It’s a good time to be a pessimist. ISIS, Ebola, deadly policemen and gangs—who can avoid the feeling that things are falling apart and the centre cannot hold? But as troubling as the headlines have been, they deserve a second look because things aren't actually that bad.
So how can we get less hyperbolic about the state of the world?
Don’t look to daily media
News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen.
We never see a reporter saying to the camera, “Here we are, live from a country where a war hasn’t broken out,” or a city that hasn’t been bombed or a school that hasn’t been shot up. As long as violence occurs somewhere, there will be enough incidents to fill the news. And since our minds estimate probability by the ease with which we recall examples, we’ll perpetually perceive that we live in dangerous times.
We also have to avoid being fooled by randomness
Entropy, pathogens and human folly are always present in our lives, and it’s statistically certain that disasters will frequently overlap with one another rather than space themselves evenly in time. But to read significance into any such clusters is to succumb to primitive thinking and cosmic conspiracies.
Finally, we need to be mindful of orders of magnitude
Shooting rampages and terrorist attacks are riveting dramas but, outside of war zones, kill they relatively small numbers of people. As the political scientist John Mueller points out, in most years, bee stings, deer collisions, ignition of nightwear and other mundane accidents kill more people than terrorist attacks.
The only sound way to appraise the state of the world is to count: how many violent acts has the world seen compared with the number of opportunities, and is that number going up or down? Follow the trend lines, not the headlines. When we do, we can see that the trend lines are more encouraging than a news-watcher would guess.
"Many criminologists believe that a worldwide reduction in murder by 50 per cent in the next three decades is a feasible target."
About five to ten times as many people die in police incidents worldwide as die in wars, and in most of the world the rate of murder has been falling. The American crime decline of the 1990s, which plateaued at the start of the century, resumed in 2006; defying the conventional wisdom that hard times lead to violence, it continued during the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008 and through to the present.
Britain, Canada and most other industrialised countries have also seen their murder rates fall in the past decade. Among the 88 countries with reliable data, 67 have shown a decline in the past 15 years. Although numbers for the entire world exist only for this millennium and include estimates for countries that don’t collect data, the trend appears to be downwards, from 7.1 murders per 100,000 people in 2003 to 6.2 in 2012.
The global average, to be sure, conceals many regions with horrific rates of killing, particularly in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. But even in those hot zones, it’s easy for the headlines to mislead. For example, the gory, drug-fuelled killings in parts of Mexico can create an impression that the entire country has spiralled into lawlessness, but two factors can help dispel that notion.
One is that the 21st-century spike hasn’t undone the massive reduction in murder that Mexico has enjoyed since 1940. The other is that what goes up often comes down, and
the rate of Mexican murder has declined in the past few years. Other notoriously dangerous regions, from Colombia to South Africa, have also experienced significant turnarounds. Many criminologists believe that a worldwide reduction in murder by 50 per cent in the next three decades is a feasible target for the upcoming round of goals to be set by the UN.
Violence against women
"Many nations have implemented laws and public-awareness campaigns to reduce rape, forced marriage, genital mutilation, honour killing, domestic violence and wartime atrocities."
The US media coverage of athletes who have assaulted their wives or girlfriends, and of episodes of rape on university campuses, has suggested to some observers that the country is witnessing a surge of violence against women. But victimisation surveys from the US bureau of justice statistics show the opposite: rates of rape or sexual assault and of violence against intimate partners have been declining for decades, and they’re now a quarter or less of their peaks in the past.
Yes, far too many of these crimes still take place, but we should be encouraged by the fact that a heightened concern about violence against women has incited progress—with more to come.
While few other countries compile comparable data, there’s reason to believe that similar trends could be found elsewhere. In 1993, the UN General Assembly adopted a declaration on the elimination of violence against women, and polling data show widespread support for women’s rights, even in countries with the most antiquated practices. Many nations have implemented laws and public-awareness campaigns to reduce rape, forced marriage, genital mutilation, honour killing, domestic violence and wartime atrocities.
Violence against children
Similarly, news reports on school shootings, abductions, cyberbullying and sexual and physical abuse in the US can make it seem as if children are living in increasingly perilous times. But the data say otherwise: kids are certainly safer than in the past. In a review of the literature on violence against children published in 2014, sociologist David Finkelhor and his colleagues reported that “of 50 trends in exposure examined, there were 27 significant declines and no significant increases between 2003 and 2011. Declines were particularly large for assault victimisation, bullying and sexual victimisation.”
Genocide and other mass killings of civilians
The recent atrocities committed by ISIS, together with the ongoing killing of civilians in Syria, Iraq and central Africa, have fed a terrifying narrative in which the world has apparently learned nothing from the Holocaust and genocides continue unabated. But even the most horrific events of the present must be put into historical perspective.
"The world’s civilians are several thousand times less likely to be targeted today than they were 70 years ago."
By any standard, the world is nowhere near as genocidal as it was during its peak in the 1940s, when Nazi, Soviet and Japanese mass murders, together with the targeting of civilians by all sides in the Second World War, resulted in a civilian death rate of 350 deaths per 100,000 people per year. Even though the ruthless actions of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong in China kept the global rate between 75 and 150 through the early 1960s, it’s been falling ever since.
At the same time, the decline has been punctuated by periodic spikes of mass killings: Biafra (1966–1970; 200,000 deaths), Sudan (1983–2002; one million), Afghanistan (1978–
2002; one million), Indonesia (1965–1966; 500,000), Angola (1975–2002; one million), Rwanda (1994; 500,000), and Bosnia (1992–1995; 200,000). By keeping these numbers in mind
when considering the current horrors in Iraq (2003–2014; 150,000 deaths) and Syria (2011–2014; 150,000), we can see that they aren’t signs of a dark new era.
Overall, the trend lines for genocide and other civilian killings point sharply downwards. The world’s civilians are several thousand times less likely to be targeted today than they were 70 years ago.
Researchers who study war and peace distinguish “armed conflicts”, which kill as few as 25 soldiers and civilians caught in the line of fire in a year, from “wars”, which kill more than 1,000. They also separate “interstate” conflicts, which pit the armed forces of two or more states against one another, from “intrastate” or “civil” conflicts, which pit a state against an insurgency or separatist force, sometimes with the armed intervention of an external state. In a historically unprecedented development, the number of interstate wars has plummeted since 1945, and the most destructive kind of war—in which great powers or developed states fight one another—has vanished altogether. The last one was the Korean War.
The end of the Cold War also saw a steep reduction in the number of armed conflicts of all kinds, including civil wars, and recent events have not reversed this trend. In 2013, there were 33 state-based armed conflicts, a number that falls within the range of the past dozen years and well below the high of 52 that occurred shortly after the end of the Cold War. The Uppsala conflict data programme has also noted that 2013 saw the signing of six peace agreements, two more than in 2012.
But another development in wars is less positive: the number of wars jumped from four in 2010 (the lowest since the end of the Second World War) to seven in 2013. This jump—the steepest since the end of the Cold War—brought us to the highest number of wars since 2000.
The worldwide rate of battle deaths has also risen, mostly because of the Syrian civil war. Even so, this increase must be kept in perspective. While it has undone the progress
of the past dozen years, the rates are still well below those of the 1990s and nowhere near the levels of the 1940s to the 1980s.
Look for the hope, not the hype
As we can see from the different facts and figures, the world isn’t falling apart. The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable—murder, rape, child abuse—are in steady decline in most of the world. Wars between states, by far the most destructive of all conflicts, are all but obsolete. Might there be a better way to understand the world?
We can start by ignoring the pundits and columnists who are maximising the impression of mayhem and brushing up on our history instead. By focusing on the actual evidence rather than on the inflammatory headlines, we’d see many benefits.
It would inform and calibrate our national and international responses to the magnitude of the dangers facing us and also limit the influence of terrorists, school shooters, and other perpetrators of violence.
We can reawaken, again, the hope of the world.