The world became more violent than eight years ago: Study 

Professor Steven Pinker at The Oxford Union in 2014.

July 3, London: Some 180,000 people were killed in internal conflicts in 2014, a number 3.5 times higher than it was in 2010. The theory that human beings are evolving into more placid, co-operative creatures is undermined by research that suggests the World is considerably less peaceful than it was eight years ago.

Since its publication in 2011, Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined” has sparked a rigorous debate between some of the World’s most prominent thinkers.

Traversing from pre-history to hunter-gatherer times to the present, Pinker concludes that we are living in the most peaceful time in history.

Compared to our anarchic beginnings, levels of violence are at an all-time low and the “Long Peace” after the Second World War is, for now, still with us.

But when confronted with tragic events such as those just last week in Tunisia, Kuwait and France, Pinker’s conclusion can feel irrelevant.

Last year 180,000 people were killed in internal conflicts, a number 3.5 times higher than it was in 2010.

Deaths from terrorism have risen fivefold over the past 15 years, killing more than 32,000 people in 2014.

UNHCR estimates that almost 60 million people are now either refugees or internally displaced because of conflict and violence. This is the highest it has been since the Second World War and equates to almost one per cent of the World’s current population.

The latest figures for deaths by homicide are at almost half a million a year. Violent demonstrations are more prominent and perceptions of criminality are rising.

The global economic impact of military and security spending, interpersonal violence, civil conflict and terrorism in 2014 was $14.3 trillion or 13.4 per cent of World GDP,

This is equivalent to the combined economies of Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom and represents an increase of 15.3 per cent from 2008.

Such figures are staggering. While they do not negate Pinker’s observations, they do highlight that complacency is a luxury that those living in supposedly the most peaceful time in history can ill afford.

In his book, Pinker goes further than describing the decrease in violence over time. He offers potential reasons for the decline, including the rise of the nation-state, the growing appreciation of the value of life and increasing global interdependence.

While he explicitly states that the decline in violence “is not guaranteed to continue”, it is still dangerously easy to conclude from historical data that progress towards World peace is inevitable and to achieve it we should continue as we are.

Essayist Nassim Taleb, author of the bestselling book “The Black Swan”, has made a career out of highlighting the dangers of using historical data to predict the future and criticises Pinker’s work on a point of interpretation.

In particular he argues that the “Long Peace” is an illusion and with Pasquale Cirillo shows that while mass-violence has been declining, the statistical risk of mass-violence may not have.

The recent release of the Global Peace Index (GPI) from the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) shows that peace over the past eight years has had two distinct and divergent trends.

For example, in 2014 Europe continued long-term trends of improvement as homicide rates and interpersonal violence continue to drop to record lows.

Concurrently, escalating civil war and steep rises in terrorism in the Middle East have caused severe deteriorations in peace in the region.

Such trends show that the distribution of peace across the globe is mirroring wealth: peaceful countries are becoming more peaceful while the most violent are becoming more violent.

Considering that more than two billion people live in the 20 least peaceful countries in the World, the net effect of this widening peace gap is disproportionately skewed to the negative.

Whether you believe the World is more peaceful depends on your frame of reference and statistical choices.

Our research suggests the World is certainly a less peaceful place than it was eight years ago, and recent events are a sober reminder of that fact.

Dr David Hammond is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Economics and Peace. 

 

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