The McNeills’s concept of describing history as ever expanding “webs” of human interaction has been very influential, especially in the age of the Internet. Morris argues that warfare has been the driving factor in creating these “webs.” Regarding the decline of violence however, certain issues must be dealt with:
- Mass incarceration has only really been possible since the eighteenth century. The Panopticon was the first expression of this idea. Past societies came up with methods to adjudicate disputes, but did not have the resources to keep large amounts of the population alive to essentially do nothing all day long but occupy a prison cell. People were needed to produce food. In the past, death was the only alternative. Now we're subject to a panopticon in every area of life.
- Second, the exponential population growth has only been going on since the nineteenth century and the use of oil.
- Third, violence tends to be concentrated geographically in modern society – in prisons, ghettos, and circumscribed war zones. In these limited areas, mortality is as high as it’s ever been. This is another result of state power. These concentrated areas have a much smaller proportion of the population, thus the concentration of violence dilutes it in the wider society. The rest of us are allowed to go about our daily business with these areas out of sight and out of mind. In conditions of state breakdown, this violence spews out into the wider society. See this: Hobbes was Right: Anarchy Sucks (Pieria)
- Fourth, we’re institutionalized nearly since birth, and told what to do. You go from a school desk to a cubicle to a pinewood box. Not much time for fighting is there, but is it worth it?
- Fifth, even though we’re living longer lives – 67 on average according to Morris, we’re spending much more of that time sick, stressed and depressed than ever before. Besides, averages are deceiving – Bill Gates and I both have an average wealth of billions of dollars.
The energy surplus available to a society seems to be also a determinant of how violent it is. Not perfectly though - America is far more violent than Europe even with higher per capita energy usage.
But I don’t mean to be a total curmudgeon - creating institutions where we can cooperate without violence is a major achievement of the modern world. Institutions that allow us to compete and collaborate without bloodshed have been extremely useful. David Brin often describes these as: competitive markets (sadly all too rare nowadays), peer-reviewed scientific research, legal adjudication via courts, and democracy and elections (also breaking down). I would also add the Internet, the ritualized warfare of competitive sports and computer games, and the modern university.
One thing we’re a lot more likely to die of today is suicide. How common is suicide? In the modern world, there’s one about every 40 seconds or so. Think about that a minute. Suicide accounts for half of all violent deaths worldwide!
The Freakanomics podcast did a fascinating episode about suicide that is well worth listening to in full. But I was particularly struck by the story which began the episode. It’s about Daniel Everett’s work with the Pirahã in the Amazon Jungle:
Stephen Dubner (host): “Dan Everett is a college professor. A linguist. Off and on for the past thirty years he’s lived with a tribe in the Amazon called the Pirahã.”
Dan Everett: “I originally went to the Pirahã as a missionary to translate the Bible into their language. But over the course of many years they wound up converting me and I became a scientist instead, and I studied their culture and its effects on their language.”
Host: “The Pirahã live in huts, sleep on the ground, hunt with bows and arrows. But what really caught Everett’s attention is that they are relentlessly happy. Really happy.”
Dan Everett: “This happiness and this contentment is really what had a lot to do with me abandoning my religious goals and my religion altogether, because they seemed to have it a lot more together than most religious people I knew.”
Host: “But this isn’t just another story about some faraway tribe that’s really happy even though they don’t have all the stuff that we have. It’s a story about something that happened during Everett’s early days with the tribe. He and his wife and his three young kids had just finished dinner. Everett gathered about thirty Pirahã in his hut to preach to them.”
Dan Everett: “I was still a very fervent Christian missionary and I wanted to tell them how God had changed my life. So I told them a story about my stepmother and how she had committed suicide because she was so depressed and so lost. For the word ‘depressed’ I used the word sad, so she was very sad, she was crying, she felt lost and she shot herself in the head and she died. And this had a large spiritual impact on me, and I later became a missionary and came to the Pirahã because of all this experience triggered by her suicide. And I told this story as tenderly as I could and tried to communicate that it had a huge impact on me, and when I was finished, everyone burst out laughing….When I asked them, ‘why are you laughing?’ they said, ‘She killed herself! That’s really funny to us! We don’t kill ourselves. You mean you people, you white people, shoot yourselves in the head? We shoot animals, we kill animals, we don’t kill ourselves.’ They just found it absolutely inexplicable and without precedent in their own experience that someone would kill themselves.”
Host: “In the thirty years that Everett has been studying the Pirahã, there have been zero suicides. Now, it’s not that suicide doesn’t happen in the Amazon. For other tribes, it’s a problem.”
Dan Everett: “And as I’ve told this story, some people have suggested that well, it’s because they don’t have the stresses of modern life. But that’s just not true. There’s almost 100 percent endemic malaria among the people. They’re sick a lot. Their children die at probably 75 percent; 75 percent of the children die before they reach the age of five or six. These are astounding pressures.”
Host:: "A group of people that laughs at suicide? That doesn’t sound much like the U.S. does it?”“But this isn’t just another story about some faraway tribe that’s really happy even though they don’t have all the stuff that we have.” So, apparently those have become so common that they are no longer even remarkable any more. It’s like, ‘of course everyone knows that!’ But if those stories are so common as to be worth of dismissal by the host, then why aren’t we getting the message?
According to Wikipedia:
Daniel Everett states that one of the strongest Pirahã values is no coercion; you simply don't tell other people what to do. There appears to be no social hierarchy; the Pirahã have no formal leaders. Their social system can thus be labeled as primitive communism, in common with many other hunter-gatherer bands in the world, although rare in the Amazon because of a history of agriculture before Western contact.Maybe that's why they don't have any suicides.
So, thanks to modern society, we no longer have to worry so much about being dead on the outside - we’re just dead on the inside.
BONUS: Is Air Pollution a Risk Factor for Suicide? (Pacific Standard). And it's a sad irony that I wrote this not knowing of the recent suicide of Mike Ruppert.