Better Angels of Our Nature My A__!
In the 4th Century, the theologian Jerome said, “ Do something, so that the Devil may always find you busy.” Odd that he would say that. The Dark Ages were relatively peaceful, as far as large scale wars went. There was little to no slavery, which is a permanent state of violence. Perhaps Jerome was thinking of the life before the 4th century.
The days when war begat slaves, who mined gold, that payed for more soldiers, who captured more slaves…
You know, what started-up again after the Dark Ages.
Since the 1950s, there are been very few wars. In 2011's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined Steven Pinker explain why humans* are done with war.
If future generations mourn the death of hundreds of millions, they will enjoy quoting Pinker’s book, to prove ignorant people like us had it coming.
But I hope Pinker is right, though chats I have on Facebook tell me he is comically wrong. People blame other people and would happily see something violent done about it. Especially to me; I’m really annoying.
I’m going to give some different explanations than Pinker’s, for why we’re living in an unusually peaceful age.
From August 6th, 1945 onwards, the atomic bomb scared nations from starting a fight. It also shocked societies into developing institutions to prevent war. Before WWII, few leaders embraced the League of Nations (the U.S wouldn’t join). After Hiroshima, everyone got on board, hello United Nations.
Those fears and shocks died out with the “greatest generation”. History is declining as a major at many universities.
After WWII the world was left with two superpowers, the U.S. and Russia. A cold-war ensued where both tried to match each other in military might. One benefit was the knowledge both had, that any conflict would lead to mutually assured destruction. But the best outcome was that every other nation picked a side, either behind the U.S. or Russia. Once they chose their superpower, they focused solely on economic growth. As long as the U.S. and Russia didn’t go to war, no one else would.
Those days are over with China entering a three way arms race with the U.S. and Russia. The trade wars will accelerate that.
With three superpowers, every other nation must think hard about who it is going to align with, in a conflict, and what various combinations they may face in war. In short, a world-wide arms race has begun. NATO is all but dead. Japan is close to removing “defensive only” from its Constitution.
Another factor I see rarely mentioned is population growth and improvement in food production. If you watch a movie from before the 1940s you’ll probably notice a scene where some guy visits a friend and the friend asks, “have you had a square (meal) today?” Hunger was a real thing back then.
I bet we throw away more food than most people ate pre 1950s. For much of history, “I’d kill for food” was no joke.
It’s truly fantastic that the World bumped along at around 1 to 2 billion people for centuries and in the past 70 years has shot up to 7 billion. All while growing our food supply even faster!
In short, massive and unprecedented growth, in children, food, and all manner of other conveniences and entertainments has kept everyone pre-occupied. Lately, we’ve added immersive video games and mood drugs.
Putting that all together, for Pinker to continue to be right, we need to go back to two superpowers. We need to stay actively “growing”, however you define it. We need someone to set off a nuclear bomb so we get scared again.
What we don’t want is stagnant growth, arms races, a weakening of peaceful institutions like the U.N., loading fighters with “tactical” nukes and climate changes that hurt food production.
What I see prior to World I and II was, you guessed it, stagnant growth, arms races, a weakening of government, the development of modern bombs (instead of throwing them out of bi-planes like they did in WWI) and shortages of food.
My recent obsession with World War history has shown me something else — what I learned in school, and see abbreviated in the media, is mostly a convenient, simplified story of good vs evil.
Hitler’s “evil” hatred of the Jews had less to do with with why he started a war, than his “good” idea of what humanity needed — Aryan purity. There’s also an argument that if it wasn’t for a food shortage he wouldn’t have massively exterminated the Jews. He would have kept them as slaves until they died out.
I’m not trying to downplay what happened; only pointing out it was mundane reasons like food-shortages, and a fight over oil, that explain the sheer death toll of WWII, as they will again, in the future, if climate changes food production and energy supplies.
Please don’t think I believe war is near. There is plenty of food and energy and technology to amuse oneselves. Nevertheless, to someone going through the industrial/technological revolution in the early twentieth century it also looked like food and oil would only become more and more available.
Until is wasn’t.
A weak government under Trump isn’t itself a bringer of horror. But combine it with future shortages, and a fight for resources, and watch the bodies begin to pile up.
*I haven’t read Pinker’s book. I’m so behind in my reading. This is a comment on the following article discussing it. https://towardsdatascience.com/has-global-violence-declined-a-look-at-the-data-5af708f47fba