You can tell a lot about a nation’s culture or the state of its society from what it values. Utilizing years of data from the OECD Better Life Index, which surveys 60,000 people across the world, U.K.-based global moving company Movehub has put together a colorful infographic showing what people around the world care about the most. Here it is courtesy of Business Insider. Continue reading
One of history’s deadliest conflicts in proportional terms is the little known War of the Triple Alliance, also known as the Paraguayan War, fought from 1864 to 1870 between Paraguay and an alliance of Argentina, the Empire of Brazil, and Uruguay.
Resulting in over 400,000 deaths in total, it is Latin America’s deadliest war, though it caused the most suffering for Paraguay: in addition to losing a large chunk of its most resource-rich territory, the country may have lost 60 to 90 percent of its total population, including 70-90 percent of males. Continue reading
What bad habit have you put right today? Which fault did you take a stand against? In what respect are you better?
Ideally, these reflections would be part of everyone’s daily routine. We should begin everyday with the mindset that there may be some injustice that we must remedy, a flaw or problem that we must work on, an internal or external challenge that we must persevere against. We should end everyday reflecting on what we did or did not do, what we learned, what we changed for the better. Being a good, productive, and life-affirming person requires constant effort and mindfulness; it means making ethical conduct a habit, something to incorporate in one’s day-to-day activities, interactions, and decisions, big and small.
This is of course difficult to do on a consistent basis; it requires effort and force of will. And certainly, anyone with the time and mental clarity to devote themselves to thinking deeply about how they live and behave is likely in a position of socioeconomic privilege — financially stable, able to enjoy a certain amount of downtime, etc. But that just means we have all the more reason to make the most of our fortuitous circumstances, to apply ourselves in a meaningful way in the lives of others. It not only makes the world a better place, it makes us happier and more well-adjusted people.
Each day that we can count some measure of progress in some area of our lives — in our personal goals, moral character, etc. — is a day of gratification, of life affirmation, of hope that the next day will bring more opportunity, growth, and meaning in our lives. And if you are unable to cite any instance in which you did right by others or for yourself, then ask yourself why and learn from it. None of this is easy to do consistently, but few good things worth doing are.
What are your thoughts?
The fact is that, despite the emphasis we place on good intentions, we do routinely pass moral judgment on ourselves and others for outcomes that were not intended, not foreseen, and influenced by factors beyond our control. Philosophers call this
“moral luck”, by which they mean that the judgment we deserve often depends not only on our intentions, but on how our actions happen to turn out.
This moral vulnerability to luck is pervasive, because nothing at all that we do as parents is fully under our control.
The moral quandaries we face aren’t dissolved when we find their neurological and evolutionary basis any more than our appreciation of art is undermined by the neurological and evolutionary basis of our perception of depth and color. But the knowledge that we are influenced by these competing psychological processes supports the somewhat comforting philosophical idea that we will never find an entirely coherent, tidy, systematic view of our moral responsibility. We see that it is problematic, unfair, even tragic, to burden people with responsibility for outcomes beyond their control. But equally it would, in the words of philosopher Bernard Williams, “be a kind of insanity” never to experience sentiments like Ariel Castro’s mother—never to feel a need for forgiveness, a need to atone, a sense of being at fault—when our otherwise blameless actions (like giving birth to a child), or our nearly blameless actions (like parenting a child imperfectly) cause unforeseen disaster for others. Rather than attempting to reason ourselves into coherence, we should embark on the more modest task of reflecting on the actual experiences that are the stuff of our moral life so that we can see our untidy morality in all of its contradictory richness. Since we can neither eliminate our responsibility for chance outcomes, nor find clear criteria for when we should accept blame, we ought to shift our focus and ask how we can live with parenthood’s painful uncertainty. What obligations does it place on us? What consolation can we seek?
— Claire Creffield, “Parenthood, the Great Moral Gamble“, Nautilus
If you are a lover of languages like me, then you will enjoy the following insightful graphs and charts courtesy of The Washington Post’s WordViews column.
According to 2015 Safe Cities Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Tokyo, Japan is the world’s safest city, scoring high in all factors, from low crime to pedestrian-safe urban planning.
According to The Guardian:
The EIU looked at a wide range of factors when putting together the index. It examined digital security, and considered the number of cyber attacks and how they were tackled. It looked at the obvious area of personal safety, but also infrastructure security – sanitation, roads, and management of natural disasters. In the health security category, it looked at quality of healthcare (for instance, how many hospital beds and doctors there were per 1,000 people), but also at issues such as pollution. As the report puts it, “Living in a safe and healthy urban environment can make a real and measurable difference to city inhabitants”. In the index’s top 25 cities, average life expectancy is 81; in the bottom half, it is 75.
As the article cautions, however, a sense of safety is highly variable depending on one’s lifestyle and priorities.
Before you start packing your bags, however, the conclusions aren’t simple: Tokyo also happens to be considered the world’s riskiest city, in part because of the huge number of people who would be harmed in an inevitable future earthquake. Nor does the report actually say which city is safest for you. From an individual’s point of view, as opposed to the municipal officials responsible for the smooth running of a city, isn’t personal safety more important than the threat of cyber crime? In that case, maybe you should look at Singapore instead. And what if health security is your priority, but you’ll take your chances on the streets? Move to Zurich: first for health, 13th for personal safety.
Other studies have revealed other issues that might be of personal importance. Amsterdam, for instance, is – perhaps unsurprisingly – a good place to be a on a bike. In 2011 and 2013, the Dutch city was ranked safest for cyclists by urban planning consultancy the Copenhagenize Design Company, using criteria such as bicycle facilities, drivers’ attitudes, and political will to promote cycling. The sheer proliferation of cyclists helps – cycling in the city, notes the report, is “about as mainstream as you can get” – as does cycling infrastructure and a 30kph speed limit.
Here are the safest cities by region:
Here is a detailed breakdown by the EIU:
- Tokyo tops the overall ranking. The world’s most populous city is also the safest in the Index. The Japanese capital performs most strongly in the digital security category, three points ahead of Singapore in second place. Meanwhile, Jakarta is at the bottom of the list of 50 cities in the Index. The Indonesian capital only rises out of the bottom five places in the health security category (44).
- Safety is closely linked to wealth and economic development. Unsurprisingly, a division emerges in the Index between cities in developed markets, which tend to fall into the top half of the overall list, and cities in developing markets, which appear in the bottom half. Significant gaps in safety exist along these lines within regions. Rich Asian cities (Tokyo, Singapore and Osaka) occupy the top three positions in the Index, while poorer neighbours (Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta) fill two of the bottom three positions.
- However, wealth and ample resources are no guarantee of urban safety. Four of the five Middle Eastern cities in the Index are considered high-income, but only one makes it into the top half of the Index: at 25 Abu Dhabi is 21 places above Riyadh at number 46. Similar divides between cities of comparable economic status exist elsewhere. Seoul is 23 positions below Tokyo in the overall ranking (and 46 places separate the two on digital security).
- U.S. cities perform most strongly in the digital security category, while Europe struggles. New York is the only U.S. city to make it into the top ten of the overall index (at 10). However, it is third for digital security, with three of the four other US cities in the Index (Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago) joining it in the top ten. Meanwhile, European cities perform relatively poorly. London, at 16, is the highest-ranking European entry in the digital security index; Rome is the lowest, at 35.
- Leaders in digital security must not overlook real-world risks. Los Angeles falls from 6th place in digital security to 23rd for personal safety. San Francisco suffers a similar drop, falling from 8th to 21st. For these cities—both home to high-tech industries—a focus on technology and cyber security does not seem to be matched by success in combating physical crime. Urban safety initiatives need to straddle the digital and physical realms as the divide between them blurs.
- Technology is now on the frontline of urban safety, alongside people. Data are being used to tackle crime, monitor infrastructure and limit the spread of disease. As some cities pursue smarter methods of preventing—rather than simply reacting to—these diverse security threats, a lack of data in emerging markets could exacerbate the urban safety divide between rich and poor. Nonetheless, investment in traditional safety methods, such as bolstering police visibility, continues to deliver positive results from Spain to South Africa.
- Collaboration on safety is critical in a complex urban environment. Now that a growing number of essential systems are interconnected, city experts stress the need to bring together representatives from government, business and the community before threats to safety and security strike. Some cities have appointed an official to co-ordinate this citywide resilience. With the evolution of online threats transcending geographical boundaries, such co-ordination will increasingly be called for between cities.
- Being statistically safe is not the same as feeling safe. Out of the 50 cities, only Zurich and Mexico City get the same rank in the overall index as they do in the indicator that measures the perception of safety among their citizens. Urban citizens in the U.S., for instance, tend to feel less safe than they should, based on their city’s position in the Index. The challenge for city leaders is to translate progress on safety into changing public perceptions. But cities also aspire to be attractive places to live in. So smart solutions, such as intelligent lighting, should be pursued over ubiquitous cameras or gated communities.
Aside from Tokyo, the next five biggest cities in the world do not fare well in terms of safety.
Granted, some analysts are skeptical of the very idea of ranking cities based on safety. As The Guardian reports:
But is it really possible, or even desirable, to rank cities according to their safety? “We are quite wary of doing that”, says Dr Michele Acuto, principal investigator for UCL’s City Leadership Initiative, which is working with the UN on how to improve urban safety. “Rankings pit cities against each other. If you say London is safer than Manchester, it’s a blunt generalisation. You can say London has a lower crime rate than Manchester – that would be correct – but making judgements on safety is perception-based”.
How do you make a city safer? Nobody wants to live in a police state. “You have to reduce crime, but it’s also things like improving safety of transport. If you make a city more sustainable, with more bike lanes, for instance, you can redesign it so that it’s also safer for pedestrians”. The wealth gap also has an important effect on a city’s safety: “There is no safer-city agenda that can proceed without a social-equality agenda”, says Acuto.
And if there’s one factor you might want to consider as a sign of how safe your city is likely to be in future, look to the immigration rate. Studies in the U.S. have shown that, far from what the anti-immigration lobby would have us believe, a city with more immigrants has lower crime rates. A study by Robert J Sampson, professor of social sciences at Harvard University, found that first-generation immigrants were 45% less likely – and second-generation immigrants 22% less likely – to commit violence than third-generation Americans. As Sampson has summed it up: “If you want to be safe, move to an immigrant city.”
Whatever you think about the results, or indeed about ranking cities by safety in the first place, this research is very insightful in a world where a large and rapidly growing proportion of human life is centered.
For thousands of years, cities have been at the center of human experience, social organization, and innovation. Even though the vast majority of humanity throughout history has, until very recently, lived in rural areas, it was the cities from where rulers governed, goods and services were traded, and ideas were born and disseminated.
Given that precedent, it is no surprise that today’s cities — bigger and more sophisticated than ever — have begun to rival whole nations, including the very ones in which they are located, as centers of culture, economic activity, scientific research, and political influence.
Writing in Quartz, Parag Khanna discusses the emergence and future of “megacities” — metropolises numbering tens of millions of citizens and accounting for anywhere from a third to even half of a nation’s economic output. Spanning every continent, but most especially Asia and Africa, these massive urban conurbations will reshape our species’ development in every sphere, from economy to culture.
For a larger version of the above map, click here.
As can plainly be seen, the developing world — once largely rural — will lead the way in the formation of megacities, albeit not by design; most megacities have formed organically, driven by heady economic growth and the influx of migrants from rural areas and smaller cities. The process has often been as rapid and haphazard as the political, social, and economic forces of the cities’ nations.
Within many emerging markets such as Brazil, Turkey, Russia, and Indonesia, the leading commercial hub or financial center accounts for at least one-third or more of national GDP. In the U.K., London accounts for almost half Britain’s GDP. And in America, the Boston-New York-Washington corridor and greater Los Angeles together combine for about one-third of America’s GDP.
By 2025, there will be at least 40 such megacities. The population of the greater Mexico City region is larger than that of Australia, as is that of Chongqing, a collection of connected urban enclaves in China spanning an area the size of Austria. Cities that were once hundreds of kilometers apart have now effectively fused into massive urban archipelagos, the largest of which is Japan’s Taiheiyo Belt that encompasses two-thirds of Japan’s population in the Tokyo-Nagoya-Osaka megalopolis.
China’s Pearl River delta, Greater São Paulo, and Mumbai-Pune are also becoming more integrated through infrastructure. At least a dozen such megacity corridors have emerged already. China is in the process of reorganizing itself around two dozen giant megacity clusters of up to 100 million citizens each. And yet by 2030, the second-largest city in the world behind Tokyo is expected not to be in China, but Manila in the Philippines.
For its part, the United States, which is the world’s third most populous nation, and which is expected to grow steadily over the next century, is seeing the rise of several megacities thus far: the Northeast Megalopolis, which runs from Washington, D.C. through New York City to Boston; the Southern California Megaregion, which runs from San Francisco to San Jose; and the Texas Triangle, which includes Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. Though not as large as their counterparts in the developing world, they will be formidable economic and cultural centers in their own right, and are already economically larger than some medium-sized countries.
Khanna goes on to note that the sheer size and influence of these megacities, in conjunction with the rapid pace of globalization, will make them as much a part of the world as of the nations in which they are located.
Great and connected cities, Saskia Sassen argues, belong as much to global networks as to the country of their political geography. Today the world’s top 20 richest cities have forged a super-circuit driven by capital, talent, and services: they are home to more than 75% of the largest companies, which in turn invest in expanding across those cities and adding more to expand the intercity network. Indeed, global cities have forged a league of their own, in many ways as denationalized as Formula One racing teams, drawing talent from around the world and amassing capital to spend on themselves while they compete on the same circuit.
Megacities will also redefine the relationship between the developed and developing worlds, and as well as between themselves and the rest of their countries. They will be polities of tremendous influence to reckon with in their own right.
The rise of emerging market megacities as magnets for regional wealth and talent has been the most significant contributor to shifting the world’s focal point of economic activity. McKinsey Global Institute research suggests that from now until 2025, one-third of world growth will come from the key Western capitals and emerging market megacities, one-third from the heavily populous middle-weight cities of emerging markets, and one-third from small cities and rural areas in developing countries.
There are far more functional cities in the world today than there are viable states. Indeed, cities are often the islands of governance and order in far weaker states where they extract whatever rents they can from the surrounding country while also being indifferent to it. This is how Lagos views Nigeria, Karachi views Pakistan, and Mumbai views India: the less interference from the capital, the better.
Needless to say, megacities will pose as many challenges as they do opportunities: urban planning, social organization, resource management, law and order, and infrastructure will need to be subject to considerable investment and re-imagining. Political challenges will no doubt emerge between certain megacities and their smaller peers, as well as their national governments.
Khanna concludes that these issues, along with the sheer potential and influence of megacities, should change the way we map the world — metropolitan areas should be given as much attention as the 200 or so countries that make up the world. It is an interesting argument, and one that I think bears some consideration. I look forward to exploring the topic further in Khanna’s new book Connectography.
What are your thoughts?
According to a 2015 report by Pew, the United States had one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the developed world OECD, with only 53.6 percent of voting-age people taking part in national elections in 2012. Only Japan, Chile, and Switzerland ranked lower.
Three of the countries with the highest voter turnout — Belgium (No. 1), Turkey (No. 2) and Australia (No. 5) make voting mandatory, as do mid-ranking nations like Greece (No. 12), Mexico (No. 18), Luxembourg (No. 26), and France (for Senate elections only; No. 13).
If you are wondering why countries with compulsory voting nonetheless have a gap between voting turnout and voting registration, there are various explanations, such as the law not being enforced (as in Greece) or absent voters being allowed to offer a justifiable excuse and/or pay a fine (Australia).
As for why the U.S. fares so poorly despite being one of the world’s foremost republics, there is no shortage of explanations. Many allege that it comes down to how difficult it is to actually vote — the registration process is relatively more complex than in other democracies, and national votes take place on a single non-holiday weekday. Others say it has to do with growing disaffection with, and subsequent apathy towards, politics. Still others assert that voter turnout is not really all that low to begin with.
All that said, do you think voting should be mandatory? Is it a civic obligation like jury duty and taxes, or is it best left to individual to decide, even if it means less civic engagement in the aggregate. What are your thoughts?
Source: The Washington Post
What does it say about the nature of human political life that analyses and advice dating from the first century B.C.E. is still applicable today? Stripped of its cultural and historical context, the Commentariolum Petitionis, or “Little Handbook on Electioneering”, which was ostensibly written to the great Roman orator and statesman Cicero by his younger brother, Quintus, can just as well describe contemporary American politics.
For example, it starts by outlining the importance of connections and patronage networks — especially among the wealthy and elites of society — for political advancement. Continue reading
Over at Slate, Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack, two leading proponents of humanity’s moral progress, make their provocative case as to why the world is far safer and less violent than ever before.
First, they explain why the vast majority of people think the world is in an historically worst state than it really was. A lot of it comes down to human psychology.
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 has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as violence has not vanished from the world, there will always be enough incidents to fill the evening news. And since the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples, newsreaders will always perceive that they live in dangerous times. All the more so when billions of smartphones turn a fifth of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.
We also have to avoid being fooled by randomness. Cohen laments the “annexations, beheadings, [and] pestilence” of the past year, but surely this collection of calamities is a mere coincidence. Entropy, pathogens, and human folly are a backdrop to life, and it is statistically certain that the lurking disasters will not space themselves evenly in time but will frequently overlap. To read significance into these clusters is to succumb to primitive thinking, a world of evil eyes and cosmic conspiracies.
Finally, we need to be mindful of orders of magnitude. Some categories of violence, like rampage shootings and terrorist attacks, are riveting dramas but (outside war zones) kill relatively small numbers of people. Every day ordinary homicides claim one and a half times as many Americans as the number who died in the Sandy Hook massacre. And as the political scientist John Mueller points out, in most years bee stings, deer collisions, ignition of nightwear, and other mundane accidents kill more Americans 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? As Bill Clinton likes to say, “Follow the trend lines, not the headlines.” We will see that the trend lines are more encouraging than a news junkie would guess.
The rest of the article lays out a comprehensive, case-by-case explanation for why violence has generally declined in every form, from large-scale conflict to homicide to child abuse. It is a lot more data than I can present spare to go over here, but I will highlight some key points.
Homicide. Worldwide, about five to 10 times as many people die in police-blotter homicides as die in wars. And in most of the world, the rate of homicide has been sinking. The Great American Crime Decline of the 1990s, which flattened out at the start of the new century, resumed in 2006, and, defying the conventional wisdom that hard times lead to violence, proceeded right through the recession of 2008 and up to the present.
England, Canada, and most other industrialized countries have also seen their homicide rates fall in the past decade. Among the 88 countries with reliable data, 67 have seen a decline in the past 15 years. Though numbers for the entire world exist only for this millennium and include heroic guesstimates for countries that are data deserts, the trend appears to be downward, from 7.1 homicides 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. The gory drug-fueled killings in parts of Mexico, for example, can create an impression that the country has spiraled into Hobbesian lawlessness. But the trend line belies the impression in two ways.
One is that the 21st-century spike has not undone a massive reduction in homicide that Mexico has enjoyed since 1940, comparable to the reductions that Europe and the United States underwent in earlier centuries. The other is that what goes up often comes down. The rate of Mexican homicide has declined in each of the past two years (including an almost 90 percent drop in Juárez from 2010 to 2012), and many other notoriously dangerous regions have experienced significant turnarounds, including Bogotá, Colombia (a fivefold decline in two decades), Medellín, Colombia (down 85 percent in two decades), São Paolo (down 70 percent in a decade), the favelas of Rio de Janeiro (an almost two-thirds reduction in four years), Russia (down 46 percent in six years), and South Africa (a halving from 1995 to 2011). Many criminologists believe that a reduction of global violence by 50 percent in the next three decades is a feasible target for the next round of Millennium Development Goals.
In short, murder is a rarity in a large proportion of societies, and is rapidly declining in most of the remainder of the world. The few places with a relatively high murder rate by today’s already lower standards, are generally doing better than they have historically, with the long-term trend continuing downward.
What about violence towards women, who for much of human history and in most large societies, fared poorly in every sphere — politically, economically, and socially. The writers admit that the data are harder to come by, but they do point to an encouraging and historically unprecedented global trend.
In 1993 the U.N. 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 benighted practices. Many countries have implemented laws and public awareness campaigns to reduce rape, forced marriage, genital mutilation, honor killings, domestic violence, and wartime atrocities. Though some of these measures are toothless, and the effectiveness of others has yet to be established, there are grounds for optimism over the long term. Global shaming campaigns, even when they start out as purely aspirational, have led in the past to dramatic reductions of practices such as slavery, dueling, whaling, foot binding, piracy, privateering, chemical warfare, apartheid, and atmospheric nuclear testing.
To be sure, women still have a long way to go until they are accorded more rights, dignity, and sociopolitical equality. But at least the world seems to be moving in that direction, and today’s seemingly idealistic advocacy campaigns are tomorrow’s momentous paradigm shifts, if the historical precedent holds.
Violence Against Children. A similar story can be told about children. The incessant media reports of school shootings, abductions, bullying, cyberbullying, sexting, date rape, and sexual and physical abuse make it seem as if children are living in increasingly perilous times. But the data say otherwise: Kids are undoubtedly safer than they were in the past. In a review of the literature on violence against children in the United States published earlier this year, the sociologist David Finkelhor and his colleagues reported, “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 victimization, bullying, and sexual victimization.”
Similar trends are seen in other industrialized countries, and international declarations have made the reduction of violence against children a global concern.
Nowadays, we take it as a given that children are innocent and vulnerable members of society that must be protected at all costs. In many societies throughout history, children were regarded as inherently degenerate, and treated accordingly — corporal punishment and strident exploitation were the norm. In the developed world and much of the developing world, children enjoy both greater rights and more social support.
Democratization. In 1975, Daniel Patrick Moynihan lamented that “liberal democracy on the American model increasingly tends to the condition of monarchy in the 19thcentury: a holdover form of government, one which persists in isolated or peculiar places here and there … but which has simply no relevance to the future.” Moynihan was a social scientist, and his pessimism was backed by the numbers of his day: A growing majority of countries were led by communist, fascist, military, or strongman dictators. But the pessimism turned out to be premature, belied by a wave of democratization that began not long after the ink had dried on his eulogy. The pessimists of today who insist that the future belongs to the authoritarian capitalism of Russia and China show no such numeracy. Data from the Polity IV Project on the degree of democracy and autocracy among the world’s countries show that the democracy craze has decelerated of late but shows no signs of going into reverse.
Democracy has proved to be more robust than its eulogizers realize. A majority of the world’s countries today are democratic, and not just the wealthy monocultures of Europe, North America, and East Asia. Governments that are more democratic than not (scoring 6 or higher on the Polity IV Project’s scale from minus 10 to 10) are entrenched (albeit with nerve-wracking ups and downs) in most of Latin America, in floridly multiethnic India, in Islamic Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and in 14 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Even the autocracies of Russia and China, which show few signs of liberalizing anytime soon, are incomparably less repressive than the regimes of Stalin, Brezhnev, and Mao.
To be sure, democracies of all shades and degrees are not without their problems; state violence and repression can and do still persist at all levels and forms, albeit to varying extents. But once again, it is all about the relative and historical picture, and by that token most denizens of the world are immeasurably freer and less oppressed than ever, even if that is still a tenuous gain. Indeed, the very concepts of consent of the governed, human rights, civil liberties, etc. were practically nonexistent in most of human history.
Genocide and Other Mass Killings of Civilians.The recent atrocities against non-Islamic minorities at the hands of ISIS, together with the ongoing killing of civilians in Syria, Iraq, and central Africa, have fed a narrative in which the world has learned nothing from the Holocaust and genocides continue unabated. But even the most horrific events of the present must be put into historical perspective, if only to identify and eliminate the forces that lead to mass killing. Though the meaning of the word genocide is too fuzzy to support objective analysis, all genocides fall into the more inclusive category of “one-sided violence” or “mass killing of noncombatant civilians,” and several historians and social scientists have estimated their trajectory over time. The numbers are imprecise and often contested, but the overall trends are clear and consistent across datasets.
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 World War II, resulted in a civilian death rate in the vicinity of 350 per 100,000 per year. Stalin and Mao kept the global rate between 75 and 150 through the early 1960s, and it has been falling ever since, though punctuated by spikes of dying in Biafra (1966–1970, 200,000 deaths), Sudan (1983–2002, 1 million), Afghanistan (1978–2002, 1 million), Indonesia (1965–1966, 500,000), Angola (1975–2002, 1 million), Rwanda (1994, 500,000), and Bosnia (1992–1995, 200,000). (All of these estimates are from the Center for Systemic Peace.) These numbers must be kept in mind when we read of the current horrors in Iraq (2003–2014, 150,000 deaths) and Syria (2011–2014, 150,000) and interpret them as signs of a dark new era. Nor, tragically, are the beheadings and crucifixions of the Islamic State historically unusual. Many postwar genocides were accompanied by splurges of ghastly torture and mutilation. The main difference is that they were not broadcasted on social media.
The trend lines for genocide and other civilian killings, fortunately, point sharply downward. After a steady rise during the Cold War until 1992, the proportion of states perpetrating or enabling mass killings of civilians has plummeted, though with a small recent bounce we will examine shortly.
Granted, any number of people killed in warfare, especially noncombatants, is a travesty. But as morbid, not to mention logistically difficult, as historical comparisons of death rates may be, fewer deaths even when deaths occur points to steadier smaller and less brutal conflicts, and overall less suffering than there otherwise would be. Today’s civilians are literally several thousand times less likely to be targeted in today’s wars than they would have been in the mid-20th century.
And thankfully, the wars that usually form the backdrop to such mass killings are increasingly rarer and less deadly than ever:
War. Researchers who track 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 a thousand. They also distinguish “interstate” conflicts, which pit the armed forces of two or more states against each other, from “intrastate” or “civil” conflicts, which pit a state against an insurgency or separatist force, sometimes with the armed intervention of an external state. (Conflicts in which the armed forces of a state are not directly involved, such as the one-sided violence perpetrated by a militia against noncombatants, and intercommunal violence between militias, are counted separately.)
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 each other, has vanished altogether. (The last one was the Korean War). Today the world rarely sees a major naval battle, or masses of tanks and heavy artillery shelling each other across a battlefield.
Though the recent increase in civil wars and battle deaths is real and worrisome, it must be kept in perspective. It has undone the progress of the last dozen years, but the rates of violence are still well below those of the 1990s, and nowhere near the levels of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s.
The author’s conclude that, overall, every kind of violence has declined in most of the world, and political and economic freedom is steadily, if tenuous, continuing apace. Again, this is all based on general global trends and comparisons to humanity’s depressingly poor precedent in these areas.
None of this is to say that the multitude of grave problems humanity still faces should not be taken seriously and addressed accordingly. Far too many people continue to suffer and die at the hands of other people in all sorts of wars, often beyond clear-cut violence — look at economic exploitation for example, or the costs of environmental degradation.
But to deny that humanity has not nonetheless made some measurable progress is both empirically unfounded and morally counterproductive. The more we see, acknowledge, and learn from our progress, the more we can keep it going. If we remain mired in fear, cynicism, misanthropy, and despair, it will be much harder to improve our condition and those of our fellow humans.
Let us celebrate how far we have come as a species without being complacent. Let us see our incredible potential for moral progress and continue pushing the boundaries further. For all our flaws and problems, we have come to far to give up now.
What are your thoughts?