Wars, terrorism, gun violence, ethnic hatred, poverty…
The world is going to hell in a hand basket, right?
Not so fast, says Harvard polymath Steven Pinker. Look at the long-term trends in history with hard data, not headlines.
“The world continues to improve in just about every way. Extreme poverty, child mortality, illiteracy, and global inequality are at historic lows; vaccinations, basic education (including for girls), and democracy are at all-time highs,” he said in a Vox.com interview late last year.
Pinker wrote The Better Angels of Our Nature in 2011, in which he detailed the steady decline in violence over the past several centuries. The decline is unprecedented, and “may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.”
ISIS and Islamic terrorists get tons of press, and it can seem we’ve never seen the like. But during the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the Weathermen, the IRA, and the Red Brigades were every bit as bloody. (And in the long run, completely failed to achieve their aims…) And don’t forget the Vietnam (up to 4 million killed) or Iran-Iraq wars (half a million killed).
As awful as 9-11 was, almost fourteen times more Americans (42,196) died in traffic crashes that year than died in the towers. And while that level of highway carnage is fearsome, there are no shortage of measures to show it’s getting better. The death toll was almost twenty-five percent lower in 2014 (32,675). If you look at highway deaths in terms of millions of miles travelled, they are at an all-time low in the U.S., anyway. Over seven people died for every million miles travelled in 1950; that has declined steadily, and is now about 1 to 1.2 deaths for every million miles travelled. Seven times safer in just sixty years!
Consider literacy. In 1990, about 76% of adults worldwide could read and write; by 2010, it was over 85%, according to the United Nations.
Extreme poverty is way down. In 1981, the World Bank estimated that just over 42% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty; in 2013, it was less than eleven percent.
One thing that hasn’t changed is this: It’s still far easier to be pessimistic or cynical. It’s not hard to find examples of war, terrorism, gun violence, ethnic hatred, poverty, etc. Or to find people who believe all of these things are getting worse. From the population bomb to the atom bomb, from the red scare to a cultural Armageddon, over the last sixty years it’s never been hard to find someone predicting the end of civilization as we know it.
They get a lot more ink than those who, day after day engage in peace-making, disarmament, community building, and wealth creation.
Yes, on any given day, thousands and thousands of people are killing and doing evil things.
I am sure that’s been true since we first crawled out of the primordial ooze.
But also on any day, millions and millions – why, I expect now it’s even billions – of people are engaged in trying to make life better for themselves, their families, and their communities.
And the numbers are pretty clear: the builders are winning.
It is a lot less work to be pessimistic, even cynical. But be careful. Where do you think that path leads?
Happy New Year.