Better and Better: The Myth of Inevitable Progress

"Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better." That mantra, invented by the self-taught psychologist Émile Coué in the nineteenth century, kept running through my head as I read Indur Goklany's new book on the relationship between economic growth and human and environmental progress, The Improving State of the World. Just as Coué told his patients that incessant repetition of his mantra would make it come true, Goklany seems to believe that saying often enough -- and in enough different ways -- that life today is better than ever will make it so.

Goklany depicts a global economy in which nearly all signs are positive -- and in which the problems that do exist, such as stagnation or setbacks in sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union, will be solved if economic growth and technological improvements are allowed to work their magic. Nor is this, in Goklany's account, a new phenomenon. He marshals an impressive array of historical data to argue that the trajectory of the twentieth century has been generally upward and onward. Taken as a whole, Goklany argues, humanity really has been getting better and better day by day, so that today, as his subtitle puts it, "we're living longer, healthier, more comfortable lives on a cleaner planet."

Seen from a broad historical perspective, this description is, for most people, accurate enough. Just about everyone living today is the beneficiary of what can almost certainly be called the single most consequential development in human history -- namely, the onset of industrialization. As the economic historian Angus Maddison has shown in a series of studies of economic development over the past two millennia, human economies grew very little, if at all, for most of human history. Between 1000 and 1820 or so, Maddison estimates, annual economic growth was around 0.05 percent a year -- which meant that living standards improved incredibly slowly and that people living in 1800 were only mildly better off than people living in 1000. But sometime around 1820, that all began to change. Between 1820 and today, world per capita real income grew 20 times as fast as it did in the previous eight centuries.

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