It’s the end of the world as we know it – because the world is getting remarkably better! Almost every indicator of human well-being shows improvement on a global basis. We live in the best era in human history. How does that make you feel? Like the old REM song, does it make you feel fine? Or does it maybe make you feel incredulous? Defensive? Offended?
I’ve been writing and linking stories about global improvements on social media for at least ten years. I’ve learned that if I point to a negative trend, then people usually respond with somber acknowledgement of a problem. But if I mention a positive trend, I routinely get push back. I get everything from personal anecdotal evidence to accusations of callousness toward those who continue to suffer from some particular problem. This becomes particularly true if there is a strong political agenda connected with a trend. Conservatives don’t want to hear that crime is in steady decline. Progressives don’t want to hear there is a steady decline in church arson, race motivated or otherwise.
Why is it so hard for us to see and accept that the overall state of the world is improving? A recent article at Slate documents once again the improving state of our world, The World Is Not Falling Apart: Never mind the headlines. We’ve never lived in such peaceful times. (Now I know that it is because the article is from Slate that my conservative readers already have their defenses up. When the exact same information gets presented by groups like CATO, progressives go into the same mode. That is yet another feature of the problem.) The data is interesting and well worth the read but it is the following four paragraphs that I think are particularly insightful. It goes a long way to explaining why it’s the end of the world as we know it and we don’t feel fine.
How can we get a less hyperbolic assessment of the state of the world? Certainly not from daily journalism. 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.
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.
To be sure, adding up corpses and comparing the tallies across different times and places can seem callous, as if it minimized the tragedy of the victims in less violent decades and regions. But a quantitative mindset is in fact the morally enlightened one. It treats every human life as having equal value, rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic. And it holds out the hope that we might identify the causes of violence and thereby implement the measures that are most likely to reduce it. Let’s examine the major categories in turn.