With the Islamic State raging, riots against police simmering, and cops getting shot left and right, it might seem like 2014 was a pretty horrific year. Another steadily more violent year than last, another year of civilization slowly unraveling.
But from a planetary standpoint, that’s not true.
U.S. homicide rates dropped to below 5 per 100,000 people – the lowest it’s been since the 1950s. Meanwhile, violence-associated places like Mexico have a spiraling murder rate, even while cartel violence continues on.
We read newspaper headlines that detail one after another some horrible thing far away, and we think to ourselves “The world is going straight to hell in a handbasket.” (If we’re not a Baby Boomer, we may really think “The world is fucked.”)
But it’s not nearly as fucked at it once was. The 20th century produced two world wars – we’re on the cusp of none, thanks to nuclear weapons keeping everyone calm.
The Islamic State’s rise is nothing compared to Leopold’s Congo, or American slavery, or British-induced famine in India and Ireland. It’s nasty, and when we see it played out blow by blow it can seem nightmarish, but really it’s very small in comparison to the past.
Back during my first year working for the Abu Dhabi Education Council, we heard loads of stories about people quitting left and right that first year. It was wholly demoralizing and made you think that the smart thing to do was bolt for the exit. Everyone else was running, so why not you? But then I did two things: I tried to trace the stories back to the original person, and I started to count the stories themselves.
And two things happened: one is that most of the stories being repeated were actually about the same person, and the second is the stories themselves were, when counted out, just a handful. It went like this: you heard a story about a runner from one, two, three different people in rapid succession. Details were always sketchy, and rarely did anyone actually know the person in question. But what it sounded like was that at least three people had quit all at once.
In other words, while it appeared there was a torrent of teachers quitting mid-September, in actuality just a few were, and their stories were being told again and again by different people unaware they were talking about the same person.
The lack of stats from ADEC reinforced the “we’re all gonna die” feeling. With no official word from ADEC, it felt like hundreds were leaving; our assumption was that for every story we heard, several more were not. When ADEC did not comment, and nobody seemed to know anything, we believed we were just seeing the tip of the iceberg.
In reality, it was just an ice cube.
The following year, ADEC was smarter and reported losses in terms of percentages. That kept some of the hysteria down.
With that in mind, here’s some fun statistical facts that ought to put 2014 into perspective:
Only 5 out of 18 Middle East and North Africa countries actually were involved in war. That’s about 28% of countries – not great, but also hardly a majority.
Out of the estimated 340 million people in West Africa, only about 20,000 people have been infected with Ebola, or less than .00005% of all people. It’s a nasty disease, but it is also not the Apocalypse.
The United States added over 2.5 million jobs in 2014 – that’s more jobs than 56 countries have people.
23 states have legalized marijuana, with 4 states legalizing it for recreational use.
Finally, nachos got better than ever. Not a bad way to end a year.