The decade's most triggering comedy
It is easy to believe that the world is falling apart while watching the news. Climate change, political division, coups d’état, the global pandemic, Russia’s ruthless war on Ukraine, Hamas’ unjustifiable killings, and the Middle East careening toward widespread violence: all that can contribute to a rising sense of panic.
It may be worth stepping back, however, to get some perspective. It is the media’s incessant narrative that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Fear demoralizes us, particularly when young, engenders terrible political decisions, and cripples our ability to aim up and to do better.
War is endlessly and eternally horrific, and it is understandable and even necessary that the conflicts of today fill our newspapers’ front pages. This can make us believe that we’re living through a time of unprecedented violence. Russia’s war indeed meant that battle deaths in 2022 reached a high for this century, but they are still very low in historical terms. Last year 3.5 in 100,000 people died as a consequence of war, a proportion below even the 1980s and far below the 20th century average of 30 per 100,000. The world has in fact become much more peaceful over recent decades and centuries, even though that may not seem obvious, given the barrage of news we constantly face.
Murder claims more lives than war across the world, killing 5.6 people per 100,000 in 2020. This risk has also declined even since 1990, and much more dramatically before then. Europe saw 20-fold declines or more over the past centuries. The violent death rates in pre-historic societies were literally a magnitude — or two — higher.
This is all of course little consolation to those living amidst the world’s conflicts or to the families of murder victims. But the data matters when considering the risks and opportunities that lie before us, globally — and speaks to the problem with the constant barrage of contextless catastrophe and doom. Analysis of media content across 130 countries from 1970 to 2010 indicates that the emotional tone — the use of negative versus positive descriptions — has dramatically and consistently become more negative. Negativity sells, but it informs badly.
The same pattern characterizes climate change reporting. A pervasive and false apocalyptic narrative draws together every negative event — ignoring, almost entirely, the bigger picture. In recent months, for example, the case of fires has been highlighted, without indication that the burned global area has been declining for decades, reaching the lowest ever last year. Likewise, deaths from droughts and floods make headlines, but we don’t hear that richer humans provisioned with better technology are far more resilient and able to handle disasters. Indeed, deaths from such climate-related disasters have declined 50-fold over the past century. Climate-related disasters, therefore, consume an ever-smaller part of society’s cumulative resources.
The data show what we all fundamentally know: The world has improved dramatically over recent centuries. Life expectancy has more than doubled since 1900. Two centuries ago, almost everyone was illiterate. Now, almost everyone can read. In 1820, 90% of people existed in extreme poverty. Now it’s less than 10%. Indoor air pollution has declined dramatically, and its outdoor equivalent has also done so in rich countries. If we could all choose when to be born while having all the facts at hand, few would choose any other time before today. All this incontrovertible progress has been driven by ethical and responsible conduct, trust, well-functioning markets, the rule of law, scientific innovation, and political stability. We have to recognize, appreciate, and proclaim the value and comparative rarity of each of these, in our own countries and abroad.
The constant barrage of negative stories may also lead us to imagine that our forward progress is about to end. However, the evidence at hand does not support this conclusion. The latest U.N. Climate Panel models indicate that the average person will be 4.5 times richer by the end of the century than today. Climate change will not wipe that out: It will merely slow progress, such that the average person will “only” be 4.34 times as rich. This may be a problem, but is by no means the end of the world.
Yet, fear pushes many to demand the diversion of hundreds of trillions of dollars to steer the global economy abruptly towards zero carbon emissions. Based on all models, a new, peer-reviewed study shows the costs of doing so would be much greater than the benefits obtained, throughout this century, and far into the next. Ill-advised and unwarranted fearmongering can confuse and frighten us into accepting enormous costs in return for much smaller benefits.
We need to foster an environment that challenges fearmongering and promotes optimistic yet critical thinking and constructive discussion with regard to the future. We hope that our new Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC) will be of aid in this regard, bringing people of good will and good sense together from around the world, to formulate and communicate a positive vision of the future.
To drive progress for the world’s poorest, we should similarly focus on efficient and well-documented policies with enormous benefits. Working with more than a hundred of the world’s top economists, one of us has helped identify the best solutions to many of the world’s most insidious problems: basic tuberculosis treatment that will save a million people a year, land tenure reform that lets poorer people reap the benefits, education technology that can deliver three-times better learning outcomes, and more.
These policies don’t make for catchy headlines, but they can do immense good. In total, they would cost $35 billion per year, which is a minuscule fraction of spending on climate or the military. They would save an astounding 4.2 million lives and make the poorer half of the world $1.1 trillion richer every year.
If we stop being fear-driven, and instead look to the data and the bigger picture, we can see that the world is better than it was, is likely to get better still — and we have a responsibility to adopt the very best policies to move ahead.
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Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His latest book is “Best Things First.”
Jordan B. Peterson is professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and author of “Maps of Meaning,” “12 Rules for Life” and “Beyond Order.”