The 20th Century was one of the most monumental in the history of the human race, and not just because it was the most recent. The changes that occurred were arguably the greatest changes that ever occurred for most of the human race.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the automobile was a novelty contraption. Most people got to wherever they were going by walking in town, or by train between towns. Horses were not ubiquitous, as most people think, because they were expensive to keep. They were the province of the wealthy, and of farmers, who needed them to pull their plows.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the only way across the sea was by boat. Travel over the sea was rare, hazardous, and expensive. One-percent of all ships were lost at sea in 1900, usually disappeared without a trace. They simply didn’t show up at the other end.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, 84% of the people in the world lived in extreme poverty, on less than $2 per day (in constant 2018 dollars).
At the beginning of the 20th Century, 10% of the world population lived in a democracy. The other 90% lived under some form of authoritarian regime (30%), colonial rule by a foreign power (40%), or an anocracy (an authoritarian regime with some democratic features).
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the telephone was just spreading in the US and was limited to local service, the reliable electric light bulb was only twenty years old, and the electrification of developed countries was just beginning. Communication was by mail, or by telegraph.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, death by food poisoning was common because there was no refrigeration, death by heat and cold was common because there was no air conditioning or central heating, and death by simple infections of cuts and blood blisters was common. Germ- and virus-based diseases killed millions more.
By the end of the 20th Century all this had changed drastically.
There are 270 million vehicles in the United States, driving on over 4 million miles of roads. There are over a billion motor vehicles in use in the world.
Long-distance travel in the United States and over the sea is now largely by airplane. Airlines carry 3.7 million passengers per year a total of 1.5 billion passenger-miles, with about 300 fatalities a year.
The total percentage of the global population living in extreme poverty fell below 30% by the year 2000, and is now under 10%, even as the world population went from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion people by the year 2000.
By the year 2000, 55% of the world’s population lived in a democracy, 25% lived under an authoritarian regime (mostly China), and the other 20% lived under an anocracy. No one lives under colonial rule by a foreign power any more.
By the year 2000, electricity had transformed human existence. Refrigeration, central heating, electric lighting, cheap or free telephone service worldwide, computers, the internet — the mind boggles just trying to catalog it all.
The combination of antibiotics and vaccines have greatly reduced death by illness and infection in the United States and the world. The leading causes of non-accidental death are now heart disease and cancer. Smallpox was completely eradicated worldwide, and the eradication of polio was very close, by the year 2000.
Why do I bring all this up? Because I hear some people say how terrible everything is, how bad everything is going. Some of these people say they want to go back to a simpler time, to a village-oriented rural past they have idealized.
Nonsense. I wouldn’t want to go back even a hundred years. The poorest people in the United States today live better lives than the Rockefellers or the crowned heads of Europe could manage in 1900.