Is our best century behind us?

Some of you seem to be watching the developments of the presidential primaries this year and feeling a bit dismal about the future. I can’t say as I completely blame you, but we should try to remember that it’s just politics. Surely there are other things to look forward to which can cheer us all up a bit and remind us that, as Annie famously sang, the sun will come up tomorrow.

This, however, is not a column about that. In fact, there is reason to believe that no matter what sort of lipstick you care to put on this pig, the future may turn out to be a big disappointment. That’s the central theme of George Will’s column this weekend, where he takes an approving look at Robert J. Gordon’s new book, “The Rise and Fall of American Growth.” As part of the reason for a lack of optimism, Will highlights the concept that we may have already experienced the greatest century of human growth which will ever unfold. And by “we” I don’t mean everyone reading this piece, because he’s not talking about 1901 through 2000. It’s a reference to 1871 – 1970 and the pace of development has slowed significantly since then. (WaPo)

In many ways, the world of 1870 was more medieval than modern. Three necessities — food, clothing, shelter — absorbed almost all consumer spending. No household was wired for electricity. Flickering light came from candles and whale oil, manufacturing power from steam engines, water wheels and horses. Urban horses, alive and dead, complicated urban sanitation. Window screens were rare, so insects commuted to and fro between animal and human waste outdoors and the dinner table. A typical North Carolina housewife in the 1880s carried water into her home eight to 10 times daily, walking 148 miles a year to tote 36 tons of it. Few children were in school after age 12.

But on Oct. 10, 1879, Thomas Edison found a cotton filament for the incandescent light bulb. Less than 12 weeks later in Germany, Karl Benz demonstrated the first workable internal combustion engine. In the 1880s, refrigerated rail cars began to banish “spring sickness,” a result of winters without green vegetables. Adult stature increased as mechanical refrigeration and Clarence Birdseye’s Birds Eye frozen foods improved nutrition. By 1940, households were networked — electrified, with clean water flowing in and waste flowing out, radio flowing in and telephonic communications flowing both ways. Today’s dwellings, Gordon says, are much more like those of 1940 than 1940 dwellings were like those of 1900.

Part of me wants to believe that my agreement with these thoughts is just the typical attitude of the old man screaming for the damn kids to get off his lawn. Nothing ever seems as good as “the good old days” because our brains tend to soften and diminish the bad times while hanging on firmly to or even embellishing the good. But in simple, objective terms there is clearly something to the progress Will points to.

I can remember when my grandfather passed away some years ago. He had been born in 1898 and lived into his mid-nineties. My family and I spent some time reflecting on the progress he saw over the course of his life. When he bought his first (and only) house and some farmland the illumination was gaslights. In-home electricity was still a ways off. He had a well with a hand pump where most of the water came from. The introduction of a radio to his home in the latter part of the 20’s was The Big Thing.

But by the time he was still a relatively middle aged and very fit man in his fifties there were satellites going into space. Barely thirty years after he had that first radio in his house there was a man walking on the moon. But what’s really happened since then? While there are still remarkable advancements in some areas – particularly medicine, robotics and computers – the number of sweeping changes which drastically alter the way most of us live has really trailed off. This is particularly true when you compare the current state of things with the early to mid-nineties. The cars may be be sleeker and lighter, but we’re still driving cars. Televisions are flatter and wider with a crisper picture, but it’s still TV. We had video games back then, even though they’re vastly more realistic now. Water still runs out of faucets and we still plug our appliances into a hole in the wall. There are changes, but they are incremental and minor compared to the life shifting moments of the century George Will describes.

What we have managed to do is get better at not having to work as hard as we did a century ago. And yet, one could argue that this has been to our detriment as much as our advantage. Our expectations of what passes for simply normal would be inconceivable to the kids who played in the farmyards with my grandparents. So where does it all go from here? What’s the next big thing? Or have we pretty much hit the peak?

Just some food for thought, if perhaps on the bitter side.


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