Good News for the New Year: The World Is Not Falling Apart

Source: Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack in Slate Magazine, December 22

…The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable – homicide, rape, battering, child abuse – have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states – by far the most destructive of all conflicts – are all but obsolete. The increase in the number and deadliness of civil wars since 2010 is circumscribed, puny in comparison with the decline that preceded it, and unlikely to escalate.

We have been told of impending doom before: a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, a line of dominoes in Southeast Asia, revanchism in a reunified Germany, a rising sun in Japan, cities overrun by teenage superpredators, a coming anarchy that would fracture the major nation-states, and weekly 9/11-scale attacks that would pose an existential threat to civilization.

Why is the world always “more dangerous than it has ever been” – even as a greater and greater majority of humanity lives in peace and dies of old age?

Too much of our impression of the world comes from a misleading formula of journalistic narration. Reporters give lavish coverage to gun bursts, explosions, and viral videos, oblivious to how representative they are and apparently innocent of the fact that many were contrived as journalist bait. Then come sound bites from “experts” with vested interests in maximizing the impression of mayhem: generals, politicians, security officials, moral activists. The talking heads on cable news filibuster about the event, desperately hoping to avoid dead air. Newspaper columnists instruct their readers on what emotions to feel.

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7 responses to “Good News for the New Year: The World Is Not Falling Apart

  1. Avivah Wargon

    Reassuring. I don’t have the broad view that Pinker and Mack have, but I’ve long been aware of the way journalism, particularly that aired on the TV news, milks any misfortune or disaster for maximum effect–and the way progress rarely makes the news.

    I wish all readers of this blog, especially Eric, a very happy and healthy New Year.

  2. Many thanks, Avivah.

  3. Question: Whom else to thank for bringing ‘Good news for the New Year’ besides Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack?
    Answer: Sketches

  4. Thank you Eric, for your daily stimulating and provocative injections. All the best in 2015!

    While it is demonstrably true that the early 21st Century is generally safer, kinder and gentler than previous eras, it’s also a fact that for many individuals the second half of Dickens’ ”It was the best of times and it was the worst of times” accurately – due to personal circumstance, geograhic location or simply bad luck – reflects their life experience now. As Wittgenstein put it, the world of the happy man is different from the world of an unhappy man. The odds for a safe and happy life may be greater now than ever before, but even in an ever improving world, there are many reasons not be too celebratory or complacent about our progress. Cautious optimism would be about right…

  5. I like it, but even an habitual critic of modern media like me will suggest that there is another element also at work here.
    Conservative politicians, conservatives in general, like an electorate that is scared and fearful.
    People who are afraid of the future and wary of the present tend to vote for the status quo and the stability offered by ‘strong’ leaders, even if that stability comes at a cost in freedoms and individual rights.
    To personalise it, Murdoch and the Bushes are in unholy alliance.

  6. Hysteria over global warming is much the same. And that isn’t a conservative cabal.

    • Isn’t it possible to be concerned about the causes and impact of climate change without being hysterical? A measured response to it can be preventive and remedial, good for natural habitats and many species of animals including humans, cost effective, stimulate the economy and even create jobs.