'The Better Angels of Our Nature'
True, it's anybody's guess where politics and the economy are headed. But there are other measures against which the prospects for 2013 look more upbeat.
In fact, there's a fair chance that the new year might fulfill the most optimistic prediction of all:
2013 likely will continue the trend that's making ours the most peaceful era in human history.
That's not the Herald talking. It's Stephen Pinker, Harvard psychologist and author of a landmark 2011 book mentioned before in this space, "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined."
The Seattle Times describes:
"Pinker combs through centuries of data and concludes humanity is living in the least violent period in our entire history," writes columnist Jerry Large.
"If that's hard to believe, Pinker says that at least part of the reason we see our world as excessively violent is that our standards have evolved. That we are shocked by today's levels of violence is good, if it means we will continue to work for even less violence.
"We are disturbed by the use of torture, which used to be taken for granted.
"World War III at one time seemed a sure bet, but it didn't happen.
"And for most of human history, people (mainly men) felt compelled to take justice into their own hands; but in the modern era, in the developed world especially, that responsibility lies with government. There are still too many exceptions, but over the course of time that's one of the reasons we've moved further and further from constant violence."
Here's another summary, this one from the Harvard Gazette:
"Records of past wars and new research into the lifestyles of ancient man provided the backdrop for Pinker's assertions," the magazine notes.
"The hunter-gatherer lifestyle before the rise of civilization was a violent one, Pinker says. Studies of ancient human remains have shown that some kind of violent trauma -- skulls bashed in, arrows lodged in bones -- accompanied roughly 15 percent of burials.
"By contrast, deaths related directly and indirectly to war, genocide, and famine during the 20th century, often considered the most violent because of its two world wars, amounted to just 3 percent, Pinker said."
And the trend line has held up across the millennia, suggesting that the prospects of its continuing in the 21st century and beyond are reasonably good.
Again, the world has its share of great problems. But in the face of it all, there are the studies such as Pinker's, along with the observations that life expectancy keeps going up and the prospects for violent or even accidental death keep going down.
That's not enough to inspire complacency. But it's more than enough to ward off despair, because it reminds us that humanity's ancient problems have been proven to have solutions -- and the problems facing us in 2013 are likely to be solvable, too. -- Tom Dennis for the Grand Forks Herald