The news you are about to read would fold a newspaper, it would shrivel the ratings of any TV news show. Why? Because it is good news, incredibly good news in fact. Ordinarily, many of us feel defeated by the ceaseless drone of bad news: news of violence, hunger and environmental disaster. Nuclear proliferation still looms. Bombs – and often the people strapped to them – continue to blow in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Forests and reefs continue to be wiped out. Glaciers and polar icecaps melt, while initiatives to curb greenhouse emissions freeze over. Not surprisingly, it is commonplace to wonder if it is pointless, romantic or youthfully idealistic to strive for dreams of peace, justice and a green economy. Is being realistic ultimately just about being fatalistic?
At the risk of sounding like Cat Stevens at hippy hyper-drive, I want to share with you some astonishing evidence of advancements towards a more harmonious global society. Though it’s hard to believe, there is growing evidence that human civilization is entering a new paradigm, and leaving the old behind. A remarkable stream of social transformation has been unfolding beyond anything that our history could have hinted at. Everywhere there are green shoots of social evolution, of the kind that yesterday would have been summarily dismissed as hippy idealism – and this greening is spreading fast.
THE SHRINKING OF WAR
For centuries now, the frequency of warfare as well as the proportion of war-related deaths around the world have been tumbling. In The Better Angels of our Nature (2011), Steven Pinker, Harvard Professor of psychology, joins a chorus of historians, anthropologists and political scientists who are chronicling the decline of many kinds of violence over history. This decline seems to be accelerating; in every way, the practice of war seems to be on its way out.
Hard to believe? Let’s take a look. Among ancient agricultural civilizations, warfare almost always meant complete genocide and enslavement of entire populations. Hunter-gatherers, from prehistory till modern times, lost on average between 4% to 30% – some archaeological sites suggest up to 60% – of their populations to warfare.
Long before WMD’s were conceived, the 8th century ‘An Lushan’ revolt in China wiped out two thirds of the Chinese population in just eight years – that is: one sixth of the world’s population at the time. Quite a feat for hand-to-hand combat. In Europe during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, an average of three new wars broke out every year!
Despite two World Wars and devastating weaponry, through the entire 20th century just 0.7% of all human deaths were battle-related, extending to 3% if we include war-related famines. But whereas the Vietnam War led to 800,000 civilian casualties, the recent war in Afghanistan killed 5,000 civilians between 2004-2010. The anti-war protest movement matured during the Vietnam conflict, and peaked before the recent war in Iraq, when 10 million marched simultaneously across 60 nations. Could it be that the growing commitment to condemn warfare is beginning to have an impact? Certainly, the horrors of war are yet to be eliminated and extreme suffering continues in hotspots. But much of the world’s population seems ever more hell-bent on stamping it out, and on denying political hawks any valid place in society – and the huge scale of this commitment has no historical precedent.
Today, the kinds of wars that lead to a redistribution of territory and a re-drawing of national boundaries are down to zero. Accordingly, around the world, conscription has been in steep decline since the 1980s. Despite 31 ongoing conflicts around the world over the last decade, battle deaths for the world have dwindled to 0.5 per 100,000, a tiny fraction of historical averages, and far less than the homicide rates of the most peaceable countries. Annual battle deaths have fallen by 90% since the 1940s.
In days of yore when civil wars raged, no national neighbor would bother to concern itself with the human toll, let alone presume to ‘meddle’ in ‘their’ business. Today, a civil war anywhere attracts international concern and condemnation, lives outside our borders are no less valued than our own. UN Peace Keeping operations – a modern invention – are becalming civil war and its effects. The presence of UN staff has reduced civil war recidivism by 80%. Political scientists and experts on international conflict and peace are calling the era we find ourselves in: ‘The Long Peace’ – not because world peace has been secured – far from it – but because there is no time in human history where violent conflict has been this scarce, not even close. If they could have seen into the future, the hippies and flower children of the 1960s might well have been impressed.
DEMOCRACY IS ON THE RISE
Parliamentary Democracy, with its guarantees for freedom of expression and assembly, and enshrined rights for all individuals, is a very recent experiment in human society – and as such it is still flawed and unripe. The quality and depth of democratic institutions varies wildly across nations. Nevertheless, an extraordinary democratic awakening is enveloping the world. Across all continents, there is a growing popular expectation of democratic rights, and people are insisting upon freedom of expression. There has been a spectacular quickening since the early days when France, UK and USA were the first to enact at least half-baked national democracies. For well over a century, psychopathic dictators continued to rule most nations by decree, and by and large people accepted this as ‘the real world’. By 1985, there were 44 democracies, by 2000 there were 82 and in 2010 we have 115 (though many of these democracies remain quite flawed). Only half a century ago, the idea that dictatorships would one day be heavily outnumbered at millennium’s end would have been met with mockery and laughter.
The accelerating democratization of the world is definitely cause for celebration. It is a demonstrable fact of history that nations with advanced democratic institutions never wage war against each other. Advanced democracies are responsible for just 1.2% of war deaths through the 20th century, authoritarian regimes are responsible for the rest. Democratization robs war of its oxygen.
VIOLENT CRIME IS IN DECLINE
Steven Pinker’s 2011 book demonstrates graphically a centuries-long downward trend in violent crime throughout much of the world. It seems that humanity is collectively learning to renounce all kinds of overt physical violence; domestically as well as internationally. In some parts of England, for instance, homicide rates have dwindled a hundredfold over last 7 centuries. This trend is reflected throughout the globe. In 2000, the World Health Organization reported a world homicide rate that has fallen to 8 per 100,000. In Western Europe, the rate is down to 1 per 100,000. Democratic nations have the lowest homicide rates, which heralds even more good news if democracy continues to spread. USA is, unfortunately, an outlier in homicide rates, with only modest reductions and the highest rates among developed nations.
The downward trend has become steeper since the 1990s. In Canada, USA, UK and Europe, homicide rates have kept falling, even through the global financial crisis of 2008-9. In USA, non-homicide violent crime dropped by half since the 1990s.
THE NEW AGE OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Though this term was entirely undreamed of in the pre-1950s world; the law, enforcement and culture of ‘Universal Human Rights’ has spread throughout civilization like wildfire. Dare we think that we might finally be starting to learn to ‘make love, not war’?
Over and above the UN Conventions on the rights of children, women, and minorities – which have been signed and ratified by most nations, with mixed but real results – there are countless other examples of this new era of social justice. In 1950, 44% of the world’s governments had overt racially discriminatory policies. By 2003, only 19% of nations cling to such anachronisms.
Homosexuality is legal today in 120 countries (conspicuous exceptions are the Islamic countries, plus some African and Caribbean countries). Many nations have levied particularly heavy penalties for violent acts committed with racial or sexual prejudice as the motive.
Gay marriage is now legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina and Uruguay.
WHAT ABOUT THE ‘BATTLE OF THE SEXES’?
Rates of partner violence have been in steady decline across Western nations over recent decades. In the UK, there has been a dramatic decline in domestic violence. In 2008, American rape statistics are just 20% of what they were in 1973 – despite the fact that women are today more willing to report the crime. However, partner assault remains high in many African, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and some Asian nations.
EXTENDING EMPATHY TO OUR NON-HUMAN KIN
Since 1821 when England led the world by banning the abuse of horses (a bill that was widely mocked at first), societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals have proliferated globally. In 1822, this was followed by the ‘Ill Treatment of Cattle Act’, and in 1835 England again set the precedent by offering legal protection from cruelty to dogs and cats. In 2005, England took the bold and mature step of banning the foxhunt, the final blood sport emblematic of British tradition.
Laboratory animal testing is increasingly frowned upon, lobbied against, regulated and limited. ‘Cruelty free’ products are proliferating widely as consumers become more and more sensitized to animal suffering. Blood sports are an endangered species – even bullfights are now banned in parts of Spain. The ranks of vegetarians and vegans are swelling. In USA, surveys show that hunting is losing popularity as a sport, and the hunting demographic is ageing. Meanwhile, wildlife-watching and ecotourism are on the rise. In 2008, Californians overwhelmingly approved the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, forbidding the use of crates and cages. It is encouraging to consider that trail-blazing California has a history of setting progressive trends that other American states and even other nations soon follow.
Stay tuned for the conclusion in Part 3, where you will find out some surprising reasons for the decline violence and the rise of human rights around the world.
THE NEW ERA OF GRASSROOTS DEMOCRACY
As democracy takes root and expands in every continent, we seem to have entered a new evolutionary phase of ‘monitory democracy’ – so says Australian historian John Keane in: The Life and Death of Democracy, 2009. This means that instead of passively waiting for governments to act for progress, justice and sustainability, grassroots movements are increasingly monitoring how politicians perform, and pressuring them to enact sustainable and just policy. You could say that Big Brother is not so much watching us: we are watching Big Brother – and he is getting nervous! The internet and social media provide powerful and lightning-fast tools for organization and communication. Online petitions galvanize the ‘wisdom of the masses’ and are, with each passing year, driving more and more positive shifts in international policy and corporate practice.
Here are just a few of the most notable examples, precipitated by the online petition social change organization, ‘Change.org’.
- When the Ford car company tried to buy huge tracts of state park in USA to use as a dumping ground, a 70,000 signature-strong petition put the brakes on them. Ford was forced to pay for the clean up.
- Department store giant, Target, was moved by 20,000 signatures to ensure that all of its gold products were sourced from nations that could guarantee zero tolerance to child or slave labour.
- Hilary Clinton and the EU ambassador pressured Saudi Arabia to stop prosecuting women for driving cars, as a result of worldwide outrage expressed through a massive online petition.
- A public outcry worth 15,000 signatures forced Apple to drop an offensive iPhone app that purported to ‘cure’ homosexuality.
- A worldwide petition signed by 113,000 embarrassed the Ecuadorian government into shutting down clinics that used degrading treatment against lesbians in the name of a ‘cure’, and instead the government is now sponsoring a campaign to combat homophobia in Ecuador.
Political corruption is another quarry successfully hunted down by increasingly assertive online petitioners.
- Another international social change agent, Avaaz.org, gathered 100,000 signatures in Spain that compelled the government to introduce tougher measures to combat political corruption and enforce transparency.
- Again through Avaaz.org half a million Indian petition-signers accomplished similar constraints on corrupt Indian politicians.
- 2 million Brazilians successfully petitioned to expel politicians who had corruption charges against them.
- In Italy, 340,000 signers forced the repeal of a draconian law that had gagged reporters and obstructed free press.
- When Muammar Gaddafi’s air force began to slaughter Lybians who protested his dictatorship, one million messages through an Avaaz.org petition helped convince the UN to enforce a no-fly zone.
In Australia, activist group ‘Getup.org’ was instrumental in securing the preservation of hundreds of thousands of hectares of old-growth forest in Tasmania, while deterring investors from backing plans for an environmentally disastrous pulp mill.
‘We the people’ are learning to take matters into our own hands, rather than wait passively until voting day. There is a tectonic shift from top-down democracy to proactive, citizen-driven demand-democracy, involving a fundamental transformation in power dynamics – and this is yielding an accelerating pace of positive social change.
WHY IS ALL OF THIS HAPPENING?
In my book Parenting for a Peaceful World (2005) I drew from a host of child-development science, anthropology and psycho-history to show that as childhood improves, society improves with it. The young human brain develops very differently in empathic versus authoritarian environments, so parenting and schooling drive our future.
So, what kinds of child-rearing reform might have been propelling this global evolution towards peaceful and sustainable societies? Here are just a few of the key transformative trends that are sweeping the world of children:
New approaches to early parenting and education are increasingly informed by parent-child attachment science, altering the formative climate of emotional security, one child at a time. This worldwide shift is guided by new discoveries in the field of neuropsychology and the new science and profession of infant mental health, and it is based on a formidable body of international research.
We have entered a new era in which emotional intelligence matters most, and from this new perspective there is an emerging commitment to meeting children’s and babies’ emotional needs with empathy rather than control.
Smacking or spanking as a means of child-raising has lost its legitimacy around the world, and is increasingly viewed as a form of domestic violence. Every year, more and more countries ban corporal punishment of children. Today it is illegal for parents to strike a child in 33 countries, and 25 more have initiated parliamentary processes to introduce this ban. With Togo as the latest of 4 African nations to ban spanking, Israel in the Middle East, and 3 more in South America, this trend can be understood to be universal. At the same time, in over 120 of the world’s nations, corporal punishment has become illegal in schools.
In most European nations, where the corporal punishment ban was long ago introduced, surveys show a near-universal disapproval of corporal punishment. But even in English speaking nations where child-hitting is still allowed (New Zealand being the only exception), the tide of opinion is turning and surveys find approval rates dwindling every decade.
Physical child abuse almost always happens with the pretext of ‘discipline’. As parents learn to say no to spanking, consequently child abuse rates steadily drop. In USA, between 1990 and 2007, child abuse rates were halved. In England and Wales, violent deaths of children fell by 40% since the 1970s.
WHO IS DRIVING THE ‘PEACE TRAIN’ – AND CAN IT GO IN REVERSE?
There is no strange magic behind the changes we are undergoing. The human brain contains regions responsible for human empathy. Modern brain science has illuminated how the brain of a child that receives more empathy will grow additional circuitry in these regions; while the child of authoritarianism, abuse or neglect suffers shrinkage in the same brain zones. Even our genetic make-up, as it is now known, can be altered by early childhood experience. Neurologically and epigenetically speaking, a society is the sum total of the environments that its children have endured, or enjoyed.
If childrearing reforms continue, the trend toward peaceful and sustainable societies will maintain its momentum. But this is hardly the time for complacency. Well may we have downsized our violence toward each other – but our violence towards the Natural world, towards the atmosphere and the oceans, only grows with each passing year. This generation’s prosperity and comfort has borrowed heavily against the very survival of our descendants – a deferred form of child and grand-child abuse. Nevertheless, what humanity has proven is that, when we join with our hearts open, we can dramatically reduce our ancient violent ways. But we are not yet out of danger, progress is not guaranteed, and regression is possible. It is time to redouble our efforts to create a more harmonious community of cultures, with all the confidence that decades of success can provide. Every act of empathy towards a child, and every act of support towards a parent, are multiplied tenfold in ripple-effects that reach far beyond our imagination.
Featured Image Credit: Gareth