How people view universe determines how they live

Published 9:39 am Tuesday, April 7, 2015

My Point of View by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

“The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” — Albert Einstein

I think about related questions frequently: Is life getting better? Can we find solutions to our most pressing problems? Does the arc of the moral universe really bend toward justice, as Martin Luther King Jr., quoted?

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Some people have convinced themselves and others that life is getting worse, that the world is a more dangerous place than ever before, or even that signs of the end times are all around us. In the great scheme of things, though, much darker days have passed before and we have continued making technological and humanitarian advancements.

Overall, deaths due to violence are on a centuries-long decline, with World War I and World War II being vivid aberrations. In the last 50 years, deaths due to conflicts between and within states have fallen to the lowest levels yet as a proportion of the total population. Steven Pinker has documented these changes in his book, “The Better Angels of our Nature,” the title which he took from a phrase in the first inaugural address of President Lincoln, who was appealing to people’s hearts to mend the rupturing union.

In the three centuries preceding the 20th, wars routinely broke out between the great powers of Europe, notably England, Spain and France. The U.S. settled its most devastating internecine conflict, which Lincoln could not avert, 150 years ago this May.

Even World War II is in its last generation of being a living memory. The 70th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s death is this month. An estimated 60 million people were killed across the globe during the six years of bloody warfare he masterminded. It must have been scary and uncertain living in those times. Many people made terrible sacrifices and barely survived.

The average yearly death toll during World War II would be equivalent to 30-35 million people dying per year in a conflict today. Even with deadly hotspots like Syria, Ukraine and Palestine, and the abhorrent actions of ISIS and Boko Haram, recent annual death tolls due to violence are many orders of magnitude smaller.

If a person thinks that our current conflicts approach and exceed the scale of previous human catastrophes — that things are getting worse and worse — they may have formed their opinions from riveting news headlines which readily jump to mind instead of considering quantified data. It’s a common psychological shortcut known as the availability heuristic, and it’s aided by the powerful emotion of fear.

But as Steven Pinker recently wrote in The Guardian, “The numbers show that after millennia of near-universal poverty and despotism, a steadily growing proportion of humankind is surviving infancy and childbirth, going to school, voting in democracies, living free of disease, enjoying the necessities of modern life and surviving to old age. And more people are living in peace.”

This means that while I have many worries about my children, especially related to avoiding accidents, I have the luxury of focusing most of my energy on their education and futures. And though the remaining risks of childhood today still sometimes make me feel like a basket case, not so long ago I could have also had to be more wary of lethal dangers like dysentery, cholera, tuberculosis, diphtheria, infected cuts, tainted food, food shortages, unpredicted storms, wild animals and enemy attacks.

For perspective I contrast my life with my great-great-grandmother, Helena, who died in 1907 at 57 in central Minnesota. She had already buried six of her eight children due to limitations of medical knowledge at the time. These are personal calamities that a much smaller percentage of people have to live through anymore.

How people view the universe — hostile or friendly — makes a difference in how they live their lives, interact with others in their communities and vote. It impacts how easily they can be manipulated by appeals to fear.

The data shows that the universe, as we know it, has never been friendlier to humans than now.


Albert Lea resident Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.