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May 24, 2013

Is Violence in Our World on the Rise or Decline?

In his magisterial work “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argued that our time is the most peaceful era in human history. Average life expectancy, at least for people in western nations, has broken the 80-year mark. With better nutrition and sanitation and medical treatment, we are spared from many lethal diseases, and no longer powerless to fend or fight them off. We are much less likely to die from a violent act. In the last few decades, the world has been free of war between democracies. When wars or revolutions do occur, the body count is smaller than in earlier times.

It’s a provocative thesis, even if it seems counterintuitive. On the news, we see round-the-clock coverage of violence, such as murders, rapes and school shootings. In the post-9/11 era, there is an almost universal fear of terrorism and an intense focus on national security.

There can be no doubt that we still live in a violent time. But it compares favorably to the cataclysms of the great world wars of the 20th century, the U.S. Civil War, or the routine violence and death that occurred in the Middle Ages or, looking back further to pre-agricultural times, in tribal societies. Things have gotten better – and, Pinker argues, we’ve been through a “civilizing process,” a “humanitarian revolution,” and, most recently, a “rights revolution.”

Better Angels of our Nature

In recent centuries, we’ve seen the emergence of democracy and human rights, and successful campaigns to end slavery, dueling, corporal punishment, wife-beating, and many other forms of coercion or violence that were once commonplace. In recent decades, we’ve seen an enormous expansion in political rights, a rise in literacy, an enhancement in per capita income and trade and commerce, and a substantial rise and growth in charity and empathy. All of these things help to make the world a better and safer place to live in.

Pinker does not exclude animals from his wide-angle lens. He recognizes the legal revolution against malicious animal cruelty and animal fighting of the last 150 years as part of our humanitarian progress. In the last three decades, we’ve seen a dramatic decline in rates of euthanasia in healthy and treatable animals, and newly energized campaigns to combat the biggest forms of institutionalized cruelty, such as factory farming, animal testing and the wildlife trade.

But even with this unmistakable progress, it’s hard to argue that things are better for animals across the board. While we’ve seen the first series of laws to restrict extreme confinement of farm animals in the European Union and the United States, factory farming occurs on a vast and expanding scale worldwide. We are mining the oceans of fish, and killing sea turtles, sea birds and marine mammals in the process. We are tough on the terrestrial wildlife, too, killing off predators and exploiting others for bushmeat, trinkets, trophies and pelts.

We are living at an odd moment in human history. There are more expressions of love and compassion for animals than ever before – with a larger-than-ever network of charities and a growing body of animal protection law. But there is still an extremely high level of exploitation and harm. So much of this is explained by the power we wield over animals and the vast number of human beings on the planet, settling so many habitable portions of Earth. 

But just as we’ve seen extraordinary changes in human-to-human relations, we are bound to see more changes for the better in human-to-animal relations. The humane movement, rooted in so many communities, is too powerful a force to be denied, the core values of our movement are too embedded in society, and there is also the ingenuity and creativity of the human mind that can transform so many traditional or seemingly essential forms of animal use into obsolete and archaic ones.

This kind of change – grand in its ambition and challenging because it calls for sacrifice – is not self-executing. It can only happen because good people, and the institutions they serve, demand good outcomes. It happens when they struggle, when they organize, and when they pursue the vision for, and then work to build, a truly humane society.

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