It is the best of times to be alive. Ever
THe next person who says that the twentieth century has been the worst era in human history should be made to spend the whole of the year 2000 going round on the London Eye, the non-stop big wheel by the Thames. When they are at the top of that visionary machine, looking down on a city that is a living monument to modern civilisation, perhaps they might see things a little more clearly. At the very least, the Jeremiahs will be turning their own stomachs instead of mine.
There have been plenty of setbacks and tragedies over the past century, and there is no shortage of problems left to deal with in the world today. But for all that, the fact is that people now are living longer, healthier and wealthier lives than ever before in human history. And if we were to raise our sights a little, we could be doing a lot better yet.
Before we crucify the twentieth century and dance on its grave, consider this. Life expectancy in Britain is now around 30 years longer than it was a century ago; a boy born today can expect to live till he is nearly 75, a girl till she is past 80. Even in the poorest countries that used to be known as the third world, people who would have died in their forties just half a century ago can now expect to carry on into their sixties.
Look at infant mortality, a constant preoccupation of those who study and worry about population health. At the opening of the twentieth century, the overall rate of infant mortality in Britain was a frightening 150 deaths per thousand live births. By the time of the Second World War, it was still above 50 infant deaths per thousand births. By 1996, it had fallen to below six.
Back in 1900, in England and Wales, a total of 142 912 babies died in their first year of life. In 1990, the figure was 3390. However paranoid parents might be today about the slightest threat to the safety of our children, we no longer have to worry about smallpox, polio, influenza epidemics or other scourges of childhood that were rampant during the infancy of the century. Life and death remain far from fair, and infant deaths are still relatively more common in poorer families. But the most striking thing is how uncommon they are now in any section of society.
These changes reflect the tremendous advances made in society, science and technology through the century - advances which have transformed the way that we live as well as postponing the day that we die. A lot of attention is currently focused on poverty in Britain, and the widening income gap between the richest and the poorest in society. It is quite right for these studies to use a relative measure of poverty rather than an absolute one; just because nobody starves to death in Britain, that does not make it a classless society. But, as Michael Fitzpatrick examines in this issue of LM, the fashionable tendency to over-relativise poverty can blind us to the impressive gains in the quality of life that almost everybody in the West has experienced in the modern age.
Even many of those now categorised as poor in British and American social surveys have access to consumer goods and services that were beyond the dreams of the rich a century ago. This is not to deny the continuing problems caused by inequality and inadequate incomes. But anybody who doubts the complete superiority of the modern way of life over its forerunners cannot have watched 1900 House on TV. Allowed only what would have been available to them a century ago, the 1990s family in the programme struggled to cope with the everyday hardships of life as it was back then. As so often, it was the little things that made the difference; never mind cable television or the internet, the woman forced to play the Victorian housewife found it next to impossible to cope without shampoo and tampons.
Laws and values, too, have been revolutionised over the past hundred years. There is plenty of racial tension in a society like ours. But those who complain that racism is getting worse and worse might like to reflect that, a century ago, words like racism and imperialism were still being used in a positive sense, to define the self-conscious identity of the British elite. Women in Britain were not kept in place by a glass ceiling so much as a concrete lid; they did not have the vote, nor any prospect of equal pay or the right to divorce and legalised abortion. The most celebrated homosexual of the age, Oscar Wilde, was imprisoned rather than knighted (like Elton John) or canonised (like George Michael). Things sure ain't what they used to be, and let us thank humanity for that.
None of this is intended as an excuse for naive optimism. The path of progress certainly has not been, as the Stalinists promised it would be, 'Onwards and onwards and upwards and upwards', or 'Forward ever, backward never'. Yet in our darkest moments today, it is easy enough to spot the seeds of further positive developments (even if they are genetically modified). The lesson of history, and perhaps of the past century in particular, is that resolute societies can continually discover the capacity to solve problems and turn another corner.
The irony is that, more than at any other time, the barrier to human progress now is the backwardness of humanity. Many of the technological and scientific initiatives already in place could help the twenty-first century to far outstrip the remarkable achievements of the twentieth. All that is lacking is the vision and the will to make it happen.
In contrast to the forward-looking mood in which humanity entered the twentieth century, the cautious climate of our times is not conducive to boldly going anywhere. The dominant 'isms' of the past century - capitalism and socialism - represented competing claims on, and visions of, the future. Both ideologies have since been exhausted, and replaced in the public mind by a motley collections of new isms - pessimism, cynicism, fatalism - which regard the future largely as a risk to take out insurance against. This is the mood which has led many to view the approach of the year 2000 less as a milestone than a millstone.
The problem goes well beyond a general loss of faith in the future. Even the achievements of the past are being put to question in the present.
What, for instance, is the dominant reaction to the impressive way in which life expectancy has been extended? It has encouraged a new wave of alarmist concerns about 'overpopulation'. The growth of the world's population from 1.5 billion at the start of the twentieth century to six billion at its end should surely be a cause for celebration, a testimony to the incremental growth of humanity's capital - especially given that the productivity of the global food industry has grown even faster. Instead, it becomes the pretext for a panic.
Or how do the great and the good respond to the dramatic increase in the world's wealth over the past century? By spreading doom and gloom about 'over-consumption' - a technical term for the preposterous notion that people in the West have too much of everything. A major United Nations report, published in September, warned that time was running out to save the planet, unless the developed world cut its use of resources - by a mere 90 percent. The archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, mounted his national pulpit in November to demand that we in Britain must learn to live 'more simply' in the twenty-first century. Bring back the 1900 house!
Such pessimism now shapes the political agenda. The nostalgia men of the old right spend more time looking over their shoulders than in front of their noses. By comparison, New Labour and its supporters find it easy to look dynamic and positive; thus David Aaronovitch of the Independent can have fun laying into the conservative 'cult of miserablism'. Yet in truth New Labour has its own downbeat politics of low expectations, expressed in the language of the precautionary principle and summed up by chancellor Gordon Brown's bizarre obsession with containing economic growth and offsetting a 'boom', for fear that it would lead to 'bust'.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, many identified the primary barrier to human progress as the capitalist free market, and the constraints imposed by the subordination of need to profit. At the century's end, things look a little different. Capitalism may well still be a restrictive system. Yet the pervasive culture of restraint, the over-anxious instinct to hold back, means that we are not even being allowed to test the system's limits.
Some of the most powerful cultural trends of our time, from the belief that people are incompetent therapy-cases to the economic bad habit of under-investment, point to the possibility that we might waste the golden opportunities which are coming society's way.
I did not want to mention the Millennium Dome, but it seems a fitting symbol of the century's end. Awesome on the outside, yet effectively empty within, the Dome is a magnificent technical achievement with a hole where its soul should be. Designed as the stage for an historic celebration, it has become instead the platform for a national carnival of breast-beating.
Enough of this nonsense. To paraphrase a man who built pyramids rather than domes to mark his place in history: look upon our works, ye mighty, and stop weeping.
Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000