1: The short answer: No.

In fact, far from it.  According to the data, the opposite is true: We live in the safest time ever. 

In prior RiseWithDrews, we’ve celebrated the dramatic decline in violent deaths, including homicide, automobile accident, plane crash, accidental deaths due to falls, drownings, fire, ], and death resulting from workplace accidents.

But what about so-called “Acts of God,” Steven Pinker asks in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, including “the droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, volcanoes, avalanches, landslides, sinkholes, heat waves, cold snaps, meteor strikes, and yes, earthquakes that are the quintessentially uncontrollable catastrophes?” 

Has there been a corresponding decrease in the number of deaths due to natural disasters?

Simply put: Yes.

Beginning in 1920s, the rate of death from disaster has declined swiftly.

Is that because there have been fewer natural disasters?  No.

Rather, it’s because “a richer and more technologically advanced society can prevent natural hazards from becoming human catastrophes,” Steven observes.

“When an earthquake strikes, fewer people are crushed by collapsing masonry or burned in conflagrations,” he notes.  “When the rains stop, we can use water impounded in reservoirs. When the temperature soars or plummets, we stay in climate-controlled interiors.  When a river floods its banks, our drinking water is safeguarded from human and industrial waste.”

In addition, we now have early warning systems that allow us to take lifesaving precautions in advance of many weather-related natural disasters.

And while geologists are not yet able to predict earthquakes, they are in some cases able to predict volcanic eruptions so people living in the vicinity can evacuate. 

There has even been a thirty-seven fold decrease in the number of deaths due to lightning.

“And of course a richer world can rescue and treat its injured and quickly rebuild,” Steven writes.

2: There is, however, a sharp distinction between richer and poorer countries. 

“A 2010 earthquake in Haiti killed more than 200,000 people, while a stronger one in Chile a few weeks later killed just 500,” Steven writes.  “Haiti also loses ten times as many of its citizens to hurricanes as the richer Dominican Republic, the country with which it shares the island of Hispaniola.”

That said, the overall trend is positive for both rich and poorer countries. 

“The annual death rate from natural disasters in low-income countries has come down from 0.7 per 100,000 in the 1970s to 0.2 today, which is lower than the rate for upper-middle-income countries in the 1970s,” Steven writes.  “That’s still higher than the rate for high-income countries today (0.05, down from 0.09).”

3: We don’t typically view accidents as atrocities.  And, “we don’t see gains in safety as moral triumphs, if we are aware of them at all,” Steven writes.  “Yet the sparing of millions of lives, and the reduction of infirmity, disfigurement, and suffering on a massive scale, deserve our gratitude and demand an explanation.  That is true even of murder, the most moralized of acts.”

Who or what is responsible for all these improvements?

“Like other forms of progress, the ascent of safety was led by some heroes, but it was also advanced by a motley of actors who pushed in the same direction inch by inch: grassroots activists, paternalistic legislators, and an unsung cadre of inventors, engineers, policy wonks, and number-crunchers,” he writes.

“Though we sometimes chafe at the false alarms and the nanny-state intrusions,” he notes, “we get to enjoy the blessings of technology without the threats to life and limb.”

More tomorrow.


Reflection: What surprises me about the data above?

Action: Share this data with a friend or family member who is convinced we live in “the worst of times.”

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