Bilan 2013: La meilleure année de l’histoire (It really is a wonderful world – happy new year to all !)

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Nous vivons à la fois dans le meilleur et le pire des mondes. Les progrès de l’humanité sont réels. Nos lois sont meilleures et nous nous tuons moins les uns les autres. En même temps, nous ne voulons pas voir notre responsabilité dans les menaces et les possibilités de destruction qui pèsent sur nous. René Girard
 Je me souviens d’un journal dans lequel il y avait deux articles juxtaposés. Le premier se moquait de l’Apocalypse d’une certaine façon ; le second était aussi apocalyptique que possible. Le contact de ces deux textes qui se faisaient face et qui dans le même temps se donnaient comme n’ayant aucun rapport l’un avec l’autre avait quelque chose de fascinant. (…) Nous sommes encore proches de cette période des grandes expositions internationales qui regardait de façon utopique la mondialisation comme l’Exposition de Londres – la « Fameuse » dont parle Dostoievski, les expositions de Paris… Plus on s’approche de la vraie mondialisation plus on s’aperçoit que la non-différence ce n’est pas du tout la paix parmi les hommes mais ce peut être la rivalité mimétique la plus extravagante. On était encore dans cette idée selon laquelle on vivait dans le même monde : on n’est plus séparé par rien de ce qui séparait les hommes auparavant donc c’est forcément le paradis. Ce que voulait la Révolution française. Après la nuit du 4 août, plus de problème !  L’Amérique connaît bien cela. Il est évident que la non-différence de classe ne tarit pas les rivalités mais les excite à mort avec tout ce qu’il y a de bon et de mortel dans ce phénomène. (…)  il n’y a plus de sacrifice et donc les hommes sont exposés à la violence et il n’y a plus que deux choix : soit on préfère subir la violence soit on cherche à l’infliger à autrui. Le Christ veut nous dire entre autres choses : il vaut mieux subir la violence (c’est le sacrifice de soi) que de l’infliger à autrui. Si Dieu refuse le sacrifice, il est évident qu’il nous demande la non-violence qui empêchera l’Apocalypse. (…) Je crois qu’il y a un double mouvement. Il ne faut pas oublier qu’il y a aussi une société de la peur. Beaucoup de gens considèrent que la violence augmente dans notre univers. Les deux mouvements se chevauchent.  Il y a eu des gestes de prudence extraordinaires, puisque Kroutchev n’a pas maintenu à Cuba les bombes atomiques. Il y a, dans ce geste, quelque chose de décisif. Ce fut le seul moment effrayant pour les hommes d’Etat eux-mêmes. Aujourd’hui nous savons qu’il y a des pays qui essaient par tous les moyens de se procurer ces armes et nous savons aussi qu’ils sont bien décidés à les utiliser. On a donc encore franchi un palier. René Girard
La mondialisation engendre une fragilité qui se répercute en cascade tout en diminuant la volatilité et en créant une apparence de stabilité. En d’autres termes, la mondialisation produit des Cygnes Noirs foudroyants. Nous n’avons jamais vécu sous la menace d’un effondrement général. Jusqu’à présent, les institutions financières ont fusionné, donnant naissance à un nombre plus restreint de très grandes banques. Maintenant, les banques sont pratiquement toutes liées entre elles. Ainsi l’écologie financière est-elle en train d’enfler pour former des banques bureaucratiques gigantesques, incestueuses (souvent « gaussianisées » en termes d’évaluation des risques) – la chute de l’une entraîne celle de toutes les autres. La concentration accrue des banques semble avoir pour effet de rendre les crises financières moins probables, mais quand elles se produisent, c’est à une échelle plus globale et elles nous frappent très cruellement. Nous sommes passés d’une écologie diversifiée de petites banques, avec différentes politiques de prêt, à un ensemble plus homogène de sociétés qui se ressemblent toutes. Certes, nous enregistrons maintenant moins d’échecs, mais quand ils se produisent… Cette pensée me fait frémir. Je reformule mon idée : nous allons avoir moins de crises, mais elles seront plus graves. Plus un événement est rare, moins nous connaissons les chances qu’il a de se produire. Autrement dit, nous en savons toujours moins sur les possibilités qu’une crise a de survenir. Nassim Taleb
For centuries, social theorists like Hobbes and Rousseau speculated from their armchairs about what life was like in a « state of nature. » Nowadays we can do better. Forensic archeology—a kind of « CSI: Paleolithic »—can estimate rates of violence from the proportion of skeletons in ancient sites with bashed-in skulls, decapitations or arrowheads embedded in bones. And ethnographers can tally the causes of death in tribal peoples that have recently lived outside of state control. These investigations show that, on average, about 15% of people in prestate eras died violently, compared to about 3% of the citizens of the earliest states. Tribal violence commonly subsides when a state or empire imposes control over a territory, leading to the various « paxes » (Romana, Islamica, Brittanica and so on) that are familiar to readers of history. It’s not that the first kings had a benevolent interest in the welfare of their citizens. Just as a farmer tries to prevent his livestock from killing one another, so a ruler will try to keep his subjects from cycles of raiding and feuding. From his point of view, such squabbling is a dead loss—forgone opportunities to extract taxes, tributes, soldiers and slaves. (…) Historical records show that between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century, European countries saw a 10- to 50-fold decline in their rates of homicide.(…) Historians attribute this decline to the consolidation of a patchwork of feudal territories into large kingdoms with centralized authority and an infrastructure of commerce. Criminal justice was nationalized, and zero-sum plunder gave way to positive-sum trade. People increasingly controlled their impulses and sought to cooperate with their neighbors. (….) Governments and churches had long maintained order by punishing nonconformists with mutilation, torture and gruesome forms of execution, such as burning, breaking, disembowelment, impalement and sawing in half. The 18th century saw the widespread abolition of judicial torture, including the famous prohibition of « cruel and unusual punishment » in the eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution. At the same time, many nations began to whittle down their list of capital crimes from the hundreds (including poaching, sodomy, witchcraft and counterfeiting) to just murder and treason. And a growing wave of countries abolished blood sports, dueling, witchhunts, religious persecution, absolute despotism and slavery. (…) Today we take it for granted that Italy and Austria will not come to blows, nor will Britain and Russia. But centuries ago, the great powers were almost always at war, and until quite recently, Western European countries tended to initiate two or three new wars every year. The cliché that the 20th century was « the most violent in history » ignores the second half of the century (and may not even be true of the first half, if one calculates violent deaths as a proportion of the world’s population). Though it’s tempting to attribute the Long Peace to nuclear deterrence, non-nuclear developed states have stopped fighting each other as well. Political scientists point instead to the growth of democracy, trade and international organizations—all of which, the statistical evidence shows, reduce the likelihood of conflict. They also credit the rising valuation of human life over national grandeur—a hard-won lesson of two world wars. (…) Since 1946, several organizations have tracked the number of armed conflicts and their human toll world-wide. The bad news is that for several decades, the decline of interstate wars was accompanied by a bulge of civil wars, as newly independent countries were led by inept governments, challenged by insurgencies and armed by the cold war superpowers. The less bad news is that civil wars tend to kill far fewer people than wars between states. And the best news is that, since the peak of the cold war in the 1970s and ’80s, organized conflicts of all kinds—civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic governments, terrorist attacks—have declined throughout the world, and their death tolls have declined even more precipitously. The rate of documented direct deaths from political violence (war, terrorism, genocide and warlord militias) in the past decade is an unprecedented few hundredths of a percentage point. Even if we multiplied that rate to account for unrecorded deaths and the victims of war-caused disease and famine, it would not exceed 1%. The most immediate cause of this New Peace was the demise of communism, which ended the proxy wars in the developing world stoked by the superpowers and also discredited genocidal ideologies that had justified the sacrifice of vast numbers of eggs to make a utopian omelet. Another contributor was the expansion of international peacekeeping forces, which really do keep the peace—not always, but far more often than when adversaries are left to fight to the bitter end. (…° In the developed world, the civil rights movement obliterated lynchings and lethal pogroms, and the women’s-rights movement has helped to shrink the incidence of rape and the beating and killing of wives and girlfriends. In recent decades, the movement for children’s rights has significantly reduced rates of spanking, bullying, paddling in schools, and physical and sexual abuse. And the campaign for gay rights has forced governments in the developed world to repeal laws criminalizing homosexuality and has had some success in reducing hate crimes against gay people. (…) The most obvious of these pacifying forces has been the state, with its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. A disinterested judiciary and police can defuse the temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge and circumvent the self-serving biases that make all parties to a dispute believe that they are on the side of the angels. We see evidence of the pacifying effects of government in the way that rates of killing declined following the expansion and consolidation of states in tribal societies and in medieval Europe. And we can watch the movie in reverse when violence erupts in zones of anarchy, such as the Wild West, failed states and neighborhoods controlled by mafias and street gangs, who can’t call 911 or file a lawsuit to resolve their disputes but have to administer their own rough justice. Another pacifying force has been commerce, a game in which everybody can win. As technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead. They switch from being targets of demonization and dehumanization to potential partners in reciprocal altruism. (…) Bearers of good news are often advised to keep their mouths shut, lest they lull people into complacency. But this prescription may be backward. The discovery that fewer people are victims of violence can thwart cynicism among compassion-fatigued news readers who might otherwise think that the dangerous parts of the world are irredeemable hell holes. And a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us toward doing things that make people better off rather than congratulating ourselves on how moral we are. As one becomes aware of the historical decline of violence, the world begins to look different. The past seems less innocent, the present less sinister. One starts to appreciate the small gifts of coexistence that would have seemed utopian to our ancestors: the interracial family playing in the park, the comedian who lands a zinger on the commander in chief, the countries that quietly back away from a crisis instead of escalating to war. For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment that we can savor—and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible. Steven Pinker
Le monde n’a jamais été plus riche, la croissance n’a jamais été plus équitablement répartie. Nous sommes plus nombreux que jamais, mais n’avons jamais eu aussi peu faim. On parle maintenant de la « fin du sida ». Les progrès contre l’un des plus grands tueurs, le paludisme, étaient lents il y a dix ans. Maintenant, ils sont rapides. (…) Mais c’est rarement avec de bonnes nouvelles  qu’on vend du papier et ce non  pas à cause d’une quelconque sinistre conspiration de la presse. Les nouvelles positives sont moins susceptible d’être lues, ou de vendre des journaux. Si vous êtes au pub et un ami vous raconte que votre voisin vient de qutter son mari après un violent accrochage, etc.,  vous serez écouté. Dites que votre voisin a eu une excellente année 2013 et s’attend à une encore meilleure année 2014 et tout le monde s’en fichera. Il en va de même pour le journalisme – ce qui entraine un fort parti pris dans les médias pour les histoires qui tournent mal. (…) Juger un pays, ou  le monde, d’après les journaux, c’est comme si on jugeait une ville en passant la nuit dans sa salle d’urgences. Mais il n’y a pas que les  journalistes : les associations caritatives ont aussi intérêt à projeter une image de l’Afrique comme celle d’une zone de grande famine. En ce moment même, par exemple, il y a un appel pour les victimes de la guerre civile syrienne – qui sont d’ailleurs tout à fait réelles. Mais c’est l’exception. En fait, nous vivons à l’ère plus paisible de l’histoire moderne. (…) Mais qu’en est-il du chaos climatique ? Ne sommes nous pas entrés dans une nouvelle ère d’inondations, tempêtes et autres phénomènes météorologiques extrêmes, provoquant toujours plus massivement de victimes ? Bien au contraire. Il y a encore des tempêtes, bien sûr, mais un monde plus riche y est mieux préparé. Les défenses contre les inondations, des bâtiments plus solides, etc., font que  le nombre de victimes de la météo a baissé d’un étonnant 93% depuis les années 1920. (…) Nous avons tendance à ne pas entendre parler de tout cela, parce que les journalistes, comme les politiciens, sont là pour identifier et attirer notre attention sur les problèmes. Et à juste titre : aussi longtemps que les banques alimentaires seront nécessaires, aussi longtemps que les gens dormiront dans la rue en Grande-Bretagne et souffriront de la faim en Asie, aussi longtemps que quelqu’un mourra d’une maladie évitable comme la malaria alors il y aura encore largement de quoi à être scandalisés. (…) Mais ce qui va mal dans le monde est  largement contrebalancé par ce qui va bien. Et la déprimante suite de nouvelles peut effectivement nous aveugler sur la plus grande nouvelle de notre époque : nous sommes vraiment sur le point de reléguer la pauvreté à l’histoire. (…) C’est une nouvelle dont aucune organisation ou gouvernement ne peut se prévaloir  – et une nouvelle qui ne convient  à l’ordre du jour de quiconque en particulier. Mais la nouvelle est là, pour ceux qui ont des yeux pour la voir. Fraser Nelson

Plus grande richesse, égalité et population de l’histoire, réduction historique de la faim, des grandes épidémies et de la violence comme du nombre de victimes du climat …

En ce début 2014 …

Quel meilleur antidote, avec le plus ancien magazine britannique, contre le parti pris systématique de nos médias notamment de gauche pour les histoires qui tournent mal …

Que ce rappel des incroyables et proprement inouïs bienfaits apportés par la mondialisation que nos médias prennent tant de plaisir à longueur de pages à dénigrer ?

Même si bien sûr, comme le rappellent souvent René Girard ou Nassim Taleb, ces incroyables progrès ne nous mettent pas nécessairement à l’abri de crises plus rares mais potentiellement plus massives …

The biggest shocker of 2013? That it really is a wonderful world

Fraser Nelson

28 December 2013

Next year marks a millennium since the sermon given in 1014 by Archbishop Wulfstan in York where he declared that “the world is in a rush and is getting close to its end.” Ever since, people (especially clergy) have had a similar story to tell: the world is moving too fast, people are too selfish and things are going to the dogs. The truth is that the world is in a better shape now than any time in history – a claim which may sound bizarre, but it’s borne out by the facts.

I was on LBC radio earlier, discussing the leading article in the Spectator Christmas special which explained why 2013 was the best year in human history. Never has the world been wealthier, never has the growth been more fairly distributed. Never has there been more of us but never has there been less hunger. People now talk about the ‘end of Aids’. Progress against one of the biggest killers, Malaria, was slow ten years ago. Now it’s rapid, as the below graph shows:-

Countries who grow richer can afford malaria nets and places like Cambodia believe they’re three years away from extinguishing Malaria deaths. The UN believes Africa could be just 12 years away from the end of famine.

When Louis Armstrong sang ‘Wonderful World’ more than 80 per cent of China lived below the poverty line. Now it’s just 10 per cent. China’s embrace of trade – and, yes, global capitalism – has seen lead the fastest progress against poverty that mankind has ever witnessed. We’re living in a golden age.

The LBC interviewer joked that I’d have my journalistic credentials stripped from me: isn’t journalism about telling folk how bad things are going?

It’s a very good point. Good news seldom makes good copy, and not because of a wicked conspiracy by the press. The positive stuff is less likely to be read, or to sell newspapers. This is due to human nature: as a species we’re more interested in what’s going wrong than going right. If you’re down the pub and see a friend and you say your neighbor has just ditched her husband after a massive bust-up etc – people will listen. Say your neighbour’s had a good 2013 and expects a better 2014 and no one would care. The same is true in journalism – which creates a heavy bias in the media towards what’s going wrong.

Judging a country, or the world, by newspapers is like judging a city by spending a night in its A&E ward. But it’s not just journalists: aid agencies have a interest in projecting a picture of Africa as one big famine zone; Western governments seeking Brownie points from large aid budgets also like to portray the third world as a place that is entirely dependent on the largesse of virtuous politicians in rich countries. Right now, for example, there’s an appeal on for the victims of the Syrian civil war – who are all too real. But it’s the exception. We’re actually living in the most peaceful age in modern history as Steven Pinker outlined recently. Here’s some of his evidence:-

Ah, you may say, war’s one thing. But what about that climate chaos? Aren’t we seeing a new era of floods, storms and other extreme weather events inflicting a massive death toll? Quite the reverse. The storms still come, of course, but a richer world is better-prepared for them. The graph below, from Indur Goklany’s 2008 study (pdf) shows how flood defences, stronger houses etc, mean deaths from weather are down by an astonishing 93pc since the 1920s. The developing world is never been better able to confront the fury of nature.

We tend not to hear about all this because journalists, like politicians, are in the business of identifying and drawing attention to problems. And rightly: it’s human nature to be never satisfied, to always raise the definition of success, to always strive for something better. For as long as food banks remain needed, for as long as people are sleeping rough in Britain and hungry in Asia, for as long as anyone dies of a preventable disease like Malaria then there’s still plenty to be outraged about.

But what is going wrong with the world is vastly outweighed by what is going right. And the run of depressing news stories can actually blind us to the greatest story of our age: we really are on our way to making poverty history. Thanks to the way millions of people trade with each other, via a system known by its detractors as global capitalism.

It’s a story that no one organisation or government can take credit for – and a story that doesn’t particularly suit anyone’s agenda. But the story is there, for those with an eye to see it.

PS And for anyone interested in this general idea, I can heartily recommend two things. One is a subscription to the Spectator (we’re extending our Christmas deal, our best-ever offer). The other is a short book that explained it all to me – and changed my mind about a lot of things (and one I still give as a present to friends) : In Defence of Global Capitalism by Johan Norberg.

Voir aussi:

Violence Vanquished

We believe our world is riddled with terror and war, but we may be living in the most peaceable era in human existence. Why brutality is declining and empathy is on the rise.

Steven Pinker

The Wall Street Journal

September 24, 2011

On the day this article appears, you will read about a shocking act of violence. Somewhere in the world there will be a terrorist bombing, a senseless murder, a bloody insurrection. It’s impossible to learn about these catastrophes without thinking, « What is the world coming to? »

With all its wars, murder and genocide, history might suggest that the taste for blood is human nature. Not so, argues Harvard Prof. Steven Pinker. He talks to WSJ’s Gary Rosen about the decline in violence in recent decades and his new book, « The Better Angels of Our Nature. »

But a better question may be, « How bad was the world in the past? »

Believe it or not, the world of the past was much worse. Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.

The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth. It has not brought violence down to zero, and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.

This claim, I know, invites skepticism, incredulity, and sometimes anger. We tend to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which we can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. There will always be enough violent deaths to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from its actual likelihood.

Evidence of our bloody history is not hard to find. Consider the genocides in the Old Testament and the crucifixions in the New, the gory mutilations in Shakespeare’s tragedies and Grimm’s fairy tales, the British monarchs who beheaded their relatives and the American founders who dueled with their rivals.

Today the decline in these brutal practices can be quantified. A look at the numbers shows that over the course of our history, humankind has been blessed with six major declines of violence.

The first was a process of pacification: the transition from the anarchy of the hunting, gathering and horticultural societies in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history to the first agricultural civilizations, with cities and governments, starting about 5,000 years ago.

For centuries, social theorists like Hobbes and Rousseau speculated from their armchairs about what life was like in a « state of nature. » Nowadays we can do better. Forensic archeology—a kind of « CSI: Paleolithic »—can estimate rates of violence from the proportion of skeletons in ancient sites with bashed-in skulls, decapitations or arrowheads embedded in bones. And ethnographers can tally the causes of death in tribal peoples that have recently lived outside of state control.

These investigations show that, on average, about 15% of people in prestate eras died violently, compared to about 3% of the citizens of the earliest states. Tribal violence commonly subsides when a state or empire imposes control over a territory, leading to the various « paxes » (Romana, Islamica, Brittanica and so on) that are familiar to readers of history.

It’s not that the first kings had a benevolent interest in the welfare of their citizens. Just as a farmer tries to prevent his livestock from killing one another, so a ruler will try to keep his subjects from cycles of raiding and feuding. From his point of view, such squabbling is a dead loss—forgone opportunities to extract taxes, tributes, soldiers and slaves.

The second decline of violence was a civilizing process that is best documented in Europe. Historical records show that between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century, European countries saw a 10- to 50-fold decline in their rates of homicide.

The numbers are consistent with narrative histories of the brutality of life in the Middle Ages, when highwaymen made travel a risk to life and limb and dinners were commonly enlivened by dagger attacks. So many people had their noses cut off that medieval medical textbooks speculated about techniques for growing them back.

Historians attribute this decline to the consolidation of a patchwork of feudal territories into large kingdoms with centralized authority and an infrastructure of commerce. Criminal justice was nationalized, and zero-sum plunder gave way to positive-sum trade. People increasingly controlled their impulses and sought to cooperate with their neighbors.

The third transition, sometimes called the Humanitarian Revolution, took off with the Enlightenment. Governments and churches had long maintained order by punishing nonconformists with mutilation, torture and gruesome forms of execution, such as burning, breaking, disembowelment, impalement and sawing in half. The 18th century saw the widespread abolition of judicial torture, including the famous prohibition of « cruel and unusual punishment » in the eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

At the same time, many nations began to whittle down their list of capital crimes from the hundreds (including poaching, sodomy, witchcraft and counterfeiting) to just murder and treason. And a growing wave of countries abolished blood sports, dueling, witchhunts, religious persecution, absolute despotism and slavery.

The fourth major transition is the respite from major interstate war that we have seen since the end of World War II. Historians sometimes refer to it as the Long Peace.

Today we take it for granted that Italy and Austria will not come to blows, nor will Britain and Russia. But centuries ago, the great powers were almost always at war, and until quite recently, Western European countries tended to initiate two or three new wars every year. The cliché that the 20th century was « the most violent in history » ignores the second half of the century (and may not even be true of the first half, if one calculates violent deaths as a proportion of the world’s population).

Though it’s tempting to attribute the Long Peace to nuclear deterrence, non-nuclear developed states have stopped fighting each other as well. Political scientists point instead to the growth of democracy, trade and international organizations—all of which, the statistical evidence shows, reduce the likelihood of conflict. They also credit the rising valuation of human life over national grandeur—a hard-won lesson of two world wars.

The fifth trend, which I call the New Peace, involves war in the world as a whole, including developing nations. Since 1946, several organizations have tracked the number of armed conflicts and their human toll world-wide. The bad news is that for several decades, the decline of interstate wars was accompanied by a bulge of civil wars, as newly independent countries were led by inept governments, challenged by insurgencies and armed by the cold war superpowers.

The less bad news is that civil wars tend to kill far fewer people than wars between states. And the best news is that, since the peak of the cold war in the 1970s and ’80s, organized conflicts of all kinds—civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic governments, terrorist attacks—have declined throughout the world, and their death tolls have declined even more precipitously.

The rate of documented direct deaths from political violence (war, terrorism, genocide and warlord militias) in the past decade is an unprecedented few hundredths of a percentage point. Even if we multiplied that rate to account for unrecorded deaths and the victims of war-caused disease and famine, it would not exceed 1%.

The most immediate cause of this New Peace was the demise of communism, which ended the proxy wars in the developing world stoked by the superpowers and also discredited genocidal ideologies that had justified the sacrifice of vast numbers of eggs to make a utopian omelet. Another contributor was the expansion of international peacekeeping forces, which really do keep the peace—not always, but far more often than when adversaries are left to fight to the bitter end.

Finally, the postwar era has seen a cascade of « rights revolutions »—a growing revulsion against aggression on smaller scales. In the developed world, the civil rights movement obliterated lynchings and lethal pogroms, and the women’s-rights movement has helped to shrink the incidence of rape and the beating and killing of wives and girlfriends.

In recent decades, the movement for children’s rights has significantly reduced rates of spanking, bullying, paddling in schools, and physical and sexual abuse. And the campaign for gay rights has forced governments in the developed world to repeal laws criminalizing homosexuality and has had some success in reducing hate crimes against gay people.

* * * *

Why has violence declined so dramatically for so long? Is it because violence has literally been bred out of us, leaving us more peaceful by nature?

This seems unlikely. Evolution has a speed limit measured in generations, and many of these declines have unfolded over decades or even years. Toddlers continue to kick, bite and hit; little boys continue to play-fight; people of all ages continue to snipe and bicker, and most of them continue to harbor violent fantasies and to enjoy violent entertainment.

It’s more likely that human nature has always comprised inclinations toward violence and inclinations that counteract them—such as self-control, empathy, fairness and reason—what Abraham Lincoln called « the better angels of our nature. » Violence has declined because historical circumstances have increasingly favored our better angels.

The most obvious of these pacifying forces has been the state, with its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. A disinterested judiciary and police can defuse the temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge and circumvent the self-serving biases that make all parties to a dispute believe that they are on the side of the angels.

We see evidence of the pacifying effects of government in the way that rates of killing declined following the expansion and consolidation of states in tribal societies and in medieval Europe. And we can watch the movie in reverse when violence erupts in zones of anarchy, such as the Wild West, failed states and neighborhoods controlled by mafias and street gangs, who can’t call 911 or file a lawsuit to resolve their disputes but have to administer their own rough justice.

Another pacifying force has been commerce, a game in which everybody can win. As technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead. They switch from being targets of demonization and dehumanization to potential partners in reciprocal altruism.

For example, though the relationship today between America and China is far from warm, we are unlikely to declare war on them or vice versa. Morality aside, they make too much of our stuff, and we owe them too much money.

A third peacemaker has been cosmopolitanism—the expansion of people’s parochial little worlds through literacy, mobility, education, science, history, journalism and mass media. These forms of virtual reality can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.

These technologies have also powered an expansion of rationality and objectivity in human affairs. People are now less likely to privilege their own interests over those of others. They reflect more on the way they live and consider how they could be better off. Violence is often reframed as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won. We devote ever more of our brainpower to guiding our better angels. It is probably no coincidence that the Humanitarian Revolution came on the heels of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, that the Long Peace and rights revolutions coincided with the electronic global village.

Whatever its causes, the implications of the historical decline of violence are profound. So much depends on whether we see our era as a nightmare of crime, terrorism, genocide and war or as a period that, in the light of the historical and statistical facts, is blessed by unprecedented levels of peaceful coexistence.

Bearers of good news are often advised to keep their mouths shut, lest they lull people into complacency. But this prescription may be backward. The discovery that fewer people are victims of violence can thwart cynicism among compassion-fatigued news readers who might otherwise think that the dangerous parts of the world are irredeemable hell holes. And a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us toward doing things that make people better off rather than congratulating ourselves on how moral we are.

As one becomes aware of the historical decline of violence, the world begins to look different. The past seems less innocent, the present less sinister. One starts to appreciate the small gifts of coexistence that would have seemed utopian to our ancestors: the interracial family playing in the park, the comedian who lands a zinger on the commander in chief, the countries that quietly back away from a crisis instead of escalating to war.

For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment that we can savor—and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.

—Mr. Pinker is the Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. This essay is adapted from his new book, « The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, » published by Viking.

2 commentaires pour Bilan 2013: La meilleure année de l’histoire (It really is a wonderful world – happy new year to all !)

  1. […] si, comme le rappellent souvent René Girard ou Nassim Taleb, ces incroyables progrès ne nous mettent pas nécessairement à l’abri de crises plus rares mais potentiellement plus […]

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  2. […] si, comme le rappellent souvent René Girard ou Nassim Taleb, ces incroyables progrès ne nous mettent pas nécessairement à l’abri de crises plus rares mais potentiellement plus […]

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