The Islamic State's rapid gains on the battlefield and televised beheadings, images of world powers on the point of military confrontation in Ukraine, the spread of the deadly Ebola virus across West African and possibly beyond...the news today is enough to make one believe the world is coming apart at the seams.
And yet, we should be asking ourselves, why isn't it worse? Because, boy, it used to be.
The evidence shows us that violence has in fact declined dramatically over the centuries. In his remarkable book, The Better Angels of our Nature, Harvard University Professor Steven Pinker demonstrates how we are living in the most peaceful time in our history. And with greater peace, most other indicators have also improved, including economic development, health and the protection of human rights.
The decline in violence, according to Pinker, is in large part due to the fact that more people live under systems of governance that they feel are legitimate, ones that look out for their security and well-being.
Put another way, trust has proven to be a key factor in determining the relative peace and stability of our societies. Trust not just in your neighbor, but in your authorities and the rules of the game under which you live.
Trust is fundamental to our lives. It is an intangible force that has the most tangible impact on everything, from the strength of relationships in our families to the value of our currency. Trust is what gives our laws and our constitutions their legitimacy. Trust cannot be bought, or imposed. It must be given freely. And it can be taken away.However, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, trust in governments to solve our social and political problems has been steadily declining over the years. In fact it has reached one of the lowest points since the Second World War. Worst of all, trust in leaders is in the cellar, teetering at approval ratings in the chilly 15% range.
While our confidence in our leaders is declining, the Edelman Trust Barometer shows that people trust each other more than ever before. The internet community has known this for years now. Peer reviews, far more than advertising or ratings, play a decisive role in purchasing behavior online.
Indeed, solidarity and caring is actually on the increase, despite our institutions and their leaders, not because of them. According to the Blackbaud Index on Charitable Giving, philanthropy is growing, not declining as one would expect. And the fastest growth sector for such giving is among Millennials.
Our younger generation is putting its money, and its energy, where its mouth is. This is a strong reason to be hopeful for our future.
We now need to work together to channel that social trust back into our institutions. Our own history tells us this will gradually take place if we give people a greater stake in the systems that govern their lives, giving them a voice and demanding a different form of accountability from our leaders.
Despite what you read in the papers, the sky is not falling. At least not yet. Our willingness to work together is stronger than ever. Trust in each other, and in our collective humanity, is the foundation upon which we can build a better future.