With wars in Syria and Afghanistan, gangland killing in Mexico, and murders happening in cities every minute, it may seem the world is just as violent as it always was—if not more. The numbers, though, say otherwise. In many parts of the world, violence levels have been falling. It's just that no one actually realizes that yet.
"Study after study indicate that people think violence is much worse around the world than in fact is the case," says Andrew Mack, who directs the Human Security Report Project, which studies violence trends. Mack blames the media and campaigning NGOs for providing a false perspective, even if with positive intentions. "Just about every war that starts gets well-covered [on TV], but the wars that quietly peter out get no coverage at all," he says.
The Human Security Report Project's latest report counts wars and war deaths (international and civil), murders, and other violence (including political coups), and compares the numbers historically. It shows, for example, that the number of international wars has fallen hard since the 1950s (from more than six a year, to less than one a year now).
Likewise, the number of war deaths has also plummeted. In the 1950s, there were almost 250 deaths caused by war per million people. Now, there are less than 10 per million. "There are have been some pretty extraordinary changes and they haven't been recognized," Mack says. Military leaders, for example, say we live in the "most dangerous time ever." And yet, in statistical terms at least, this isn't remotely true.
Murder, which kills more people than wars, is also down in many places. It's estimated that between the 13th and 20th centuries, homicides in Western Europe and Scandinavia fell from 40 to 80 deaths per 100,000 people to about two per 100,000. "The global average homicide rate today is some eight deaths per 100,000 per year and it seems highly probable that there has been a centuries-long decline in homicide rates in the developing world [too]," the report says.
The big exception is Central America, because of the drug trade. In 2011, there were more deaths from gangland killing in Mexico than from the wars in Afghanistan, Sudan, and Iraq combined. And, by the numbers, Mexico wasn't even the worst place. Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador all had higher rates per 100,000 people.
The Human Security Report updates a book by Steven Pinker that argued that all types of violence have been falling for centuries (including against children and animals). Mack isn't sure the trend will continue in a straight line. There will be very violent blips like Syria, and threats like Islamic extremism and climate change that will kill many. But he thinks the big trend tends downwards.