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With 11 Billion People, Can We Have a Peaceful World?

Paul Hanley | May 14, 2015

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Paul Hanley | May 14, 2015

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

In the 19th Century, Baha’u’llah—a prisoner in an obscure outpost of the Ottoman Empire—audaciously wrote to the world’s foremost political and religious leaders, offering them what he called “The Most Great Peace.” He wrote:

O kings of the earth! We see you increasing every year your expenditures, and laying the burden thereof on your subjects. This, verily, is wholly and grossly unjust. – Tablet to Queen Victoria, Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 93.

Long before the United Nations, or even the League of Nations, Baha’u’llah summoned the leaders to meet, settle their differences, and reduce their armaments.

They ignored him and the wars continued.

Then in the 20th Century, Baha’u’llah’s son, Abdu’l-Baha, predicted that by the end of that century, what his father called the “Lesser Peace” would come about. This preliminary political peace would stop major wars, but still lack a deep moral and spiritual foundation.

This prediction may initially seem to have been utterly amiss, but appearances can be deceiving.

In my book ELEVEN, I make the case that peace has, to a large extent, been achieved–and this achievement makes disarmament a realistic option. The trillions now spent every year on the military can now be rededicated to rehabilitating the fortunes of humankind and restoring the ecosphere.

I know–with the actions of ISIS and Boko Haram, the continuous interventions of the West in the Muslim world, and the rise of terrorism, the world looks anything but peaceful at this point. So why the optimism? I back it up from several perspectives, but one of the most convincing comes from a remarkable study by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.

Boko Haram Soldiers

Boko Haram Soldiers

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker traces a steady historical decrease in violence and the emergence, in the early 21st century, of the most peaceful period in human history.

Pinker discusses several vast processes that resulted in reductions of violence. The first is the pacification process, which has seen a steady reduction of violent deaths. Forensic archeology has been used to estimate the percentage of deaths due to violent trauma in prehistoric societies. By examining skeletal remains, scientists estimate that violent deaths ranged as high as 60 percent of all deaths, with the average over many studies a little over 15 percent. For the 20th century, wrongly considered the most violent ever, the violent death rate was 3 percent. In the first decade of the 21st century, it declined to 0.03 percent.

Pinker attributes the decline in violent deaths to the rise and expansion of state power. Think pax Romana, pax Hispanica, pax Islamica: a state or empire imposes hegemony over a territory and tries to stamp out tribal raiding and feuding, a nuisance to imperial overlords because it undermines their tax base and disrupts commerce. Hardly altruistic, but it worked.

Pinker next describes a civilizing process that helped reduce violence. Official homicide statistics date back to 1200 CE in some parts of Europe. The average homicide rate for Europe was close to 100/100,000 per year in 1000 CE. It is now 1/100,000.

Why the reduction? Again, it results in large part from the consolidation of centralized state power throughout Europe, including judicial systems. The rule of law and the King’s justice replaced warlording, feuding, and brigandage.

Simultaneously, a growing infrastructure of commerce, the development of the institutions of money and finance, and of transportation technologies all emerged simultaneously. That shifted the incentive structure from zero-sum plunder to positive-sum trade. In other words, commerce and exchange trumped fighting.

Steady downward trends in violence and upward trends in human respect have yielded what Pinker calls The Long Peace, the period since the end of the Second World War. The idea that the 20th Century was the most violent ever is simply wrong, says Pinker. While the first half was violent, the second was progressively less so, resulting in an overall historical low in violence.

The 20th century’s population explosion played a role: war deaths may have been high, but as a percentage of total deaths they actually dropped in the 20th Century compared to previous periods.

Before 1945, an average of two new European wars occurred per year for 600 years. The percentage of time that the great powers were at war with each other after 1945 declined, eventually to zero. In fact, colonial wars have disappeared altogether and, as I report in my book, interstate wars have also dwindled to zero. Civil wars and “internationalized intrastate wars”, the most common types of wars today, increased until 1990, but have since decreased.

If the world has indeed become as peaceful as Pinker suggests, it begs the question: Why do we have a sense that war and violent crime are on the increase? There are several likely reasons.

First, violence of any kind seems much more abhorrent, especially as it becomes more rare inside our circle of experience. Second, we have much more exposure to incidences of violence due to media coverage. As actual incidence of violence goes down, our alarm about the incidents that still occur goes up.
To put it another way, the brighter the light, the deeper the shadows.

On top of that, as peace takes hold a powerful military-industrial complex has a vested interest in fostering a sense of insecurity. Limited threats are amplified, as new pseudo-enemies are created and old ones reemerge.

Despite the impression we get from media, we now live in the most peaceful era in human history.

As this new reality dawns on us—and as we confront monumental problems such as climate change and resource scarcity—creating a “peace dividend” will become a necessity. We will have little choice but to rededicate the trillions now spent needlessly on armaments to addressing the key social and ecological issues of an 11 billion world.

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  • Feb 15, 2018
    I can't help myself from feeling pessimistic now. I felt that the conditions of the Lesser Peace were actually achieved around 1990, but since then there has been a trend, led especially by the US government, to move back towards perpetual war (fought on someone else's turf). Our unsustainable economic and environmental policies will accelerate this trend.
  • May 15, 2015
    Fewer casualties in war whether in sheer numbers or as a % is an amazing and wonderful fact linked to His promise about the Lesser Peace. Unfortunately this relative peace between the major powers is no guarantee that their societies will not implode from within causing such horrendous social chaos and mayem as to make the devastation of WW2 appear as foretaste and as a prelude to a tripartite catastrophe that will transform our world order - to paraphrase the Guardian. To disregard such frightening prophecy is dangerous.
  • May 14, 2015
    Thank you for this wonderful and insightful essay. I completely agree that the phenomenon you touch on here, the perception that "things are worse than ever" is, I think, exactly that -- a perception. I think it's driven in large part by the almost overwhelming availability to instant information. It's not really that so many more horrible things are happening (whether that is war, murders, other crimes, etc., etc.). Rather, it has to do with the fact that virtually anything that happens anywhere can be known about by just about everybody everywhere in a matter of seconds. All it takes one person with a mobile device taking some video, posting on the social media -- and bingo -- off it goes. Since spectacular and horrible happenings seem to grab the most attention -- both the professional media and social media seem to focus mostly on those. So, of course, one can find out in a matter of minutes about a dozen people being killed in a firefight here, 20 more dying in a bombing there, and so on and so forth -- and it quickly becomes tempting to develop the view that the entire world has gone violently insane. However, what isn't pointed out is that in whatever place those terrible events happened, probably millions of more people went about having normal, peaceful days. Even a few miles away, in many cases, it's as if nothing happened at all -- even though the terrible thing that did happen is all over the television, Internet, Facebook, and so forth. Also, it's easy to lose perspective. As many people who have died in all the armed conflicts over the past, let's say 15 years, probably don't add up to even one day's worth of casualties during the height of World War II. Taking the U.S. as just one example, we probably lost more soldiers during the first few hours of the Battle of the Bulge than we have in all the fighting we've engaged in since Sept. 11, 2001.
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