The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 2, 2000
Lead Article

A century of space-age change
By Derek Ingram

IN no single century since human life evolved on Earth has so much changed as it has since 1900.

In the space of one lifetime the ability to fly just a few hundred yards in a powered contraption of wire and wood has led to reach the Moon and to explore hundreds of millions of miles beyond it. We have broken free of Earth and began to roam the universe.


Until this century most of us lived in the kind of silent world which it is now almost impossible to imagine.

In a few places in the late 19th century the telephone had begun to ring in one or two well-heeled households, but there was no radio — let alone television — no record player, in fact nothing to disturb but the cries of street-sellers outside and, in some countries, the clatter of horses’ hooves and the carts or carriages behind them.

On December 12, 1911 — just 88 years ago — the newly crowned King George V, father-in-law of the still living Queen Mother, stood in grandeur on a dais in Delhi to be acclaimed Emperor of India and receive the homage of bejewelled princes and maharajas. That Christmas, the King went off on a tiger shoot. Today the whole event seems preposterous.

Only a few years after the spectacle in Delhi, millions died in the ferocious European civil war now known as World War I. That, in turn, led to the rise of communism and the collapse of the British Empire, which, in 1911, had been the greatest the world had seen and on which, it was boasted, the sun never set.

That same year, revolution in China ended the Qing dynasty which had ruled since 1644. For almost 40 years thereafter the country was consumed by almost continuous conflict — civil war, warlordism, invasion by Japan — until the communists took over under Mao Zedong in 1949. Millions had died, and millions more perished later under the regime.

An old plaque outside a shop in London’s Farrington Road records that "these premises were totally destroyed by a zeppelin raid" on 8 December 1915. A little over 29 years later the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, killing up to 150,000 people.

The speed of scientific advance in the 20th century (encompassing the development of ever more horrific weaponry) is still beyond the ordinary person’s comprehension.

In 1900 soldiers were still fighting on horseback and engaging in hand-to-hand battles with bayonets and revolvers. By the end of the century, guided missiles were killing people and demolishing computer-selected buildings in Yugoslavia without the loss of life of a single attacker.

All this is the negative side of the 20th century. On the reverse side of the coin are huge achievements: medical advances, for example. Even up until the 19th century, teeth were being extracted, limbs amputated and other major operations carried out without anaesthetic or maybe with opium, ether or chloroform. The pain and suffering endured cannot be imagined.

Yet in the past two or three decades transplants of every kind and heart bypasses have become possible and even commonplace.

Whereas in advanced countries average life expectancy at the turn of the century was in the 40s it is now 75 and some people are living to 110. In western Europe so many people are reaching their century that it has become commercial to publish 100th birthday cards. Before long, it is predicted, many people will be reaching 120.

The discovery of penicillin in 1928 and many other antibiotics has controlled many killer diseases. Smallpox has been eliminated, poliomyelitis is on its way out, tuberculosis has become curable, though it is still rampant, and many today survive cancer. Malaria remains defiant, but that will surely be conquered in the 21st century.

Every age brings its own scourge and late in the century AIDS began to threaten whole communities. In one form or another it may have hit people, unrecognised, in earlier times. Signs that it would be contained and treated began to appear in the late Nineties.

Yet humankind continues to mismanage itself disastrously. Sometime, it seems to have learned nothing. Politics remain basically as crude — if on the surface more sophisticated — as they were at the beginning of the millennium, let alone the century.

Shakespeare, writing 400 years ago, Plato, 2,000 years before that, and Chinese philosophical writers of the same period, are still to be found in the world’s textbooks, not just because of their fine writings, but because many of their political perceptions are as valid today as they ever were.

Beyond politics, or perhaps because of politics, we seem quite unable to turn the technical advances of the 20th century into a fairer and more equitable world.

In 1900 the population of the world was 1.6 billion. It has risen from 1.9 billion to six billion today. What President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa has called "the passionate rumble of the empty stomach" is heard in the world more than ever before. Some 1.5 billion people exist on one dollar a day, while the assets of the world’s top three billionaires are more than the combined gross national product of the world’s 48 poorest countries and their 600 million people. The greed of the few robs millions of a livelihood.

A century that began with the idealism of a communist world that in its purist form was not dissimilar from many religions, including Christi-anity, has in the end produced a philosophical mouse — the free-for-all rule of the so-called market that has no hope of filling the mouths of the hungry or giving everyone good shelter and the promise of a healthy life. The means are there. The will for implementation is not.

Yet the century has produced just as many great minds and great leaders working within a democratic framework — Woodrow Wilson, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Franklin Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill — as it has those using authoritarian methods — Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao and their many pupils.

Stalin and Mao raised the living standards of their peasants and killed millions in the process. The democrats also raised living standards, sometimes strikingly, but they have not so far found forms of democracy that will check greed. How do you win votes by telling people they must share their good life? How do you stop the rich wanting to become richer?

We have ended the century with a single philosophy, and no one, it seems, can find anything better. The phrase, "There is no alternative", famously uttered by the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, reflects a barrenness of thought.

There have to be other ways of doing things. Throughout the millennium people have come up with a variety of philosophies — and they are sure to do so again.

We cannot have come to the end of thinking, any more than we have to the "end of history as such", as the American government official Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1989 at the end of the Cold War. He argued with triumphant arrogance that we had reached "the end point of man’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy."

If we ask what was the single most important event of the 21st century the answer must be the Russian Revolution of 1917. The success of the Bolsheviks at the moment determined the course of the remainder of the century. Russian communism inspired China and produced fascism in Europe, which in turn led to World War II and the Cold War.

From 1914 until 1989 — three-quarters of the century— the world was consumed by wars and brutality rooted in East-West conflict. It is in some ways now convalescing from these gigantic upheavals which conceivably cost the lives of up to 100 million people.

Out of the ashes, one country emerged ever stronger and came to dominate, economically, politically and culturally — the United States of America. Driven by commercial energy, the American way has penetrated every part of the globe.

The 20th century saw the adoption of English as the global tongue, and the rapid expansion of its use in the second half helped generate the relentless growth of the United States as it drew talent and energy from all over the world — South Asia, China, latin America and the Caribbean, and particularly from eastern and western Europe.

Culturally, the rise and rise of English has led to a lopsided assessment of where we all stand, particularly in terms of literature. Great books, poems and plays to rival those in English have been produced in China, and south and south-east Asia, but they do not get the international circulation of works from the West or those written in English.

And the many great artistic achievements of the 20th century do not seem to match those of earlier centuries. Bach, Beethoven, Shakes-peare, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Keats still tower over the works that came later.

Yet the coming of jazz, the music of people like Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Shostakovich, Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein, the works of Chekov (just into this century), Samuel Beckett, and Bertolt Brecht may well be as highly regarded in centuries to come, The motion picture is a product almost entirely of the years since 1900 and has produced great art to put alongside the best of written literature.

In the 20th century the explosion of travel began to mix up the peoples of the world so that it began to look as if the complexion of all humankind was destined to become a coffee colour. Will racism then become a thing of the past?

For the past 100 years, however, ethnic division has been a major source of conflict, with black and white often confronting each other and countries across the world being torn by internecine strife.

The dreadful ordeal of apartheid suffered by South Africa and then the country’s political transformation was one of the most powerful lessons of the century. As people began to know more about each other and their lands, racial bitterness sometimes grew rather than diminished, but in other cases it gradually led to a greater understanding. The aeroplane had brought this about.

In the West, attitudes to sex swung from a time when the word was never even mentioned in polite society to the point where the talk was sometimes of nothing else, and film and television could hardly be more frank.

Sport was transformed during the century from an amateur occupation for the few to a mass, professional, hugely commercial operation. Improve-ments in performance marked almost every decade. One of the most symbolic record-breaking moments came on May 6, 1954, when Roger Bannister became the first athlete to run the mile in under four minutes.

This was the century when women really began their long struggle for equality. At its turn, women in industrialised countries usually did not go out to work, and if they did it was as servants to the better-off. Mainly they were seen as housewives whose duty was to rear the family. In developing countries they toiled manually on farms and in the towns, as they still do today in many areas.

Everywhere, women received less education then men and few moved into professional and executive positions. As for giving women the vote, that was for another day. New Zealand had been out in front. There, women were given the vote in 1893. In Britain, it was to be another 35 years — after a long and sometimes violent struggle led at first by Emmeline Pankhurst — before women achieved full franchise and could sit in the so-called ‘mother of parliaments’.

It was in a developing country, and not until 1960, that a woman — Sirimavo Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka — first became prime minister, and women leaders are still a small minority. Other pioneers were Golda Meir (Israel), Margaret Thatcher (Britain), Indira Gandhi (India) and Gro Harlem Brundtland (Norway). By contrast, when the Taliban government took over in Afghanistan in 1996, women were not even to be educated.

Equality and not subservience was the driving force behind another of the great 20th century movements — the struggle against colonialism. By 1900 it had already begun. The Indian National Congress had been founded in 1885.

World War II led to the first independences — Indonesia (1945), the Philippines, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon (1946), India (1947), Israel and Burma (1948).

Ghana (1957) was the first independent state in sub-Saharan Africa. Some countries won freedom peacefully, but in others the cost in human life was huge. The partition of India may have killed one million.

The leaders to independence, noble in intent, often became victims of human frailty. For every Nehru, Mandela, and Nyerere there was a Sukarno, Nkrumah and Banda. Many were handed a poisoned chalice by the imperial powers. For example, in 1960 Belgium handed over the Congo — a country three-quarters the size of India — with just six graduates in its population of 23 million.

Under a dust cover on a lower shelf in my workroom stands a giant and hefty Remington typewriter that dates to the turn of the century. It is a satisfying object to use because you have to thump the keys and it prints in huge bold lettering that today is to be seen only in old state documents and letters from Buckingham Palace.

Such machines were supplanting handwriting in offices at the turn of the century. Carbon paper, invented in the 19th century, was needed to make copies. Right up to the 1950s the only alternative was to type out the document two or three times. The copying machine came into use only in the Sixties. It is difficult to imagine now how offices operated before photocopies existed.

In the last three decades of the century the microchip transformed the lives of everyone in the more developed parts of the world: the electronic alarm clock by our bed, the television monitor, the heating of the water for our bath, the egg-timer, the washing machine, the cooker, the cash dispenser, the cellphone, the car, the fax, the computer and the new communications revolution of the Internet. Already it is difficult to remember how we were able to work without these things.

Yet much of the world’s population has access to none of them. They do not even have clean water to drink, fuel to keep warm or cook with. Expectation of life may not reach 40, and in some places may not be any higher than it was when the century began and perhaps long before that.

Amid such adversity, world wars, revolutions and destruction on a hiterto unknown scale, the century saw persistent attempts to change the international political architecture in ways that would end war, disease and poverty and promote co-operation between peoples. They failed.

In 1900 Europe was still building and consolidating its empires. A few years later, World War I ensured their decline and World War II led to their end. In January 1920 the first worldwide organisation of sovereign states in history — the League of Nations — came into existence.

It had 42 members and sought the peaceful settlement of disputes. Any country resorting to war would suffer economic sanctions. It set up a Court of International Justice, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and other bodies.

The League notched up some initial successes. Greece was forced to withdraw when it invaded Bulgaria, and disputes were settled between Peru and Colombia and Bolivia and Paraguay.

But although Woodrow Wilson was a founder of the League idea, the US refused to join and Germany and the Soviet Union were only briefly members. When a great power was involved in a dispute the League failed. It proved powerless to stop the rise of fascism in the Thirties. After 1939 it never met and it was dissolved in 1946.

Yet a seed had been sown, and the United Nations — severely flawed and hobbled though it may still be — has proved more durable and successful. In a sense, the League had been the first step towards derogation of sovereignty and globalisation. The ILO and International Court are still there — forerunners of a host of international agencies.

All this international machinery and the dramatic speed-up in communication, however, did little to prevent the continuation after 1945 of violent conflict across the world. In effect, a different type of world was developed. The motor was the clash of ideologies between what came to be known as the superpowers — the Soviet Union and the United States. They called it the Cold War, but most of the time it was a Hot War.

Instead of engaging each other directly, the superpowers used the rest of the world as a battleground, causing major wars in Korea and Vietnam; stoking fierce conflicts in Angola, Mozambique, Somalia, Nicaragua, Namibia, Malaysis, Laos, Afghanistan and Congo; and exploiting anti-colonial struggle in southern Africa. Coups and other political changes provided the excuse for interventions in a string of other countries including Chile, Guatemala, Hungary, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

Then the whole Soviet empire collapsed like a house of cards. A string of tottering leaders in the 1980s — Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko — gave way in 1985 to a man who, as the century ends, has become almost forgotten and yet must rate as one of its most significant leaders — Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Soviet Union collapsed and divided into 15 independent states. The USA emerged the winner of the Cold War, economically all-powerful but far from unscathed. The Vietnam War was a bitter and humbling experience from which the USA has still not recovered.

A month before the end of this century, citizens alarmed by the lack of real action by governments to curb commercial pressure and stop the destruction of the global environment at last began to cry: "Enough!"

At the meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle, 50,000 demonstrators from many parts of the world signalled the beginning of a search for an alternative system to the rampant capitalism of the post-Cold War era. Their anger was the tip of a people’s iceberg.

In the opening years of the century the great debate will be about nothing less than the future of the Earth. Of the seven deadly sins, avarice now seems to be potentially the most lethal.