Our world is improving....really.

Our world is improving....really.

A Harvard psychologist's new book, The Long Peace, shows that our world is actually getting much safer, and even less divided.

There’s a maxim in human organizations; fear, anger, and optimism are our greatest motivators. Intrinsically, as a species, we’ve used these emotional triggers to galvanize ourselves. As individuals or as masses of people, these fundamental emotions have spurred endeavors both majestic and devastating. The modern media machinery is one of the most prolific and impactful methods of spreading and harnessing these emotional impulses. It’s with that in mind that Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker is saying something that will blow your mind: the world is safer than it has ever been.

On broadcast a

nd internet news sources the world over, a parade of images and sound-bites seems to reinforce an opposite truth. Wars, both international and civil, plague the middle east. Violent crime and senseless massacres in Norway, Israel, Pakistan, China, Mexico, and the United States. Terrorism has turned into an industry in and of itself. It’s with these media images, to say nothing of natural disasters, economic uncertainty, and the other illnesses of the 21st century, that many people are feeling the fear, and the anger, that are such primal triggers.

Pinker says, at least where violence is concerned, the world is a dramatically safer place than it has been, and is getting better at an accelerating pace. Pinker’s research makes use of statistical data depicting declines in war-time deaths, rapes, murders, family violence, and various other kinds of nefarious human activity. Clearly, data paints a much more gold-hued picture than the typical kinds of bloody narrative that plays our on the evening news. The data shows such a dramatic decline, in fact, that Pinker calls it, “the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species."

For one, war-time death has dropped nearly 1,000-fold since the dawn of civilization, a development effected as much by nation-building as by improvements in medicine and technology. One may look at nation-building as a historically bloody affair (and they wouldn’t be wrong), but once built, they actually provide the security and sustainability necessary to prevent war.

The rate of genocide deaths worldwide was 1,400 times greater in 1942. Of course, the Nazi’s Holocaust was an era of extreme devastation in modern history, comprising a spike in almost every type of violence in the middle of the 20th century. Still, historians believe that genocidal events were very commonplace through ancient and middle history. The Holocaust of World War II was mechanized and systematic in a way that had never occurred before in history, which is what makes it such a dramatic exception to the historical rule.

Democratic nations, which have been shown to be less violent, most stable, and a greater investment in the average person’s quality of life, are a relatively new development. In 1800 there was only one democracy in the world. By 1946, there were 20. Now, in 2012, there are nearly 100. The spread of democracy is indicative of a changing worldwide premium on human life; as Lincoln said, a government, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Murder has fallen to a 100th of what it was in the Middle Ages.  Domestic violence in the U.S. has fallen more than 90 percent since 1976, and rape has fallen 80 percent since 1973. Even conceptual violence (e.g. racial discrimination, gender prejudice, homophobia, support for the death penalty, etc) has fallen dramatically worldwide in previous decades. Pinker attributes these changes to increase in education, and thus intelligence, as each new generation builds upon the improvements of the past. Over time, this has lead to greater social awareness, human dignity, and work toward make communities both local and global better places to live.

Fear, anger, and optimism. These are the emotional triggers that have moved people to action. Although the world today may seem a more violent and uncertain place than it ever has, the reality is really quite different. Where many people today feel fear, or eve anger, toward their fellow man, we should be feeling optimism. Optimism that, on a grand scale, we are truly evolving to become a safer, more egalitarian and democratic global society.