Is the World Safe? Possibly More Than You Think

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Enlightenment Now" by Steven Pinker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Is the world safe? Is violent crime getting worse? Are disasters more common and more deadly?

In Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker presents statistics in several areas to support his argument that the world is getting better for humans everywhere. One of those areas is safety, so he looked at data on injuries and deaths. With one exception, he concludes that the world is safer than in the past.

Continue reading to get a good picture of the data, according to Pinker.

Is the World Safe?

Is the world safe? Pinker examines data on both intentional and accidental causes of harm and death and says that we’re safer on all counts. While we can never avoid violence, accidents, or natural disasters entirely, he says we can put policies in place that minimize their threat and make us safer. Let’s look at the data Pinker presents to support a claim that we’re safer than people were in the past.

1. Violent crime: To look at the threat of violent crime and how that’s changed over time, Pinker provides statistics for homicide deaths in the U.S. and England, as compared to the worldwide average. He shows that while the homicide rate in England has remained consistent from 1965-2000, it’s consistently very low. The U.S. rate by contrast has fluctuated between about six and 10 deaths per 1,000 people during those decades, with the most recent two decades dropping to the lowest rate, around five deaths per 1,000. The worldwide rate also has gotten continuously lower since the year 2,000, dropping from around nine to six per 1,000. 

Pinker says statistics on homicide show that the great majority of it happens in very small portions of the world—specific neighborhoods in specific cities in specific countries. He believes targeted (“effective, fair, and humane”) law enforcement in those areas is the solution. He also advocates for CBT-style therapy for populations that are in these high-violence areas, to teach self-control and thereby reduce violent tendencies.

(Shortform note: The suggestion to increase law enforcement in high-crime areas is a complex issue. Researchers have found that on average, every police officer added to a city results in between 0.06 and 0.1 fewer homicides. Which means it would take more than 10 new police officers to save one life per year, at a cost of between $1 million to $2 million annually. While this may seem worthwhile, researchers also note that increasing police presence also means an increase in arrests for lower level, “victimless” crimes, like drug possession, as well as increasing the incidence of racial profiling and police brutality.)  

2. Accidents and disasters: Pinker argues that we’ve become much better over time at preventing and responding to natural disasters and accidents of all kinds. He points out that rates of death from both accidents and natural disasters have decreased steadily over time. As an example, he shows that deaths from traffic accidents in the US were 24 times lower in 2021 than in 1950. He attributes this to improved safety features in cars, campaigns and policies targeting drunk driving, driver education programs, and law enforcement. He also shows consistently declining rates from other kinds of accidents, including fire, drowning, and gas poisoning. 

(Shortform note: The United Nations has said that natural disasters related to climate change have increased five-fold over the last 50 years, with over 90% of the deaths being in developing countries. As Pinker points out, the rate of death from such disasters depends heavily on the warning and response systems in place. Because these disasters are only expected to increase in the future, the UN emphasizes the importance of ramping up efforts to prepare for and respond to them, especially in poorer nations.)    

There is, however, one notable exception to the “accidental death” trend, and that is in the area of accidental drug overdoses. In this category, the rate of death has risen sharply and steadily in the U.S. since the 1990s. Pinker acknowledges this rise, but he argues that this one exception doesn’t negate the overall trend of decreasing deaths by accidents. And he believes the best way to address the issue is to push forward with Enlightenment thinking and apply reason and science to the problem. In other words, by creating social programs and policies to address it. 

The Root Causes of Drug Addiction

While Pinker categorizes drug overdose under “accidents,” it certainly isn’t the same kind of accident as drowning or being killed in a tornado. Overdose is usually a result of addiction, which has a psychological root cause. This probably makes it more appropriate for the “happiness” category. Since the 1970s, researchers in psychology have noted the social and environmental causes of addiction, beginning with the “Rat Park” experiments.

In this series of experiments, groups of rats were studied side by side. Some rats were put into empty cages with no stimulation, while the others were put in a “park” setting with a stimulating environment where they were free to socialize, play, and exercise. All groups of rats were given two bottles of water to drink—one plain water, and the other laced with morphine. The rats in “Rat Park” preferred the plain water, while the rats with the isolated environment were 10-16 times more likely to choose the morphine water and become addicted.

Johann Hari addresses this issue in his book Lost Connections, which looks at the social causes of depression (and the addiction that often follows). He says “the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety—it’s connection.”
Is the World Safe? Possibly More Than You Think

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Steven Pinker's "Enlightenment Now" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Enlightenment Now summary:

  • How the world is actually getting better, not worse, over time
  • Why people think the world is worse off than it is
  • What Enlightenment values are and where they come from

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.