Has the Decline of Violence Reversed since “The Better Angels of our Nature” was Written?
By: Steven Pinker
Has the Decline of Violence Reversed since The Better Angels of Our Nature was Written? Steven Pinker Many journalists, citing recent violence in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, and Ukraine, have asked me whether the decline of violence has gone into reverse since The Better Angels of Our Nature was written. The question betrays the same statistical misconceptions that led me to write Better Angels in the first place. People always think that violence has increased because they reason from memorable examples rather than from global data. If at any time you cherry-pick the most violent place in the world, then you’ll discover that yes, it’s violent. That has nothing to do with overall rates or trends in violence. The basic problem is that journalism is a systematically misleading way to understand the world. News is about things that happen, not about things that don’t happen. You never see a reporter standing on the streets of Angola, Sri Lanka, or Vietnam saying “I’m here reporting that a war has not broken out today.” It’s only by looking at data on the world as a whole that you get an accurate picture of the trends. Objectively, there has indeed been an uptick in war deaths in 2013 compared to 2012 (it’s too early to have data for 2014), mostly due to the war in Syria. But the overall level of deaths is still far below those of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when the world was a far more dangerous place. Even putting aside the obvious examples (such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 3- million-death war in Vietnam), one sees that the conflicts of today are far less damaging than those of past decades. For instance, the 1980s saw an eight-year war between Iran and Iraq that killed more than half a million people and threatened to block the flow of oil from the Persian gulf, which would have brought the world economy to a standstill. A decade before, the Yom Kippur War killed 12,000 people (six time as many as died in Gaza in 2014), threatened the existence of nuclear-armed Israel, and led Richard Nixon to put American nuclear forces on a higher level of alert. Here are some graphs (constructed with the help of Brian Atwood) which show the most recent available data on several categories of violence covered in Better Angels. The data analyses in the book were closed in September 2010, and thus included statistics no later than the preceding year, 2009. In all the graphs below I show that cutoff with a vertical red line.
Let’s begin with the number of state-based armed conflicts (namely, organized violence involving a government which kills at least 25 people a year). According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (June, 2014), “In 2013, there were 33 active conflicts in the world … [a number which] has remained relatively stable over the past ten years, fluctuating between 3 and 37. Compared to the period right after the end of the Cold War, where more than 50 conflicts were active, armed conflicts have declined by almost 40 percent. Conflicts claiming more than 1,000 lives, defined as wars, have declined by more than 50 percent, from 15 in the early 1990’s to seven in 2013.” They also note that “there were six peace agreements signed in 2013, which was two more than the previous year”
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