How bad is today's world? Mass shootings in Orlando; riots, assassinations and strikes in France; potential secession of Britain from the EU; overwhelming exodus of migrants and refugees from war-torn societies with many lost at sea; the rise of populism with accompanying fascist tendencies; the loss of communal attachments from heightened individualism; continuing carnage in Syria and the Middle East with no end in sight; increased radicalism and fragile states; seemingly perpetual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; growing income inequality; and looming catastrophes from climate change are just some of the disturbing realities.
Faced with this situation, one should ask: Are we better off today than we were before? Someone thinks so. The Director General of the United Nations Office in Geneva, Michael Møller, gave a presentation at a recent security conference in Geneva. What was impressive was his ability to recognize most of the above while being realistically optimistic. The Director General gave several reasons for his optimism, such as increased life expectancies, better quality of life for many people, but what was striking was his ability to combine the above mentioned realities with optimism.
Things are getter better, Møller said, if one looks from a long-term perspective. Is he correct? In spite of the horrendous number of deaths from today’s conflicts, more people were killed in the early part of the 20th century. There were over 700,000 casualties at the Battle of Verdun in 1916. 700,000 dead over 303 days, 70,000 a month.
An estimated 14 million non-combatants were killed in Eastern Europe between the years 1933 and 1945. Timothy Snyder describes the mass killing in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Fourteen million casualties in 12 years, over one million non-combatant deaths a year for 10 years in a limited geographic space.
Ebola? How many have died? The current total is about 11,000 according to the latest statistic from the World Health Organization. The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed roughly 50,000,000 people, more than the total deaths in World War I. The pandemic has been called the most devastating in recorded world history. To compare: More people died in 1918-1919 from influenza than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351.
Are these comparisons useful? Certainly not for the victims in Aleppo or Sierra Leone. Their loved ones probably don’t feel there has been progress. Much like the famous quote from George W. Bush when asked what he thought would be his legacy: "History will ultimately judge the decisions that were made for Iraq and I'm just not going to be around to see the final verdict," he said. “In other words, I'll be dead."
Michael Møller stated that: “By most objective measures of human well-being and despite the tragic humanitarian disasters that continue to put millions in peril, the past decades have – on average – been the best in the history of human kind: the human race is healthier, better educated and lives longer than ever before.” And he was obviously proud of the contribution of the United Nations to this development.
It is not easy to be a realistic optimist today. It is not easy to put in perspective the tragedies that seem to overwhelm what we are witnessing in the current news. Perhaps it is easier to be optimistic from the privileges of being in Geneva and looking out over the lake from the Palais des Nations.
But that’s not the point. One’s individual perspective is obviously crucial to being optimistic or pessimistic about what is happening. But what is even more difficult is to see a larger picture from an historical perspective. We can walk the fields at Verdun (as I have with someone who witnessed the battle as a child); we can hear stories of those affected by the influenza pandemic (as I did from my father), but we can only use our imaginations to try to create a larger picture of the past, present and future.
How bad is it? Will it get better or worse? We can’t know for sure. But what we can do is avoid the response of Bush and passively leave it to others to act and decide for us. The strength of Michael Møller’s optimism lies in his fervent belief that “we are starting to get on the right track.”