The Twentieth Century

To realize in its completeness the universal beauty and perfection of the works of God, we must recognize a certain perpetual and very free progress of the whole universe . . . [Tjhere always remain in the abyss of things slumbering parts which have yet to be awakened


On the Ultimate Origination ofThings (1697)

Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but. . . for everything that is given something is taken.


"Self-Reliance," Essays: First Series (1841)

twentieth century will be remembered for three broad JL innovations: unprecedented means to save, prolong, and

246 • Billions and Billions enhance life; unprecedented means to destroy life, including for the first time putting our global civilization at risk; and unprecedented insights into the nature of ourselves and the Universe. All three of these developments have been brought forth by science and technology, a sword with two razor-sharp edges. All three have roots in the distant past.


Until about ten thousand years ago, with the invention of agriculture and the domestication of animals, the human food supply was limited to fruits and vegetables in the natural environment and game animals. But the sparsity of naturally grown foodstuffs was such that the Earth could maintain no more than about 10 million or so of us. In contrast, by the end of the twentieth century, there will be six billion people. That means that 99.9 percent of us owe our lives to agricultural technology and the science that underlies it—plant and animal genetics and behavior, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, preservatives, plows, combines and other agricultural implements, irrigation—and refrigeration in trucks, railway cars, stores, and homes. Many of the most striking advances in agricultural technology—including the "Green Revolution"—are products of the twentieth century.

Through urban and rural sanitation, clean water, other public health measures, acceptance of the germ theory of disease, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, and genetics and molecular biology, medical science has enormously improved the well-being of people all over the world—but especially in the developed countries. Smallpox has been eradicated worldwide, the area of the Earth in which malaria flourishes shrinks year by

The Twentieth Century • 247

year, and diseases I remember from my childhood, such as whooping cough, scarlet fever, and polio, are almost gone today. Among the most important twentieth-century inventions are comparatively inexpensive birth control methods—which, for the first time, permit women safely to control their reproductive destinies, and are working the emancipation of halfof the human species. They permit major declines in the perilously increasing populations in many countries without requiring oppressive restrictions on sexual activity. It is also true that the chemicals and radiation produced by our technology have induced new diseases and are implicated in cancer. The global proliferation of cigarettes leads to an estimated 3 million deaths a year (all of course preventable). By 2020, the number is estimated, by the World Health Organization, to reach 10 million a year.

But technology has given much more than it has taken away. The clearest sign of this is that life expectancy in the United States and Western Europe in 1901 was about 45 years, while today it is approaching 80 years, a little more for women, a little less for men. Life expectancy is probably the single most effective index of quality of life: If you're dead, you're probably not having a good time. That said, there are still a billion of us without enough to eat, and 40,000 children dying needlessly every day on our planet. Through radio, television, phonographs, audiotape players, compact discs, telephones, fax machines, and computer information networks, technology has profoundly changed the face of popular culture. It has made possible the pros and cons of global entertainment, of multinational corporations with loyalties to no particular country, transnational affinity groups, and direct access to the political and religious views of other cultures. As we saw in the highly attenuated rebellion at Tianan-men Square and the one at the "White House" in Moscow,

248 • Billions and Billions faxes, telephones, and computer networks can be powerful tools of political upheaval. The introduction of mass-market paperback books in the 1940s has brought the world's literature and the insights of its greatest thinkers, present and past, into the lives of ordinary people. And even if the price of paperback books is soaring today, there are still great bargains, such as the dollar-a-volume classics from Dover Books. Along with progress in literacy such trends are the allies of JefFersonian democracy. On the other hand what passes for literacy in America in the late twentieth century is a very rudimentary knowledge of the English language, and television in particular tends to seduce the mass population away from reading. In pursuit of the profit motive, it has dumbed itself down to lowest-common-denominator programming—instead of rising up to teach and inspire.

From paper clips, rubber bands, hair dryers, ballpoint pens, computers, dictating and copying machines, electric mixers, microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners, dish and clothes washers and driers, widespread interior and street lights, to automobiles, aviation, machine tools, hydroelectric power plants, assembly line manufacturing, and enormous construction equipment, the technology of our century has eliminated drudgery, created more leisure time, and enhanced the lives of many. It has also upended many of the routines and conventions that were prevalent in 1901.

The use of potentially life-saving technology differs from nation to nation. The United States, for example, has the highest infant mortality of any industrial nation. It has more young black men in prison than in college, and a greater percentage of its citizens in jail than any other industrial nation. Its students routinely perform poorly on standardized science and mathematics tests when compared with students of the same age in other countries. The disparity in real income between the rich and the poor The Twentieth Century • 249

and the decline of the middle class have been growing swiftly over the last decade and a half. The United States is last among industrialized nations in the fraction of the national income given each year to help people in other countries. High technology industry has been fleeing American shores. After leading the world in almost all these respects in midcentury,<there are some signs of decline in the United States at century's end. The quality of leadership can be pointed to, but so can the dwindling penchant for critical thinking and political action in its citizens. TOTALITARIAN AND MILITARY TECHNOLOGY

The means of making war, of mass killings, of the annihilations of whole peoples, has reached unprecedented levels in the twentieth century. In 1901, there were no military aircraft or missiles, and the most powerful artillery could loft a shell a few miles and kill a handful of people. By the second third of the twentieth century, some 70,000 nuclear weapons had been accumulated. Many of them were fitted to strategic rocket boosters, fired from silos or submarines, able to reach virtually any part of the world, and each warhead powerful enough to destroy a large city. Today we are in the throes of major arms reductions, both in warheads and delivery systems, by the United States and the former Soviet Union, but we will be able to annihilate the global civilization into the foreseeable future. In addition, horrendously deadly chemical and biological weapons are in many hands worldwide. In a century bubbling over with fanaticism, ideological certainty, and mad leaders, this accumulation of unprecedentedly lethal weapons does not bode well for the human future. Over 150 million human beings have been killed in warfare and by the direct orders of national leaders in the twentieth century. 250 • Billions and Billions

Our technology has become so powerful that not only on purpose but inadvertently we have become able to alter the environment on a large scale, and threaten many species on Earth, our own included. The simple fact is that we are performing unprecedented experiments on the global environment and in general hoping against hope that the problems will solve themselves and go away. The one bright spot is the Montreal Protocol and ancillary international agreements by which the industrial nations of the world agreed to phase out production of CFCs and other chemicals that attack the ozone layer. But in reducing carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere, in solving the problem of chemical and radioactive wastes, and in other areas progress has been slow to dismal.

Ethnocentric and xenophobic vendettas have been rife on every continent. Systematic attempts to annihilate whole ethnic groups have occurred—most notably in Nazi Germany, but also in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and elsewhere. Similar tendencies have existed throughout human history, but only in the twentieth century has technology made killing on such a scale practical. Strategic bombing, missiles, and long-range artillery have the "advantage" that the combatants need not come face-to-face with the agony they have worked. Their consciences need not trouble them. The global military budget at the end of the twentieth century is close to a trillion dollars a year. Think of how much human good could be purchased for even a fraction of that sum.

The twentieth century has been marked by the collapse of monarchies and empires and the rise of at least nominal democracies—as well as many ideological and military dictatorships. The Nazis had a list of reviled groups they set out to systematically exterminate: Jews, gays and lesbians, socialists and commu-

The Twentieth Century • 251

nists, the handicapped, and people of African origin (of whom there were almost none in Germany). In the militantly "pro-life" Nazi regime, women were relegated to "Kinder, Kiiche, Kircher"—children, cooking, the church.* How affronted a good Nazi would be at an American society that, more than any other country, dominates the planet, in which Jews, homosexuals, the handicapped, and people of African origin have full legal rights, socialists are at least tolerated in principle, and women are entering the workplace in record numbers. But only around 11 percent of the members of the U.S. House of Representatives are women, instead of a little more than 50 percent, as it would be if proportional representation were practiced. (The corresponding number for Japan is 2 percent.) Thomas Jefferson taught that a democracy was impractical unless the people were educated. No matter how stringent the protections of the people might be in constitutions or common law, there would always be a temptation, Jefferson thought, for the powerful, the wealthy, and the unscrupulous to undermine the ideal of government run by and for ordinary citizens. The antidote is vigorous support for the expression of unpopular views, widespread literacy, substantive debate, a common familiarity with critical thinking, and skepticism of pronouncements of those in authority—which are all also central to the scientific method.

* After outlining traditional Christian views of women from patristic times to the Reformation, the Australian philosopher

John Passmore (Man's Responsibility for Nature: Ecological Problems and Western Traditions [New York: Scrib-ner's,

1974]) concludes that Kinder, Kiiche, Kircher "as a description of the role of women is not an invention of Hitler's, but a typical Christian slogan."

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