Is It Safe?
Is the world a safe place? I would guess that most people think not. The news exposes us to the worst of humanity: murder, rape, war, genocide. But our exposure to the worst does not answer the question “Is the world a safe place?” We just know that we see the worst. How can you determine is the world is safe? We should not compare the world today to what it should be. We should compare the world today to how it has been. I may aspire to drive safely, be kind to all people, do my work perfectly, and eat right and exercise. But since I am a human I fall short. Comparing today to some perfection is unfair and unhelpful. Comparing me to my past is the fairest—and best—way to answer the question. Similarly, the best way to determine if the world is safe is to look at our track record. The “Safety” page on Wikipedia defines safety as “the control of recognized hazards.” So what are recognized hazards for humans? Let’s take a quick look at three recognized hazards.
Food Safety: If you took American History in high school you may have read excerpts from Upton Sinclair’s work The Jungle. This famous novel depicts the working conditions of meatpacking plants circa 1900. While Sinclair’s aim was to draw attention to terrible working conditions, the novel’s effect was to transform food safety. Readers were disgusted by the descriptions of the quality of the meat, and this national disgust led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. These acts eventually led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Food laws and regulations mean our food is very safe today. How often do we marvel at the safety of our food? I'd guess never. Nowadays, it is our overconsumption of food, not poisons and pathogens, that kills us. Overabundance is a much better problem to have than the sale and consumption of tainted and rancid food. Fire Safety: Fires have killed people for millennia and it got much worse once humans began cooking indoors. Since homes were often made of flammable materials—wood frames and thatched roofs—stray embers from the hearth or out of the chimney could create a conflagration in a matter of minutes. In the US today, strict codes mean that fires are much less common. Today professional firefighters do most of their work responding to non-fire emergences. While there have been some organized public firefighting since Roman times, professional firefighting emerged in the 1800s. In the US, the first professional firefighting company was established in Cincinnati in 1853. In the century-and-a-half since, the profession of firefighting has blossomed. Today there are more than a million firefighters in the US. And thanks to improved fire safety and fighting, deaths in the US are trending downward. According to the US Fire Administration, between 2007 and 2016, fire deaths dropped 15.8% per year on average, which is even more remarkable given that population in the US continues to grow. Natural disasters: In the US, the news channels—and especially The Weather Channel—have brought all the disaster seasons to Americans. In the winter it's blizzards and in the spring it's tornadoes. During the summer there’s fire season out West and hurricane season in the East. Indeed, the number of reported natural disasters around the globe has increased. According to Our World in Data, in 1968 there were 62 reported natural disasters. In contrast, in 2018, 282natural disasters were reported (and that number is far below the post-2000 average). So more natural disasters are being reported and we’re seeing them reported in detail on The Weather Channel and other news outlets. But fewer and fewer people are dying each year. According to Our World in Data, there were an average of more than 170,000 deaths per year from natural disasters. In the 2010s, that number is about half even though population has more than doubled. In effect, the death rate from natural disasters has decreased 75% in my lifetime. I could go on about safety improvements in other areas such as transportation (cars, trucks, boats, aviation) and work. In short, we’ve never been safer. Life is safer...in most respects. We can't ignore the fact that opioid overdoses are increasing. Gun violence deaths are near all-time lows but they are still too high. We must do more about these problems. So let's focus on the opioid epidemic and other real problems. We pour much more money into terrorism prevention and other scary but uncommon threats. Being grateful doesn't mean you ignore the problems. But being grateful feels good and is good for you. (See last week's Weekly Better for details on the benefits of gratitude.) So take some time this week to savor the benefits of living in the safest world ever.