Back in the days when I had my company, Systems Research & Development (SRD), I prevented anyone from pitching my software using "the world is a more dangerous place" as the set up pitch.
Two reasons: (A) I think it is safer to be alive now than ever before and (B) I hate the idea of using the "fear card" to sell.
Before you call me crazy, consider the following: In the 1300’s the Black Death killed an estimated 75 million people – including a third to two thirds of Europe’s population. The 1918 Spanish Flu killed 50 – 100 million in just 18 months making by far the most destructive pandemic on record.
The average life span at the end of the nineteenth century in Western Europe was thirty seven. Today the average lifespan in the world is sixty seven! [Ref: Life Expectancy]
In short, you are more likely to grow older today than any time in the history of man.
Here is another point of reference: Even if America sunk into the ocean the 300 million deaths would be ~4.5% of the world’s current population (~6.7B). The 75 million lives lost to black death amounted to ~17.4% of the world’s population at that time (~432MM). Thus, if you were standing in America and discovered it was going to suddenly fall off into the ocean in the next few minutes, although this makes for a very bad day for you personally, overall the world still would be a less dangerous place as compared to the mid-1300’s.
Nukes complicate this equation. The two primary nuke scenarios being: a) one-se-two-se nuclear detonations carried out by stateless criminals; and b) a full scale global nuclear war causing the annihilation of mankind.
While periodic unscheduled 10-kiloton nuclear detonations would be very very bad, until such events exceed a few a year (or they go thermonuclear) – in the grand scheme of things us Earthlings are still safer than the 1300’s. (True. If all of these events happen in a single geography, then while the world at large would still not be a more dangerous place, that specific geography would certainly be a more dangerous place!)
The scenario involving a full-scale nuclear exchange of large numbers of thermonuclear weapons deserves special attention. True, the risk of global nuclear annihilation was absolute zero before the 1900’s and today this risk is no longer zero. But, this risk ebbs and flows. One way to consider how this risk changes over time is the Doomsday Clock. Remember that? The idea being, the closer this clock is to midnight, the greater the risk of global annihilation. Its keepers calculated the time period 1953-60 as the closest the world has yet come to a doomsday event (2 minutes till midnight). [Note: the Doomsday clock was not adjusted in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis as this incident came and went faster than the group reconvened and reset the clock.] Then from 1991 to 1995 the Doomsday Clock was rolled back to 17 minutes until midnight suggesting times were the safest since the inception of this clock in 1947. Notably, the clock shows that since 1995 the safety of the world has been declining. Nonetheless, at this point in time even when considering nuclear Armageddon, the world is less dangerous today than 1953-1960.
So in all fairness, when considering whether the world is a more dangerous place one would also have to ask "as compared to when?" and "as compared to where?" For example, if you called Chernobyl home on April 27th, 1986" you were definitely in a more dangerous place.
And one more thing … when the world seems like an incredibly dangerous place ... you can probably thank some of the media for that. The media’s ability to take every bad thing that happens on the planet and package it up for maximum sensation plays a huge role in spreading fear. It’s not their fault of course it is yours (and mine) as sensational news is what draws us into the media. And as our attention gives them higher ratings they justifiably work even harder at finding, packaging and delivering up even more of this bad news for us. [So, I propose we fix this by only directing our attention to "good news" stories from now on ok? Wait, is that a smoke plume on CNN … get out of my way … I gotta see this!]
Honestly, if you could pick another time to live, would you really trade living in this age for an earlier century? I wouldn’t. Oh, and I wouldn’t want to trade it for 100 years in the future either – I think the future has a chance of being really messy.
These could be the golden years!
PS: Before you get too excited one way or the other about this post, take this into account: This is my Yin post. Stay tuned for my forthcoming Yang post which will be entitled something like "More Death in Future Cheaper."