For many politicians and media outlets, promoting a narrative that is biased towards the negative aspects of world events can be an effective way to engage the public’s attention or win support. There are moments when, on face value, it would seem as if the world is becoming a darker, more dangerous place. At times, it can be easy to lose perspective on how far we have come as a species, particularly in the past several hundred years. There are many diverse challenges facing our world that all need addressing, but we can take a measure of comfort in knowing that quality and security of life have been increasing steadily for most people throughout the centuries, and that they continue to do so.
On both the local and international stage, acts of violence on all scales understandably produce a disproportionate amount of attention in the public. Due to the increasing scope and accessibility of media, these acts become magnified. However, one measurable way in which the world has altogether become a much more congenial place to live is in the decline of violence. In his highly regarded work, “Better Angels of Our Nature,” Harvard linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker makes a convincing argument that the world has been becoming progressively less violent over millennia, even when catastrophic events such as the world wars of the 20th century are taken into account. Among the several causes Pinker attributes to this phenomenon are the tendency of states to centralize and to monopolize force over time and, more recently, the rising and spreading of enlightenment values such as humanism and democracy.
This reduction accounts for violence committed within states as well as interstate conflicts. The latter, which offers the potential for the most devastation, has seen its frequency levels drop dramatically in the past half-century. The fact that large-scale acts of violence are being increasingly assumed by non-state actors, such as ISIS, that operate in political vacuums, can be seen as a possible sign that modern societies and political institutions are becoming less tolerant of pursuing these acts as policy. In other words, it may be that self-selecting groups who represent the most belligerent aspects of society and who often find themselves in opposition to certain mainstream values are discovering other avenues for expression, in contrast to a situation in which mainstream values promote violence against outsiders through or with the help of the state.
Many of the modern values that have contributed to the decline of violence are also positive developments in their own right, and produce other benefits. Often born out of the enlightenment, these values have evolved over time and are increasingly manifesting themselves in political and social arrangements. One notable example is the success of the Feminist movement, particularly in the 20th century and continuing to this day. Another is the continuing decline of racism in developed nations, and especially in its capacity to work through state organs. More generally, the notion of equality has been continuously developed and refined in the modern era in a way that hopefully will continue. The increasing prevalence of democracy and self-determination in government offers even more hope in this regard.
A great increase in material prosperity across the world is another noteworthy development, intensified by the forces of industrialization and globalization. The scientific advancements that made industrialization possible eventually helped lead to incredible advancements in medicine as well, particularly during the 20th century. According to the CDC, in 1900 the leading cause of death amongst Americans was infectious disease, but by 1997 it only accounted for 5%. Diseases such as cancer and heart disease remain large threats, and infectious disease remains a serious issue in the developing world, but a strong basis of medical science exists that, if vigilantly built upon, will help us to continue to minimize the effects of illness.
Of course, great challenges remain. The same increase in production that has enhanced the living standards of so many has also resulted in great inequalities, between nations as well as between individuals. The means by which this explosion of production has occurred is also the primary cause of accelerated climate change, a truly daunting an unprecedented threat. The cruder and more demeaning aspects of capitalism offer the potential for alienation and cultural dilution. However, if we face these issues with the same amount of energy and intellect that we have displayed over the last several hundred years, our chances look strong. When assessing where we stand and where we should go, it is important to have a firm grasp on where we came from and the progress we have made. It allows us to honor history and those who have positively contributed towards it, and helps to prevent us from making rash choices based on misinformation and unfounded anxiety.