Why the world is safer than ever before
More food, less war, higher incomes, longer lives: we live in a golden age, according to a growing school of thinkers. Do they have a point, or are they naively blind to today’s problems?
In 1984 a terrible drought hit Ethiopia. The famine that ensued devastated the war-torn country, killing at least 600,000.
Three decades on, the rains have once again failed the region. This time, however, the dangers are smaller. As researcher Alex de Waal observes, food aid is reaching affected areas and health clinics are treating malnourished children. Far fewer will die.
The main reasons? Peace, and better organisation in the central government. De Waal notes that with the end of major wars and the spread of democracy, “starvation has receded” around the world. The era of great famines, he concludes, could be over.
This story sounds a rare optimistic note in our dark news cycle. Faced with daily reports of conflict, murder and disease, we could be forgiven for thinking we live in an age of misery. But a growing group of thinkers are saying the exact opposite: we have never had it so good.
Take Steven Pinker. In his best-selling book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the psychologist argues that violence is at a historic low. He suggests multiple reasons, including the rise of commerce, the spread of literacy, and – echoing de Waal – the growth of effective centralised governments.
Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna offer a different angle on human success. The academics point to new technologies, which make our lives more comfortable and our research more sophisticated. Throw in such factors as improved education and higher incomes, they claim, and the conditions are ripe “for ideas and genius to flourish”.
The theory that we are in a golden age is gaining ground. There are more than enough statistics to back it up: say, the fact that more than one billion have been lifted out of extreme poverty since 1990. It has even won over Barack Obama, who recently told an audience of young British people that now is the best time in history to be alive.
It is certainly an appealing idea. But is it correct?
For better or worse
Without a doubt, say the optimists. The evidence speaks for itself: life expectancy is up, poverty is down, healthcare is improving, democracy is spreading and major international warfare is getting rarer. Cars and planes let us travel widely, and the internet plugs us into global events — all of which helps us break down prejudices and come together as a species.
Yes, reply the pessimists, but at what cost? Cars and the internet are useful, but they also isolate us, make us lonelier. Incomes may be rising, but so is inequality, which sows anger and division. And remember the two great dangers of our age, potentially more destructive than anything we have ever known: climate change and nuclear weapons. As the rewards pile up, so do the risks.
- If you could be reborn at any time in history (excluding now), when would you choose? Why?
- Are realists always pessimists?
- Identify three big problems in your society (whether your local neighbourhood or your country), and suggest a way to tackle each one. Tell them to the class.
- Create a timeline on which you mark the ten most important developments, in your view, in human history. Describe each one in a few sentences.
Some People Say...
“Forget the past.”Nelson Mandela
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why should I worry about what happens in other parts of the world?
- You don’t have to. But it is worth remembering that, in this globalised age, distant crises can affect your life in unexpected ways. For example: a war in the Middle East can cause an oil shortage, which affects your country’s economy, and drives up prices of various goods.
- What with all the bleak news, how can anyone say that we “have it good”?
- Of course, not everyone agrees with Pinker and co. Bear in mind, though, that humans — and therefore the media — have an innate “negativity bias”. This means that bad things make more of an impact on us than good, and we remember them for longer. In other words, the news tends to give us a misleading idea of the state of the world. See Become An Expert.
- A country in northeast Africa with a population of 85 million. It has suffered many droughts and famines, which partly led to – and were in turn exacerbated by – the civil war of 1974-91.
- See Become An Expert.
- Centralised governments
- According to Pinker, a state with a centralised government can create a police force and legal system, thus discouraging impulsive violence. It can also lay down the infrastructure for business, which encourages citizens to cooperate. Pinker’s analysis has been criticised by many academics.
- A different angle
- See Become An Expert.
- Extreme poverty
- Defined by the United Nations as an income of less than $1.25 a day. In 1990, nearly half of the population of developing nations was extremely poor. In 2015, that number had dropped to 14%.
- Life expectancy
- It has risen more in the last 50 years than in the preceding 1,000.
- The Polity IV scale, one way experts measure the spread of democracy, shows that it is more prevalent than ever.
- Loneliness has been blamed for killing twice as many old people as obesity. See Become An Expert.