“The more we are open to different solutions and different perspectives on these problems, the better off we are.”
Named by the Guardian as “a prophet of anti-pessimism” and “a blast of good sense” by the Economist, historian Johan Norberg is an expert on how we operate as a species, meditating on the world from bird’s eye view. He is senior Fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington D.C. and the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels, and has written over twenty books speculating on a wide range of fields, from global economics to popular science. In his most recent book, ‘Open: The Story of Human Progress’, an Economist book of the year, he makes the case that human beings are both open and closed-minded in our nature, but it is openness and collaboration that has ultimately been the key to our success.
We asked Johan what one word he thought was key to a kinder, more equitable, and greener world.
Read the full interview here:
I didn’t use to believe in human progress at all. I believed in the good old days and thought that the modern world was all just destruction, environmental pollution, and distractions from what’s important in life.
The thing that put me on another path was studying the good old days of my ancestors in Northern Sweden. I realised that they didn’t live these joyful lives in harmony with nature. When there was bad weather locally, they had a crop failure, and they starved—many branches of my own family tree were cut off during episodes like this.
That got me thinking: how can we come up with solutions to our problems? How can we innovate, how do we cooperate to create a better future than our past?
In the past two hundred years, we’ve achieved a lot by being open—learning from one another, sharing ideas, exchanging expertise. We’ve increased life expectancy from 30 years to more than 70 years. We’ve been successful in sending more kids to school, vaccinating more children, lifting more people out of extreme poverty than ever before in world history—from 90% to less than 9% today.
The problem is that we are double-natured: we are open and we are closed. We are open to new ideas and different perspectives, but we’re also closed-minded, especially in times of trouble. We think that it’s safer to hide behind barriers, or find scapegoats and attack them. Even trivial differences between our group and the other group can start us down a route of tribalism, nationalism, and racism.
But these evolutionary traits are prewired; they’re not hardwired. It’s our default setting, but default is not destiny. We can learn from history and economics that the world is not a zero-sum game. Trade and openness is what makes us resilient.
Nothing has strengthened my belief in openness as much as this pandemic. We saw that when we suddenly abandoned mobility, travel, and trade across borders, we immediately ended up in a global depression.
On the other hand, we saw extraordinary cooperation between hospitals, researchers, and pharmaceutical companies on different sides of the globe. It used to take mankind 3000 years to come up with a vaccine. This time around it took us three months until we had four different vaccines in clinical trials, and within a year we started to vaccinate people.
What I hope to accomplish is to tell our rational selves to listen to the open part of our minds. We’re all part of one and the same world and we need access to all the talent, the ideas, the production capacity of everybody. The more we are open to different solutions and different perspectives, the better off we all are.
“We’re all part of one and the same world and we need access to all the talent, the ideas, the production capacity of everybody.”