An End to War?
Radiolab recently asked the question, “Will humans ever stop fighting wars once and for all?” Passerby confronted with this query were skeptical, citing “human nature.”
Now, “once and for all” is an extreme criterion, but most people seem to take the question to mean, “Is peace possible? Might wars stop?” And a variety of factors suggest that this could happen, possibly within decades.
The drivers are diverse:
- Decline of violence — Violence is less tolerated globally, within cultures and between them. Behaviors in warfare that were routine a few decades ago — such as targeting civilians — are now deeply controversial. The number of states that engage in large-scale, serious human rights violations has also greatly declined, and abusers receive global attention. (See this Stephen Pinker article for more.)
- Decline of state-to-state warfare — The Catholic Church itself was more likely to engage in armed violence only a few centuries ago than are most dictatorships now. Even “civilized” states routinely attacked each other in the recent past, but this happens more and more rarely. (This is one reason the US invasion of Iraq was widely seen as such an aberration, and as morally repugnant.)
- Democracy and freedom — Both have been spreading in recent decades; even authoritarian states such as China have far more social freedom than they did in the past. This trend reduces pent-up frustration against governments that can result in violence, and provides outlets for self-determination, one of the more common causes of war.
- Transparency — Formal or crowdsourced media have an ever-growing reach, and fewer and fewer things will happen outside the reach of the camera lens. In a couple of decades, 80-90% of the world’s population will be carrying the equivalent of their own broadcast stations, upping the price to be paid in public opinion for those engaged in conflict or oppression.
- Rising wealth — Wealthy states are less violent, internally and externally. Middle classes are more educated, less likely to support authoritarianism, and have much more invested in stability. Setting aside artificial oil economies, no countries with a per capita income of more than $30,000 have significant human rights issues — and many countries are headed for that level of wealth in coming decades.
- Human nature — It is not a prohibitive obstacle. We need look no farther than Scandinavia: the same genetic pool that produced the Vikings, who engaged in savage violence from Greenland to Russia only a millennia ago, now yields peoples with essentially zero chance of waging aggressive war. Their genomes have probably barely changed: it is their social and physical environments that have shifted.
Peace is hardly inevitable, of course. Any number of factors could produce more rounds of wars:
- New or resurgent scarcities could pit nations against each other, fighting over energy or water, for example. Many forecast that climate change and population pressure could drive this result.
- Western values that have slowly evolved to make war less likely might be replaced in the international system by other perspectives as the 21st century wears on.
- A sufficiently serious calamity — peak oil combined with a severe climate shift, for instance — might rip away the social underpinnings of more peaceful societies, setting humanity back centuries.
- Humanity may begin to modify itself, creating new divisions; willingness to use genetic enhancement is one possibility.
Still, peace might break out, and it might do so relatively soon.
(Image courtesy cell105, Flickr)
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