activism human rights

Why the world is getting more peaceful

With the conflict in Syria, the shooting in Aurora last week, and the bombings in Iraq, it may seem like the world is a chaotic and violent place. No doubt there are examples closer to home too, wherever you are. My local paper has its share of assaults and stabbings. Amongst all this bad news, it is easy to forget to raise our heads and remember the long term trends.

We should do it more often, because the picture is brighter than you might imagine. The world is a safer place than it has been in a long time. There are pockets of violence of course, but most of us stand a better chance of living in peace and quiet than any other time in history.

There are fewer wars perhaps, but does that necessarily mean the world is more peaceful? The world’s population has grown – perhaps the overall death toll has risen. A fair suggestion, but the statistics don’t show that. The number of deaths from conflict per 100,000 people has fallen too. After an increase a few years ago, the number of terrorist incidents has fallen again and is no higher today than it was in the 1980s.

(I’m going to deal with crime later this week, so I won’t say much about it now, but here’s the long term homicide rate for the US in murders per 100,000 people. The graph for most developed countries looks similar – see Manuel Eisner’s work for long term European trends. You wouldn’t know it from the news, but we’re living in a safer society than the vast majority of our ancestors.)

Looking at the graph at the top, it’s notable that the world turned a corner on international conflict in 1991. That was the end of the Cold War, and the end of a half century of ideological squabbling. There was a string of skirmishes around the edges of the Soviet Union as countries seized their independence and negotiated new borders, but there’s a dramatic fall in the number of conflicts.  It was also a new beginning for international cooperation. For the first time, the UN wasn’t hampered by Russia and the Western powers vetoing each other as a matter of principle. The UN blossomed into the organisation it was always meant to be.

 The end of the Cold War was a big step towards making the world a safer place, but it’s not the only one. Stephen Pinker, who explores this idea in his book The Angels of our Better Nature, identifies five big leaps forward (nice summary here). The first was the move from the ‘anarchy’ of hunter-gatherer existence to settled communities with cities and organised authorities. By analysing human remains from the time, paleontologists estimate that 15% of people were killed by acts of violence in pre-historic times. That falls to around 3% as early forms of state power emerge, since they are the only ones who can use violence.

The second step happened in the Middle Ages when criminal law first began to be codified, and as feudal kingdoms began to unite into larger states. With a justice system, those who have been wronged can turn their problem over to the authorities rather than take revenge – another step towards peace.

The enlightenment drove the third, with a new respect for human dignity. The state reduced the number of crimes that warranted the death sentence, torture became less common, and many cruel physical punishments were phased out.

The fourth step towards peace is more familiar to us. That’s the ‘long peace’ that came after the Second World War. The are numerous factors, including the burnout from the sheer scale of the World Wars, the nuclear deterrent, the rise of democracy, and increasing trade and diplomatic links between countries.

The post-Cold War peace is the fifth step, and Pinker wonders if a sixth is underway around human rights. I suspect it is too early to tell on that one just yet.

Pinker’s analysis is very much from a Western perspective – the enlightenment was not a global movement. Islam had a Golden Age of its own that was quite different, and India and China’s history is different again. I’ve got more questions about the specifics of Pinker’s different stages, but overall the trend is going in the right direction. The world has been getting more peaceful. Reading this today, you should know that you live in a blessed age.

What does this mean for us? I think it’s useful to remember the broader perspective, and be grateful for all those who have gone before us and fought for the peace and justice we enjoy today. But we don’t get to be complacent. Standing where we are now, the responsibility is on us to guarantee those things for generations to come, and to extend peace and justice to those places they haven’t reached yet.

In practice, that might mean pressuring our governments not to undo the civil rights that we have currently – calling them out on things like detainment without trial under terrorist laws, or the rendition of prisoners to countries where torture is tolerated. It means supporting disarmament where appropriate, and calling for international treaties on arms sales so that oppressive regimes don’t find it quite so easy to tool up – here’s looking at you, Russia. (And before we get on our high horse about Russia, let’s remember Britain’s arms sales to Libya and to the unelected regime in Madagascar.)

As a first step, you might want to consider supporting Amnesty International, Reprieve, or Peace Direct who I mentioned yesterday.


  1. Sorry but I don’t find this optimistic stance helpful, since it defines peace as the absence of direct, physical violence. However warfare these days is often sublimated because its cheaper and more subtle.
    Of course measuring
    – economic warfare (Wall st vs Greece, US vs China)
    – food warfare (US vs N Korea)
    – covert warfare (CIA vs Syria, Mossad vs Iran, )
    – class warfare (banking Elite vs Middle class)
    is much harder, but its all the same to the victims. I would prefer to measure human progress using something like Gross National Happiness or the Human Development Index

  2. It’s not an either/or – we need the HDI and GNH too. And of course there are other forms of warfare, some of them very modern – see China’s investments in cyber-warfare.

    That doesn’t take away from the fact that fewer people are dying every year from conflict. That’s not a matter of optimism or pessimism, it’s reporting a fact, and I think it’s one that is often overlooked.

    As I say, there is no room for complacency, either about ongoing conflict or the ‘asymetrical warfare’ you highlight.

  3. Thanks, Jeremy. I read Steven Pinker’s book a couple of months ago and recommend it highly. He makes his case with care and precision, backing it with detailed research. His conclusion that the commercial, cultural and social interdependencies of the modern world are making us a better people supports my developing view that there is reason for optimism about the future of humanity. Of course there’s no room for complacency: the world is still a troubled place. But, in recent years, we have developed powerful tools for overcoming the brutality and cruelty that plagued us in the past.

  4. I think a lot of this narrative serves as neat apologetics for the elites who run the world. For example, yeah Russia should not be sending arms to Syria, but that distracts from what should be our prime responsibility in the west which is that our gov’s (U.S, France, U.K, Aus) are doing everything possible to achieve regime change, even if it means creating greater violence and instability…of course you wont read about that in the news either. THere is some truth in the fact that international economic integration reduces motivation for conflict between major powers…but they still go all out to secure the resources (witness Iraq, Afganistan, LIbya) on which our affluence depends. Oh and I have seen some pretty daming critiques of Pinkers stuff data on Hunter Gatherers

  5. “this narrative” is a similar statement to “optimistic stance” mentioned at the top. What I’m interested in is the truth. I don’t want to choose what to believe, I want to know what’s actually happening.

    If the world is slowly getting less violent, why pretend it’s not? If it isn’t, how to we get that trend started?

    And I disagree that this narrative serves the elite – I think the opposite is true. The general perception is that the world is fundamentally unsafe and getting worse, and we need to be protected – cue greater security, more invasion of privacy and fewer personal freedoms. That serves the elite far more than the idea that the world is actually safer than it has ever been, and that’s probably why you almost never hear it.

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