Is the world getting worse ... or much better?

Opinion: Ken Trainor

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter

By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Are things getting worse? The state of the world? Humanity? The big picture? Almost without exception, when I hear people talk about the nation or the world, they either say it or imply it. Things have never been this bad. Things are definitely getting worse. Civilization is in decline.

Not true, according to Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature – Why Violence Has Declined (2011) and, more recently, Enlightenment Now. The former is one of the most influential books I've read, turning my own negative conventional wisdom on its head. Not only has violence declined, by every measure available, but the decline has been dramatic — over the course of centuries but also over the course of the past seven decades — and Pinker provides a ton of charts to prove it. The evidence is overwhelming, undeniable.

I can almost hear you thinking, "Everybody knows the 20th century was the bloodiest ever. What could be worse than the First and Second world wars, plus genocides?" 

Those cataclysms certainly represent lofty spikes on the charts, but, measured by the number of deaths from violence per 100,000 population, which is the standard used by scientists, the 20th century overall continued the downward trend that has accelerated since the "humanitarian revolution" in the 17th century. 

Believe it or not, the two world wars, as devastating as they were, fall well down the list of the most violent events in human history. And as violent as the first half of the 20th century was, historians have dubbed the 75 years since "The Long Peace."

As Pinker puts it, "While the 20th century certainly had more violent deaths than earlier ones, it also had more people." To calculate the deaths per 100,000, you have to multiply the fatalities from previous centuries' "hemoclysms" to equalize the population. So even though World War II had the largest death toll in sheer numbers (55 million) and Mao's genocides in China totaled 40 million, they rank 9 and 11 respectively on the list of the 21 worst examples of man's inhumanity to man. The First World War? Its 15 million deaths rank 16, right below Stalin's 20 million deaths by genocide.

Our perceptions of the present are distorted, Pinker says, by the "myopia of history." Our distant past was much bloodier than we realize, and the more recent examples of bloodletting, naturally, are fresher in our minds and therefore seem more significant.

But there is more to this book than making the case that humans aren't nearly as violent as we used to be. The more important consideration is the reasons violence has declined. As the book's title indicates, it has something to do with "the better angels of our nature," a phrase coined by Abraham Lincoln (the American Civil War, by the way, didn't crack the top 21).

Violence has declined in large part because humanity has, in fact, evolved and become more humane and civilized. But a number of factors contributed to this civilizing process, and all bets would be off if those factors were suddenly eliminated, Pinker says. 

Commerce is one of those factors. Free trade, Pinker says, diminished the economic incentive for one country to invade another. It's much easier and less costly to engage in trade than to commit vast resources to conquering other countries in order to steal what they have. In fact, since WWII, very few countries have invaded another. Most armed conflicts, these days, involve internal civil wars within failed states, aided by "proxy" states and even those are in decline.

But the reduction in violence goes well beyond armed conflict between nations. 

"It is an unmistakable development," Pinker writes in the book's preface, "visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children."

The decline of violence, however, "has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue." If the internal and external factors that have brought about this decline are undermined or undone, progress can be reversed.

Nonetheless, he writes, "This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not — and I know that most people do not — violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species' existence." 

Why is recognizing this so important?

"What could be more fundamental to our sense of meaning and purpose," he writes, "than a conception of whether the strivings of the human race over long stretches of time have left us better or worse off? … As one becomes aware of the decline of violence, the world begins to look different. The past seems less innocent; the present less sinister."

But this knowledge must not make us complacent: "We enjoy the peace we find today because people in past generations were appalled by the violence in their time and worked to reduce it, and so we should work to reduce the violence that remains in our time. Indeed it is a recognition of the decline of violence that best affirms such efforts are worthwhile."

In other words, comparing today's violence with the past shouldn't make us feel better. It should make us that much more resolved to finish the job.

And it also warrants a reorientation of our world view. 

"Instead of asking, 'Why is there war?'" Pinker writes, "we might ask, 'Why is there peace?' We can obsess not just over what we have been doing wrong but also over what we have been doing right. Because we have been doing something right, and it would be good to know what, exactly, it is."

Why is it important to read this book? Our view of the world as bad and getting worse is not only self-defeating; it's 180 degrees wrong. If we are wrong about things getting worse, what else are we wrong about? And how could rejecting our faulty perceptions help improve our world?

Pinker concludes, "For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment we can savor, and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible."


Reader Comments

No Comments - Add Your Comment

Note: This page requires you to login with Facebook to comment.

Comment Policy

Facebook Connect

Answer Book 2018

To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2018 Answer Book, please click here.

Quick Links

Sign-up to get the latest news updates for Oak Park and River Forest.

MultimediaContact us
Submit Letter To The Editor
Place a Classified Ad