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NORBERG, Johan

Progress

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Consider a ten-year-old girl 200 years ago. Wherever she had been born, she could not have expected to live longer than around 30 years. She would have had five to seven siblings, and she would already have seen at least one or two of them die. The chance that her mother would survive childbirth was smaller than the chance that the present generation will meet their grandparents.

She would have been brought up under conditions we consider unbearable. Her family would not have had access to clean water or a toilet. Chances are that they did not even have a latrine; they would have used a ditch or gone behind a tree. Her surroundings would have been littered with garbage and faeces, contaminating water sources and devastating lives. Her parents would live in constant fear that she would be taken away by tuberculosis, cholera, smallpox, measles—or starvation.

This little girl would have been stunted, skinny and short, since she lived in a world of chronic undernourishment and recurring famine, where people did not get the energy to grow and function properly. This would also have halted her brain’s proper development. She would not receive any schooling, and would never learn to read or write.

She would certainly have been put to work at an early age, but would have been blocked from almost all occupations, and would be considered the property of her father, until he married her away, at which point ownership would pass to her husband. If he beat her or raped her, there was no law banning it. She would not be able to organise politically to change this, since she would not have the right to vote or stand for election, no matter where she lived.

She lived in a brutal world, where the risk of a violent death was almost three times higher than today. Britain had 300 capital offences on the books, and she would still see corpses displayed on gibbets…

The same ten-year-old girl living today is more likely to reach retirement age than her forebears were to live to their fifth birthday. Even if she lives in one of the world’s poorest countries, she has better access to nutrition than a girl in the richest countries 200 years ago. The risk that she will lead a life of extreme poverty has declined from 90 percent to less than ten percent. She goes to school just like almost everyone in her generation, and illiteracy will be eradicated during her lifetime. Her parents probably support her so that she won’t have to drop out to work. Now she has a good chance of living in a democracy, where women have individual rights and protections. She faces a lower risk of experiencing war than any other generation in human history. Her risk of dying from a natural disaster is 95 percent smaller than it would have been 100 years ago, and she will not even hear of a major famine anywhere.

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