by the media, which reinforces a particular way of looking at the world, a tendency to focus on the dramatic and surprising, which is almost always bad news, like war, murder and natural disasters.”

“And of course, political parties, campaigners and pressure groups always exploit our fear to promote their own ideologies.”

If you would like to learn more about Progress, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s