The event begins with the chair, Julia Hobsbawm, asking the audience to raise their hands if they currently felt optimistic about the world, and predictably only a few hands fly into the air. Johan Norberg, a Swedish academic and author of Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, smiles knowingly. He knows this is the case and knows that this is why we are all here: because we want to be convinced otherwise.
Over the next half an hour, he passionately argues his case, and what a compelling case it appears to be at first: that in despite of the perpetual doom and gloom propaganda of our times, we have in fact made enormous progress in the past 25 years. Facts are dispensed with ease (every day for the past 25 years 285,000 more people have been able to drink clean water; then there’s the vast numbers that have been lifted out of extreme poverty each year, the rising literacy and education rates).
So, in the face of such successes, why we don’t believe we are in an age of progress? Well, he says, due to a mixture of doom-laden media saturation and human nature – we are, as he puts it, always worrying and unable to focus on the positives. But we are not condemned to a world of pessimism, as Norberg believes this tendency inspires us enact change. We just need to be honest with our situation and balance what we see accordingly.
His case made, Julia Hobsbawm capably challenges him on the statistics – aren’t you guilty of massaging the numbers to aid your argument? Yes and no he answers, stating that in order to be problem solvers, we need to be problem seekers and that these statistics show us where problems still exist and thus where we should focus our efforts. A few questions from the audience try to pin him down: the world may be making progress, one man says, but one single state in America has more political power than any of the countries that have emerged from poverty to play a role on the international stage – is that really progress? Norberg agrees, but says little about how this could be changed. Of course, this kind of event raises far more questions than it can ever answer in the allotted time, but in a way Norberg has already convinced us, because it takes a certain kind of person to attend an event dispelling the myths of perpetual doom – maybe not an overt optimistic, but certainly a hopeful one. Maybe it is that realisation alone that is the source of Norberg’s own optimism.
For more on the Edinburgh International Book Festival and it’s programme click here.