Review of ‘Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future’ by Johan Norberg


Johan Norberg, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (London, OneWorld, 2016).

“Nothing is more responsible for the good old days,” wrote Franklin Pierce Adams, “than a bad memory.” The good old days, in other words, weren’t so good. Indeed, if Johan Norberg is to be believed, the good old days are right now.

Drawing on a variety of social science data, Norberg points to ten ways the world has progressed over the last three centuries:

  • Food is plentiful and cheap.
  • Clean water and good sanitation are increasingly available.
  • Life expectancy is longer.
  • Poverty has fallen dramatically.
  • War and violence blight fewer lives.
  • Increasing wealth has benefited the environment.
  • Literacy is widespread.
  • People are increasingly free of arbitrary authority.
  • Equality is increasingly experienced and demanded.

None of this denies specific counterexamples, of course. Hunger, pollution, terrorism, and poverty are facts of life for many throughout the world. Still, in historical perspective as well as in absolute terms, these ills are on the decline.

Take extreme poverty, for example. Norberg writes:

…In 1981, fifty-four per cent of the world lived in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank. This already marks an historic achievement. According to an ambitious attempt to measure poverty over the long run, 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 population in 1820, eighty-two per cent in 1910 and seventy-two percent in 1950.

But in the last few decades things have really begun to change. Between 1981 and 2015 the proportion of low- and middle-income countries suffering from extreme poverty was reduced from fifty-four percent to twelve per cent….

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

The next time you and your friends debate income inequality, keep that statistic in mind. Yes, there is income inequality in the world, but the floor of that inequality is no longer extreme poverty for the vast majority of the world’s population.

That’s good news, right? Of course it is! And it’s a reason—along with other improvements in the material conditions of humanity—to give thanks at this time of year.

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The Wandering Appetite (Ecclesiastes 6:1–12)


Some time ago, I was speaking with a friend about the men she works with. They all are very well educated, hard working, and successful, at least in monetary terms. Most of them are married, and although they do not spend much time with their wives, they compensate for their personal absence with monetary presents.

Are they happy? Do they have the ability to enjoy the wealth they have accumulated so far? Could they call it quits today and take pleasure in their wives, children, and hobbies? Evidently not. They are too competitive. They feel too strongly a need to acquire more and more stuff, and—just as importantly—to make sure their colleagues know about their acquisitions.

They have, in other words, what the Preacher calls “the wandering of the appetite” (Ecclesiastes 6:1–12).[1] Their hunger for more is never satisfied, it is always on a quest for an unholy grail. This lust for stuff, a perpetual discontent with the blessings one already has, is “an evil” that “lies heavy on mankind.” They have “wealth, possessions, and honor”—all gifts of God—but no “power to enjoy them,” which also comes from God’s grace.

To a certain extent, of course, the good life consists of both things: an abundance of material comforts and the power to enjoy them. But, if one must choose between the two, it is always better to have contentment than wealth. “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite.” A wise person sees what is right in front of him and is happy; a fool is only happy for what he thinks lies unseen over the horizon.

The Apostle Paul knew the surpassing value of contentment. “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content,” he writes in Philippians 4.11–13. “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Whence comes the source of this contentment? “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Regarding our material possessions, then, we should learn to be content. Only when it comes to God should we have a wandering appetite and an insatiable desire for more.

 

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wealth, the Problematic Gift of God (Ecclesiastes 5:8–20)


In Ecclesiastes 5.8–20, the Preacher lists three problems with wealth but then, surprisingly, concludes that it is nevertheless a gift from God.[1]

The first problem with wealth the Preacher identifies is the unholy nexus between wealth and oppression. Verses 8–9 are notoriously difficult to interpret because the Hebrew underlying them is enigmatic. The English Standard Version translates them as referring to corrupt government officials who oppress the poor, but are protected in their injustice by their bureaucratic superiors. This is probably the best reading of the text, and it highlights a perennial problem with government. In the words of Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The antidote to corrupt government is not anarchy, however, but good government: “a king committed to cultivated fields.” A good government official desires that both the capital (land) and labor of his nation be fully utilized.

The second problem with wealth the Preacher identifies is that the desire for more is unquenchable. “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (verse 10)—a thing that goes “Poof!” The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence; the Joneses cannot be kept up with. Any person, therefore, who measures his life by how much stuff he is accumulating will be eternally disappointed. To think otherwise is foolish.

The third problem with wealth the Preacher identifies is the difficulty of keeping what you have earned: “riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture” (verses 13–14). The picture seems to be of a man who has saved up all his money to invest it in a single venture, which goes bust, costing the man everything. He has spent hours, days, weeks, months, and years accumulating his wealth, but loses them in an instant. In a larger sense, of course, this is the course of everyone’s life: We are born possessing nothing but our own skin and we die the same way. So why spend our few hours on earth working, when its only result is “darkness…vexation and sickness and anger” (verse 17)?

Having identified these three problems with wealth, however, the Preacher comes to a surprising conclusion—at least in my mind. Wealth is “the gift of God,” and everyone to whom God has given “wealth and possessions and power” ought to “enjoy them” (verses 18–20). There is, you see, nothing inherently wrong with having abundant material possessions. God, after all, created a very material world, pronounced it good, and invited us both to enjoy and cultivate its bounty. Wealth becomes a trap to its possessor when he uses it to harm others, makes its acquisition an ultimate priority, or lets its maintenance cause him great anxiety of soul.

As Americans, we are very wealthy people, comparatively speaking. But we ought to make it our aim to avoid the dangers of wealth by earning it honestly, investing it wisely, sharing it generously, and above all remembering that, in the words of Jesus, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12.15).

 

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Vanity at Fashion Island (Ecclesiastes 2:1–11)


When I’m on vacation in California, I like to while away the hours at Fashion Island in Newport Beach. Not because of the fashion, mind you; I cannot afford the clothes most of the stores sell. No, I like to grab a Venti Chai Latte from Starbucks followed by book browsing at Barnes and Noble and lunch at La Salsa, capped off with a movie at the Big Edwards, which advertises itself “the largest screen west of the Mississippi.” If I am able to do all that when I visit California, I consider the trip to be a huge success.

I also like to people watch at Fashion Island. With stores such as Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus and At Ease—not to mention a parking lot filled with Mercedes and Lexi—Fashion Island attracts a clientele whose pocket change probably exceeds my annual salary. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the rich are different, which they are of course, and therefore oh so fun to watch.

Now, you might wonder why I am telling you about my fascination with Fashion Island in a daily devotional. Well, it is because I cannot help but think of the place when I read Ecclesiastes 2:1–11.[1] Qoheleth, the author of the book, describes his lifestyle, which to my mind, seems a lot like that of the people who can afford to shop there. It is a life devoted to pleasure and beauty and wealth and accomplishment.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of those things, by the way. God created us with bodies capable of much pleasure. He made a beautiful world and delights when we also make beautiful things in it. One of the consistent themes in wisdom literature such as Ecclesiastes and Proverbs is that those who do God’s will experience material bounty and blessing. And God designed humankind to be inventive workers who accomplish great things. Notice what Qoheleth writes in verse 10: “And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.” Qoheleth feels no guilt for working hard, earning much, and spending it on life’s pleasures. Neither should we—as long as, like him, we remember to be guided by God’s wisdom.

And yet, having worked so hard and earned so much and experienced so many pleasures, Qoheleth still is not satisfied. Laughter is madness, pleasure is useless, hard work is “vanity and a striving after wind” (2:11). They are hebel: ephemeral and unreliable. I think about my day off and see the truth of what Qoheleth says: the coffee gets cold, the pages of books yellow with age, fashions change and clothes wear out, food rots, one week’s movie blockbuster is the next week’s “has been” show.

Is it good, then, to work hard and buy stuff? Of course. But life can be better. Centuries after Qoheleth wrote, Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19, 20).

Fashion Island is good, at least on vacations. Heaven is best; it lasts forever. We will be wise if we seek our pleasures there.

 

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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