09 February 2016

In Which Your Blogger Briefly Interrupts Pundits' Regularly Scheduled Cries of Alarm to Remind You that Things Have Been Worse

Perhaps it is just because it is an election season, but it is popular to bemoan the state of the world. ISIS and a flood of refugees from the Middle East and a porous border with Mexico are two popular subjects for people arguing that the world is teetering on the brink.

I do think that we've had decades since the Dark Ages (which ended in roughly 1300 AD) in which civilization has slipped back, when catastrophes have mounted more quickly than gains. I don't think that we've ever had a century pass in which life didn't get better for most people in the West.

How does now compare to 100 years ago? What was going on in 1916?

Starting with the border, Pancho Villa was leading raids from Mexico into New Mexico and killing American soldiers. Imagine what Trump and the 24-hour news cycle would do with that.
Mother and child wearing gas masks,
somewhere in the French countryside along
the Western front, 

Turmoil in the Middle East pales in comparison to World War One. Or as they called it then, the Great War. Communities in the previous generation had learned how to mass manufacture goods. In the Great War, they turned their new insights into mass manufacturing death. In the Ottoman Empire alone (a swath of peoples that overlaps with the Middle East), 2.5 million civilians were killed in addition to roughly half a million soldiers. What happened to people living in the Ottoman Empire was worse than what is now happening in the Middle East but of course there is no comparison today to what was happening in Europe then. WW1 left 17 million dead and 20 million wounded.

When the Great War ended in 1918, one of the deadliest pandemics of recent history swept across the globe. Between 1918 and 1920, a flu pandemic killed roughly 4% of the world's population, or 75 million people. (The same percentage of the world's population today would be nearly 300 million, a number equal to the entire population of the US.)

At some point in history, the number of pundits and analysts began to outnumber the number of reporters. At that point, reporting seemingly tipped from reporting on what had actually happened to what might happen. At that point, alarm about the future became more newsworthy than a reasoned look at what actually happened.

If you only listen to pundits and and politicians but not reporters and ignore almost all of history, you might just believe that things have never been worse. It's hard to imagine how else one could arrive at such a conclusion.


Lifehiker said...

The first 15 years of the 21st century was likely the "safest" in the history of human civilization, despite the one and only serious war that was started by the U.S. How's that for a front page story?

Ron Davison said...

A great front page story.
Desert Island Discs is one of my favorite podcasts. Last week Kirsty Young interviewed Bill Gates. Each guest is asked to name their 8 songs they'd like to have on a desert island, and then a book (after being given the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare) and a luxury item. Gates' book is Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, which makes your very point ... it is getting safer and more humane (most) every decade.