“… No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”
Gone With the Wind
Steven Pinker wrote an important book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, arguing that along a number of dimensions and on a number of time scales, human societies have been getting less violent over time. I think he’s probably right, but there’s an obvious problem to be wrestled with, the battle deaths in the First and Second World Wars and further associated deaths from starvation, disease and other mass killing. Here’s a figure from his book:
Pinker argues that there’s a lot of random variation around the long-term trend to reduced violence. The frequency distribution of sizes of wars (measured by war deaths) looks like random noise following a power law (like the frequency distributions of the magnitudes of earthquakes and the population sizes of cities). For war deaths, the exponent of the power function is greater than one, so that a handful of large wars have killed more people than a multitude of smaller wars.
However, I think there are also two more systematic causes of twentieth century mass violence,
- food insecurity, and
- the formation of “meta-ethnic frontiers” in the face of Western expansion.
I’ll talk about the first here, and the second in a later posting.
The anthropologists Melvin and Carol Ember did a study of the correlates of war across cultures, and discovered that one of the strongest predictors of warfare is fear of natural disasters and subsistence crises. This is not about chronic (i.e. non-crisis) food shortages. The most warlike people are not those who know that there will be a hungry season every year, when some of the population is pushed to the edge of starvation, but those who may be doing well now, but fear a disaster – drought, flood, insect plague, typhoon – in the future.
Europeans in the early twentieth century were better fed than any time before in European history. But the international and national markets that kept them fed, bringing grain and animal products from the Americas and Eastern Europe, and from country to city, also made them exceptionally vulnerable to interruptions in food supply. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a move toward protectionism spurred in part by fear of food vulnerability. This reached a crisis with the First World War, when England and Germany both attempted to interrupt each others’ food imports. England and the Allies were more successful: the blockade of Germany helped force the country out of the war, and pressured Germany after the war to agree to the Versailles Treaty. About 750,000 Germans may have died as a result (although the number is disputed).
The war also interrupted food supplies between country and city, as urban industry shifted from supplying consumer goods for farmers to producing war materiel, and farmers held back on supplying food. Urban food shortages in turn contributed to both Russian and German Revolutions. In both countries, the aftermath of war was a determination on the part of a new generation of political leaders never to let this happen again, to make sure that one’s folk – whether the German Volk or the Russian urban working class – stood at the top of the food chain, even if it meant sentencing others to starvation.
For more on international trade, insecurity, and war there’s When Globalization Fails: The Rise and Fall of Pax Americana. For food insecurity and war in England and Germany in World War I and after there’s The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation. And for food supply and mass starvation from World War I to World War II, there’s Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food.