Is There Reason For Optimism?

Perhaps the lowest order measure of whether circumstances are improving for the bulk of mankind is life expectancy. Thomas Hobbs described life before civilization as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish,and short.” In the Stone Age, the average human life expectancy was 25 years. Largely because of improved sanitation, the increased availability of untainted food and water, and medical advances, life expectancy over the last century has radically improved. In the United States, for example, life expectancy increased from 48 years in 1900 to a current 76.9 years.

Around the world there are pockets of problems. The spread of the lethal AIDS virus in Africa threatens to reduce life expectancy in some countries and Russia has experienced a decline in life expectancy. Nonetheless, globally life expectancy is on the rise.

It is easy to understand how life expectancy increases with improved environmental factors and greater medical knowledge. However, it is also possible to conceive how progress might lead to increase war deaths over time. The US Civil War marked perhaps the beginning of the application of mechanization to the art of war. Although in the Civil War, like previous wars, disease killed more than enemy action, both sides managed to kill a total of over 200,000 people in action. The same science and technology that helps improve life expectancy has made humans more effective and efficient killers. This skill, in principle, could put downward pressure on life expectancy.

One might anticipate an association between population density and increased chances for conflict. As the world population increases, there is more opportunity for friction and conflict and dispute over resources. Fortunately, it seems that, the likelihood of being kill in war is at least stable. The only exceptions are World Wars I and II, when failed political systems collided with human ingenuity and managed to accumulate a death total of over 25,000,000 people. The Peace Science Society International at Pennsylvania State University, whose stated institutional goal is to “encourage the development of peace analysis and conflict management,” has accumulated statistics on inter-state war casualties over time.

Coupling these data with world population information, we can plot per capita war deaths as a function of time, as shown below. The data are averaged over ten year-increments to reduce statistical fluctuations. The values on the vertical axis represent the likelihood of death within a ten-year period. It is clear, that despite increases in population density, an increased capacity to wage war, and except for the World Wars, the likelihood of a human dying in war has remained relatively constant. During the decade encompassing World War II, there was a 1 in 121 chance of becoming a war causalty. Typically, over the last century this probability has been less than 1 in 3000.

Ironically, increased military technology may be responsible for the stability in war deaths. Nuclear deterrence in large measure prevented direct conflict between the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War. In the present conflict between the US and forces in Afghanistan and in the recent conflict in Kosovo, high technology has permitted the direct application of force with minimum unintended collateral damage. If World War II technology had been applied in either conflict the number of both civilian and military deaths would have been much higher. Conservatives are congenitally disinclined to optimism. However, perhaps the relatively constant per capita rate of war deaths, despite the improved ability to wage war, is a cause for such optimism.

Unfortunately, while inter-state war deaths may be stable, the same may not be true of intra-state genocide. Genocides in the manner of Cambodia in the 1970s and Rwanda in the 1990s may be increasing. Indeed, the Jewish Holocaust in Germany is lumped in the totals for World War II, but might more accurately be categorized as internal genocide. In a world that tends to respect the boundaries of sovereignty, the opportunity for local tyrannies to run amok remains.

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