We find ourselves here, in the year 2015, faced with an existential crisis. Are the capacities of man and all those things accumulated – the rule of law, democratic process, functions of civil society and so forth – under threat more so now than ever?
It is a tricky thing to address. Through the media’s looking glass of humanity, we are in in the throes of global chaos. The largest mass migration of refugees since World War II, an extremist movement threatening to slaughter masses of dissidents, and a fraught, shaky allegiance between competing world powers whom are battling – and supporting – imbued rebel forces. These things make fodder well short of a powder keg – but are these things really a threat?
We are asking the wrong question here. Threat is an unavoidable and consistent aspect of existence since one man found another man drinking from the same lake a millennia ago. The question here is not if there is a threat, it is how immediate and palpable is the threat?
In order to put this into perspective, we will have to compare what we know about today’s world with the worries of yesterday’s world.
Let’s can dial back three hundred years ago – 1715. In most of the advanced world at that time, human slavery and trafficking was common place. In the United States alone, it is estimated 25% of the population, or 1 in 4, were enslaved. As for the rest of the world, many countries boasted two-thirds of their populations as an enslaved demographic.
At the same time, raging wars engulfed territories and redrew false borders and lines across the world. There was an estimated 116 wars during the 18th century. That is more conflicts than there were years, and some of these wars were no small skirmishes. They include the Russo-Turkish War, the Anglo-Spanish War, the French and Indian War, and the American Revolutionary War. These were huge, established nations which sustained war after war with one another on a nearly consistent basis, some conflicts lasting more than several decades. These wars helped sow seeds of even further instability that would haunt the 19th, 20th and even 21st century.
We crank up to the 1800s and the statistics of war and conflicts only worsen. In the first twenty years of the 19th century, there were almost 100 conflicts or wars alone. During the latter half of the century we experienced the American Civil War. 1.3 million Americans were killed in the conflict, the highest casualty rate of any American war eclipsed only by the recorded number of deaths in Vietnam.
To boot, these times had some of the worst preventative and treatment care in recorded history. Phony medical remedies and non-existent cures for some of the world’s deadliest diseases allowed Polio, Tuberculosis and Typhoid Fever to take the lives of tens of millions since the 18th century. While some isolated cases do occur today, the rate of their appearance is relatively low and controlled.
And as recent as our collective memory may allow us, less than a century ago the world was faced with two back to back wars which dragged in almost half the world’s population in entrenched and devastating warfare. Millions were slaughtered, enslaved, firebombed, gassed, gunned down, tortured and starved to death over petty alliances, miscalculations and flawed ideology. The relative proximity and living memories of these wars may be why we are so quick to liken the enemies of today to the ghosts of the past – Nazis, Fascists, Authoritarians. We remember their faces, have pictures and videos to prove their wickedness.
In the year 2015 we live in a world where almost 7 billion people occupy homes, roads, places of work, schools, hospitals, and any square inch hospitable to human life. Among these 7 billion people, a vast majority of those in the industrialized world, will live relatively peaceful lives and pass of natural causes. For those in the non-industrialized world, the likelihood of dying a more violent or sudden death is substantially increased, but not in the manner and circumstances of a world a century ago, where the best solution to gangrene was to amputate, or cocaine was considered a form of migraine relief.
We have defined war as any armed conflict in which 1,000+ battle-related deaths occur a year. The year 2015 reports a whole 10 such events taking place around the world, most of which take place in the Middle East. Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ukraine, South Sudan, Israel/Gaza, Somalia and Yemen. It is estimated there are another 5 ‘serious armed conflicts’ resulting in less than 1,000 deaths per year, as well as another dozen or so ‘armed conflicts’ resulting in 200 or less deaths per year.
Lump these figures together and a rough estimate of 110,000-150,000 a year died from armed conflicts in 2015. And while a hundred thousand people gunned down is nothing to skirt by, it is still not 1.3 million in a single war, a war which took place alongside a multitude of other wars leaving another countless millions dead.
While we attempt to quantify these numbers and reconcile them with the ‘growing threat of terrorism,’ Americans should know they are more likely to die of an intestinal illness or a traffic accident than an act of terrorism. There were a reported 25 ‘non-combatant’ American deaths from terrorism in 2010. While there has been an ‘increase’ in terrorism coming from groups like ISIS, the number has not risen dramatically – a number that is almost 75 people less than those who died of vending machine related accidents a year (there are annual conferences on how we can still reduce the number of those vending machine injuries).
And while we have hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding borders around the world, bludgeoning government resources and stuffing crowded camps, remember – there was an estimated 60 million refugees produced out of World War II, and millions of them remained displaced until many years after the war. Today, an infinitely smaller fraction is fleeing a war which, by relative standards, would have been considered a small armed conflict in centuries prior.
And though a Russian jet may be shot down by a Turkish fighter pilot under dubious circumstances, and a war of words and warning shots permeate in the Caspian sea, remember – the small time assassination of Austria’s Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian extremist dragged an entire continent into a prolonged eight year war, filled with the horrors of trench warfare and biological weapons.
While historical relativism may seem bleak and drab, reduce the world into easily digestible and perhaps callous statistics, the simple fact remains the same – we live in the most peaceful and prosperous time since the beginning of civilization. From the Romans to the Greeks to the Spanish and Brits, we are a world relatively free of Imperialism, Slavery, Empires, War and Disease.
Most of us will live long, healthy and rich lives. More people will live beyond the age of 85 than ever have. More people will be fed, clothed and sheltered than at any other time in human existence. There is more of a unified consensus on the construct of peace and civility than there ever has been and more people alive today to remember the lessons of history. The world is working on a more global scale than they ever have to catch up the small fraction of deviants who haven’t gotten the memo of law and order, democracy, and civil society.
So when you turn on your television at any time of the day and see the media lens frying the small ant on a hill, ask yourself to recognize that the existential threat against humanity began many centuries before this era, and will continue so long as man has something to take from one another. We can have solace in the simple fact that in 2016, the things to take from one another have become less cost friendly for thieves and vending machine safety is being improved upon everyday.