Steven Pinker on the Prospect of Peace

We live in the most peaceful time humans have ever known, but you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. In the wake of civil war in Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan, in the news reports of a multiple homicide in your city, in the increasing layers of security you are subject to whenever you attempt the trip from the airline check-in desk to your departure gate, it is impossible not to get the impression that we live in one of the bloodiest eras in history. Nevertheless, Steven Pinker has convincingly proved that impression wrong.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Dr. Pinker chronicles the decline of violence in nearly every imaginable way. He shows that our zeal to fight has been sapped over time—war, murder, torture, and sacrifice have all taken a smaller and smaller fraction of our species from this world. This is a point he drove home at the One Earth Future Forum, where we interviewed him for the video below. (Conor Seyle also published a nice post on this recently.)

Certainly, many people died from violence over the last century. However, many more lived during that period than ever before. Scientists tend to talk in per capita rates, but there are simpler ways of thinking about this. A person living in small-scale societies—the societies of human history—had more than a one in ten chance of dying from warfare, and this is almost certainly a low estimate. In some prehistoric societies, such as the Qadan, the rates of war fatalities are estimated at about 40% of all deaths. These are not the risks that we face today. Not by a long shot.

The upshot of all of this is that real, lasting peace is possible. Our work at One Earth Future is an attempt to realize this possibility through research and practice. As Dr. Pinker says in the interview, “looking at the numbers, it’s not at all unfeasible.” That doesn’t mean it will be easy, still, but it does suggest that the overlap between optimism and realism is much greater than many believe. Peace is not just a fantasy—it’s a good prospect. 

Cover image by Rebecca Goldstein