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Enlightenment Now? – Peace, Safety and Terrorism

The modern world is a less violent and dangerous place than ever before in history. But are we doing enough to reduce war and conflict?

So far, we’ve looked a number of issues in which Steven Pinker argues life has significantly improved over the past 250 years: life expectancy, health, sustenance, wealth, inequality and the environment. In this post, we’re going to look at three more issues in one: peace, safety and terrorism. Not surprisingly, Pinker tells the same story about all of them: everything has got much better throughout modernity, even if the opposite seems to be the case if you look at the news. Of course, things are still terrible – the news isn’t wrong. But life used to be much much worse.

Even if this is true, what does it mean for how things are now? Just because the world used to be a much more violent and unsafe place, are we doing enough now to create a more peaceful world?


In this chapter, Pinker is drawing from his previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity, where he shows that violence has rapidly declined from 1800 onwards, despite two world wars. One of the main changes is that, over the past few centuries, war between the world’s “great powers” – nation states and empires that collectively control most of the world’s military resources – have declined and are now almost non-existent.

Similarly, wars between two nation states are also in decline. Since 2011, we’ve seen wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia and Ukraine, and North and South Korea, but none of these have escalated into major wars. Pinker notes that, although wars used to be present throughout the globe, they are now concentrated almost exclusively to an area stretching from Nigeria to Pakistan, involving less than a sixth of the world’s population. Again, this is still too big and too many people. But it’s an improvement from when major wars across the globe used to be the norm.

You might object that this is all just word play and definitions. What about civil wars, like the ongoing war in Syria, which has caused well over 250,000 battle deaths to date and is responsible for the current refugee crisis? Unfortunately, again, things used to be much worse. Civil wars in Angola, Chad, India, Iran, Peru, and Sri Lanka throughout the 20th century all numbered over 500,000 deaths each. When it comes to refugees, 10 million people were displaced by the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971; 14 million displaced by the partition of India in 1947; and 60 million displaced by World War II. Pinker’s point is that we shouldn’t treat Syria as a symptom of a “broken world”. We should, instead, focus our efforts on ending the Syrian civil war by learning from the practices and policies that successfully helped end civil wars of the past.

Why has war declined then? Pinker puts it down to a combination of trade, democracy, economic development, peace-keeping forces, and international law and norms. These factors collectively reduce the incentives to go to war. There is an economic logic to all this: when people and trade become precious, peace is better for everyone in the long-run. Pinker’s vision is of a future world united by economic productivity, trade and prosperity – a world that has overcome major obstacles such as pestilence, hunger and poverty, as well as war.


Wars kill people, as do infectious diseases and other illnesses. But, so do other people, natural disasters and accidents. All these other factors have decreased, alongside war and pestilence. Pinker notes that, from the 14th century onwards, disputes between people in Western Europe were settled in less violent ways – feuding, pillaging and warlording were tamed by a “king’s peace.” From the 19th century onwards, criminal justice systems were further professionalised by municipal police forces and a more deliberative court system – something which, again, is currently far from perfect, but is much better that the systems that predated it.

As an example of how life has generally become safer, Pinker points to the fall in fatal car accidents in wealthy countries over the past century. This can be put down to driving regulations and innovations in car safety (seat belts being one!). Nations like India, China, Brazil and Nigeria have per capita traffic death rates that are double that of the United States and other wealthy nations, and seven times that of Sweden. Being a pedestrian has also become safer – with six times less pedestrian deaths in the US now than there was in 1927.

Pinker’s main point is that we are steadily reducing the risks of simply being alive. After car crashes, the likeliest causes of accidental death are falls, drownings and fires and poisonings. All of these factors are in decline – they are all problems we are getting better at solving. Occupational deaths and deaths caused by natural disasters are also decreasing with the help of better regulations and technological innovation. There is, however, one exception to this general trend: drug overdoses are going up. Pinker admits that drug-fueled violence remains an unsolved international problem, one that could potentially be curbed by decriminalising many drugs and establishing well-regulated drug industries in place of lawless ones. Unfortunately, progress in this area seems to be slow.

Although these reductions in risk may not be impressive as declines in war and hunger, they are equally, if not more, significant. Accidents kill more people than all but the worst wars. The same is true of homicide. And yet we often fail to realise just how safe the world has become in comparison to what life used to be like. Breakthroughs in safety often fail to make the headlines. Especially in comparison to the last major issue were going to look at in this blog post: terrorism.


In contrast to other chapters, Pinker’s take on terrorism is not about showing how it’s been steadily decreasing over the past 250 years. His point is that terrorism is a minor issue in comparison to the major problems of the world. For instance, in the US and Western Europe in 2015, accidents killed a total of 262,535 people each year. Homicide killed 19,658 people. Terrorism killed 219 people. Put another way, in the US, you are 3,000 times as likely to die in an accident than a terrorist attack.

Outside of the US and Western Europe, terrorism is much more of a problem. This is because modern wars that aren’t between nation states tend to be classified as acts of terrorism, such as conflicts in Syrian, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Libya. Pinker points out that these conflicts can be effectively ended, as we’ve already discussed above.

Pinker argues that, “the rise of terrorism in public awareness is not a sign of how dangerous the world has become but the opposite… the placement of terrorism at the top of the list of threats in part stems from a security environment that is remarkably benign.” He references Yuval Harari’s work – the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – who notes that, in the Middle Ages, every sector of society retained a private militia – aristocrats, guilds, towns, even churches and monasteries – and they secured their interests by force. We no longer live in a world where local acts of violence are the norm. Instead, modern states have successfully claimed a monopoly on force, driving down the rate of killing within their borders, thus creating the potential for terrorism.

Pinker’s Blind Spot – Again

For sure, terrorism – like other wars and conflicts around the world – is a symptom that trade and prosperity have not equally spread across the globe. There is much work to do to make the world a more fair and equal place. As usual, the issue doesn’t come down to whether Pinker is painting an accurate picture of the world – the statistics are largely undeniable. The question is whether we are doing enough. Should we rest content with fewer civil wars, refugee crises and terrorist activity than ever before in history? If we know how to solve these problems then why aren’t we focusing more of our efforts and resources at doing so? Pinker seems to think that, so long as we have the practices and policies to solve major conflicts and acts of violence, these solutions will eventually be implemented. But when? How many people have to die first?

As usual, Pinker doesn’t answer these questions because he considers himself to be more of a knowledge guy, staying clear of messy political issues. The result is that Pinker simply takes for granted that eventually we will solve major problems, such as civil wars and other conflicts. But, eventually isn’t necessarily good enough. We also need to think about how we can solve major problems as quickly as possible given our current knowledge and available resources. Without doing so, Pinker’s vision of a future world without pestilence, hunger, poverty and war seems great, but also overly complacent in response to all the suffering and deaths that still exist today.

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