Saturday, May 28, 2005

War and Other Bad News

John Tierney's latest NYT piece ("Give Peace a Chance") puts war in perspective:*
You would never guess it from the news, but we're living in a peculiarly tranquil world. The new edition of "Peace and Conflict," a biennial global survey being published next week by the University of Maryland, shows that the number and intensity of wars and armed conflicts have fallen once again, continuing a steady 15-year decline that has halved the amount of organized violence around the world....

Meanwhile, the number of people fighting has plummeted, even though population has grown enormously....

These benign trends may be hard to believe, especially if you've been watching pictures from Iraq or listening to warnings about terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons. One explosion could indeed change everything.

But before you dismiss the optimists as hopeless naifs, you might ask yourself if you're suffering from the malaise described in a book by [Gregg] Easterbrook called "The Progress Paradox": the better life gets, the worse people feel. The more peaceful and wealthy the world becomes, the more time we all have to watch wars and warnings on television.

The only antidote is to look at long-term trends instead of daily horrors. For a really long-term trend, consider that of 59 skeletons found in a Stone Age graveyard, at least 24 died from violence. Or that a quarter of the male population died fighting in some pre-agricultural societies.

In the 20th century, despite two world wars, humans had less than a 2 percent chance of dying in war or a mass killing, according to John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State. Today the risk is lower still - about a quarter the chance of dying in a car accident.

Tierney focuses on war, but the same story applies to disease, nutrition, poverty, our ability to cope with bad weather, the quality of the products and services we buy, and on and on into the night.

Most of us are so busy making progress that we hardly notice it. Then we catch the news, where bad things are played up because they're unusual, which is what sells advertising. And so, deluded by the media, we forget that progress is almost universal and constant.

I like to remember what I once told my boss's secretary, who kept nagging me for my monthly progress report: "I'm making so much progress that I don't have time to report it." Think of that the next time you see a disaster headline.

Better yet, ignore the disaster headline. What can you do about it, anyway?
* Tierney, as usual, appends a bibliography:

"The End of War?: Explaining Fifteen Years of Diminishing Violence"” by Gregg Easterbrook. The New Republic, pp. 18-21, May 30, 2005

The Progress Paradox : How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse by Gregg Easterbrook (Random House. 400 pp., November 2003)

Why Isn't There More Violence? By John Mueller. Security Studies 13, p. 191-203, Spring 2004

The Remnants of War by John Mueller. (Cornell University Press, 272 pp., September 2004)

The Ultimate Resource 2 by Julian L. Simon. (Princeton University Press, 778 pp., July 1998)

Peace and Conflict 2005: A Global Survey of Armed Conflicts, Self-Determination Movements, and Democracy by Monty G. Marshall and Ted Robert Gurr