Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the number of armed conflicts around the world has been steadily declining, and continues to do so. Is warfare really part of human nature or will it vanish in the future because circumstances allow it? Author Matt Ridley and Phil Bowermaster elaborate.
Matt Ridley is the author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, a tremedously inspiring book that I've discussed previously. Essentially, Ridley argues that things are getting better all the time; Humanity, despite the hardships and setbacks to which it is subjected, is following a millennia-long trend toward an increasingly high standard of living, thanks to the virtues of free exchange. Hunger, poverty and mortality, to mention a few, are all declining globally, and we have every reason to be optimistic about the future.
I asked Matt and Phil Bowermaster of the Speculist (who is such a staunch supporter of the book's ideas that he's created a Facebook group to get 1000 people to read it) whether they thought unparalleled global GDP growth coupled with proliferation of economic interdependence and democracy will end major war and armed conflict once and for all sometime before or around the middle of the century.
Here are their answers.
No. I state in the book that I think it very unlikely that war will go extinct. Human nature will see to that. However, it is true that the 2000s were the decade with the lowest number of war deaths since 1945 (according to Steven Pinker). I do expect the decline of violence and war to continue. War will be rare but not absent.
I don't know that superabundance will end war, but the Singularity might. A greater than human intelligence might FORCE us to behave ourselves. More organically, if enough of us got smart enough we might start figuring out non-deadly ways of settling conflicts. By and large we're better at that now than we have been in the past. Maybe the trend will continue!
I also asked Matt a different question: Many have a dystopian view of the future which may include fearful scenarios of global warming, nuclear war, Malthusian problems and even apocalypses (as prophesized by the Mayans); What is so comfortable about pessimism?
It's a good question to which I do not have a good answer. When I give
talks people often react with dismay at my taking away the comfort of
their pessimism. I just don't see why. But here are some thoughts.
1. The past is certain and it turned out well for those of us who made it this far: We are the lucky ones. But the future is uncertain and we may not be the lucky ones. Therefore we should worry.
2. Back in the Pleistocene hunter-gatherers survived if they worried and not if they complacently expected everything to turn out fine.
3. People mistake my message -- the future is likely to be better than the past -- for a Panglossian one -- the present is as good as it can get. Actually, though, it is the eco-pessimists, especially with the
precautionary principle, who take this line: don't let's do experiments to find insect-resistant crops, we cannot improve on chemical pesticides.
4. Gloom is wise and is good box office. I just don't know why.
Matt Ridley is probably onto something with his evolutionaty explanation of this perplexing facet of human nature.
I argue below that there are a number of positive trends which may alone or in concert end warfare. In fact I think it likely that world will have seen its last major war by 2030, and you can quote me on that.
Here are the trends I think will contribute to permanently ending major armed conflict:
1. Economic interdependence
China would not go to war on the US or vice versa. It would be a self-destructive move, economically crippling to both countries. The EU, initially just an economic cooperation, has become a guarantor of peace between its member countries due to the inextricability of their trade networks and supply chains. War can be avoided if the costs of waging it outweigh the benefits. When countries rely on each other for both supply and demand, military aggression rarely makes economic sense. Furthering the interconnectivity of the global economy, although not without risk, is an essential step on the way to a war-free world.
2. Spread of democracy
The ongoing proliferation of democracy is a vital part of war reduction: Whereas autocrats need no mandate from their peoples, and engage in armed conflict at their own discretion, electorates are generally reluctant to wage war, particularly against other democracies. How fortunate, then, that dictatorship is going out of style in favor of democracy; some time around 1989, the world went from being mostly ruled by dictators to being mostly ruled by citizens.
Since then, democracies have become tremendously popular, and now greatly outnumber autocracies. Just in recent months, a wave of civic revolts have helped expel heavy-handed despots in Northern Africa, and dictators across the Arab world are shaking in their pants. We can only hope that these newly liberated countries find a path to viable democracy. If they do, they will play an important part in reducing armed conflict in a region far too often plagued by it.
3. Multilateral cooperation
The UN has been fighting an uphill battle from the get-go; convincing sovereign states to relenquish power is no picnic. Nonetheless, and to the surprise of many, the institution has had significant success in war prevention by providing an open forum where heads of state are held accountable for their decisions.
In the near future, we will unqestionably experience som friction when the security council is forced to consider the adoption of new members and make room for young superpowers. Geopolitically speaking, we'll see a broader distribution of economic (and by extension military) clout as emerging powerhouses (China, India, Brazil, Indonesia etc.) claim their place in the global hegemony. This more balanced division of power is assuring to peace lovers because it would be very difficult for any one country to engage in warfare without the consent of the others (such as the US was able to do in 2003).
4. Cultural unification through globalization
The world is increasingly becoming one culture (with great local variations) through technology, media, business etc. Understanding of and aquaintance with others' values have resulted from increased transcultural interaction in many parts of the world. War is easier when the enemy can be dehumanized, such as through xenophobia-enabled propaganda, but it only works if people of one culture are not familiar with people from the other. During the Vietnam war,the vietnamese were often portrayed in the US not as fellow human beings but rather as faceless, uncultivated and uniform communists.
This facilitates an "Us vs. Them" mentality, for which we have a sociobiological propensity. In the time of hunter/gatherers, distinguishing between in-group and out-group members was vital to survival. As humans progressed to trade and exchange between tribes (and were exposed to each other) they realized that they had a lot of commonalities, and over time, the in-group was expanded to include trading partners.
These days, of course, the in-group has been expanded to include whole countries (and sometimes continents). The next sea change will be the expansion of the in-group to include all of humanity, which globalization could bring about in time. In other words, we may soon all be part of the same tribe, which unquestionably has a preventative effect on armed conflict.
5. Internet and transparency
We're seeing increased documentation and accountability due to transparency enabled by the Internet: War is ugly, on both sides, and its true colors become more apparent thanks to the web. People take pictures and videos and share online their testimony to atrocities commited worldwide, and Wikileaks releases classified documents.
It's becoming harder to get away with human rights abuses and to escape responsiblity for poor decisions. Gone are the days when sinister men in suits made the calls behind closed doors and with impunity; these days, you can be sure the story will get out somehow. Increased transparency will put more pressure on decision makers to come to more morally defensible decisions, among which would be the evasion of war.
6. GDP growth and eventual resource abundance
Scarcity is the mother of war. If we can end scarcity, we’ll nip the war problem in the bud. In a world of abundant resources, nobody has an incentive to aggress.
War mongering is often a characteristic of poor countries with high inequality, particulalry true for civil wars. People who are doing well economically (i.e. do not want for basic needs) are rarely, if ever, in the mood for the major upheavals war can bring about. If global per capita GDP keeps increasing at the rate it has for the last 50 years, the world will have virtually no absolute poverty by 2060. In such a scenario, war would be an unusual occurence.
Some will say that humans, no matter how much they have, will always want more, and will go to war if necessary to take from others what they do not themselves have. Although ostensibly war can be motivated by other factors such as religious or ethnic differences, it usually boils down to a conflict between haves and have-nots.
This is where science, and the prospects of a technological singularity, come in. Human control of matter could end wars well before it would otherwise happen.Through science we have the potential to bypass all the other steps on the ladder to global peace. Developments in nanoengineering, stem cell cultivation, 3D printing and many other realms of technology could render us independent of mother earth's resources. If there's a machine in every home that downloads and prints food, or fuel sources that cost next to nothing, war is easily avoided.
What factors do you think could end wars? Leave a comment below.
A bonus for my readers
On a final note,this week I would like to mention a brilliant new initiative called Beansight, a startup by Cyril Dorsaz and his colleagues in Paris. The idea behind Beansight is that collective predictions have a far higher accuracy than individual ones, even those made by experts. Users of Beansight can make their own predictions for the future as well vote yes or no to agree or disagree with the predictions of other users. The higher the number of people who vote on a prediction, the more accurate it becomes.
Beansight is currently in private Beta, but Cyril is a cool guy and, appreciating the collective intelligence of the readers of I Look Forward To, he has been so kind as to grant us access to the website. You can sign up by following this link: http://www.beansight.com/signup?promocode=ilookforwardto
That's all for this week, folks! I wrote this during severe turbulence som 30,000 feet above the Caribbean Sea (wow, what a time we live in!), so please forgive any typos.