Welcome to the fifth installment of The Weekly Better Bulletin. The theme of The Weekly Better, from now until November when my book comes out, will be gratitude. In particular, I will remind you the reader of the fantastic world we live in. It's easy to forget the good things in life. Here's what we looked at in the past four weeks:
Week One: We learned that you and I will live--on average--twice as long as our ancestors.
Week Two: I talked about how we live in the safest world of all time, and I gave examples of progress in food and fire safety as well as the diminishing death toll from natural disasters.
Week Three: I examined the role of public health programs, including simple things like hand washing and toilets. Simple things can save millions of lives.
Week Four: We reviewed the recent history of medicine. Things like modern surgery, anesthesia, diagnostic scans, blood transfusions, organ transplants mean that if you get really sick you have a much better chance of getting well today than at any time in human history.
This week: Peace!
The world does not seem very peaceful. War with North Korea or Iran seems like a possibility. Turn on CNN, Fox, or MSNBC and you see all the ways the world is not at peace. On Wednesday (July 17) I looked at the CNN home page and saw plenty of conflict. The juiciest news nuggets were about the fallout of the President's tweets about four members of Congress, all women of color, whom he advised to "go back" to the "crime infested places from which they came." CNN's verdict on this? "Trump may have finally broken Washington: The uproar set off by the President's racist tweets has caused chaos in the capital."
I think that's an overstatement.
While it's fair to say Trump has shaken up the Washington establishment, if you take a look at the big picture, things have changed much less than CNN's headlines would suggest. When Obama left office, the economy was growing and unemployment was shrinking. While stocks have been more volatile, thanks in part to Trump's market volatizing tweets, the economy has continued to expand during the Trump Administration, and unemployment is very low. Despite all the turmoil we read about, crime is near historic lows and high school graduation rates are near historic highs. Nearly everything still functions well, or at least not much better or worse than it did before Trump won the 2016 election.
When we read or see the news, most of us home in on the bad stuff. Thank the negativity bias, our tendency to pay attention to and think about the bad more than the good.
So with knowledge of our negativity bias in front of us, let's ask the question: Is the world more peaceful? At first blush it doesn't seem to be. According to The 2018 Global Peace Index (GPI), we're living in the least peaceful time in the last decade. Well that sounds bad! The GPI, created by the international think-tank the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), notes that the US and South America are less peaceful, and the Middle East continues to roil. Okay IEP, fair enough, but by how much? By one quarter of one percent, or, if you like fractions, by 1/400. That's a rounding error, a tiny and statistically meaningless margin. Essentially the world is as peaceful as it was last year. So let's compare this decade to the rest of history.
The comparison reveals the more important truth: We live in the most peaceful age ever.
The Long View: Since the first civilizations built walled towns and raised taxes (and armies), war has been a constant in human history. Some periods are relatively peaceful, like the nearly hundred years of "peace" between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and World War I. Other periods have been much bloodier, like the 16th and 17th century in Europe and the reign of Genghis Khan in Asia. How do our times compare?
The highly respected Our World in Data website (ourworldindata.org) hosted by the University of Oxford states it clearly: “Empirical data show(s) that we are now living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence.”
That sounds pretty confident.
Let's break it down.
Conflicts between great powers: If you've taken a European or world history class, you know that for most of history at any given time, two or more great powers were duking it out. European history has been studied the most and provides the most documentation. Even during the relatively peaceful time between Napoleon and World War I, European powers fought wars (Crimean, Franco-Prussian) and battled it out in colonies in Africa and other parts of the world. Today? Since the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago, there have been no great power conflicts. If you're too young to remember, during the Cold War nuclear conflict was a constant threat. Thousands of nuclear weapons were aimed at the US and USSR. Today that threat of Mutually Assured Destruction is not one global conflict away.
Today the US, Russia, and China may exchange not-so-nice words, but tanks aren’t massed on borders like they were during the Cold War. Now that the Cold War is over, East-West proxy wars have stopped. Although Russia supports some bad guys like Assad in Syria, the Cold War era guerilla conflicts are a thing of the past.
The one part of the world where peace is needed most is the Middle East. The US bears much of the blame for the discord and deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq, as does the bane of Islamic extremism. The Syrian Civil War has raged for more than eight years. There’s much work to do.
Building peace in the Middle East is no easy task, but there’s a roadmap that President Trump seems loath to follow: fostering international cooperation, rule of law, free trade, and civil society. The Middle East is in many ways poorly connected to the international system thanks to authoritarianism, regional conflict, and kleptocratic governments. Jobs, education, good infrastructure, trade, democracy, rights—a kind of normalcy we take for granted—would change all this.
Northern Ireland provides an example of the war-to-peace roadmap. In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, jobs were few, education was segregated by faith, and trust in the government was low. Widespread reforms and a US-backed peace process moved Northern Ireland toward peace. In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Since then Northern Ireland has enjoyed an imperfect peace, but you don’t hear about the Northern Ireland in the news much these days. By focusing on the least peaceful places, like the Middle East, we can realistically hope for surprising breakthroughs like the ones in Northern Ireland that few people expected.
And then the Middle East can enjoy the peace that's slowly descending on the rest fo the world.
And in other good news...
UNAIDS reports that HIV/AIDS deaths have fallen by a third since 2010. Remember when AIDS was going to be the next pandemic? Work needs to be done, but millions of lives are being saved.
US diabetes rates are falling and docs aren't sure why.
Clean air rules for taxis in NYC have significantly cut pollutants in the New York air.