In Search of the Good Life

“As the twentieth century progressed, daily life for many people . . . was changed by scientific and technological development.”—The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century.

ONE of the great changes in this era has had to do with population. No other century has had such a sharp rise in world population. It reached about one billion in the early 1800’s and about 1.6 billion by 1900. In the year 1999, world population reached six billion! And more of this growing population has wanted the so-called good things in life.

Progress in medicine and a greater availability of health care contributed to this population increase. Average life expectancy increased in such places as Australia, Germany, Japan, and the United States—from under 50 years at the beginning of the century to well over 70 years now. However, this positive trend is less apparent elsewhere. People living in at least 25 countries still have life expectancies of 50 years or less.

‘What Did You Do Before . . . ?’

Youngsters are sometimes at a loss to understand how their forefathers got along without airplanes, computers, televisions—things now generally taken for granted and even viewed as necessities by people in wealthier lands. Consider, for example, how the automobile has changed our lives. It was invented at the end of the 19th century, but Time recently noted: “The automobile is one of the inventions that defined the 20th century from start to finish.”

In 1975 it was estimated that every tenth person in the European work force would be jobless if motor vehicles suddenly vanished. Besides the obvious effect on the automotive industry itself, banks, shopping malls, drive-in restaurants, and other establishments dependent upon mobile customers would close their doors. Without a way for farmers to get their goods to market, food distribution systems would grind to a halt. City workers living in the suburbs would be cut off from their jobs. Superhighways that crisscross the landscape would fall into disuse.

To boost automobile production and to cut costs, assembly lines, now common in most industries, were introduced early in this century. (Assembly lines made possible the mass production of other products, such as kitchen appliances.) At the turn of the century, the horseless carriage was a toy of the wealthy in just a few lands, but it is now the means of transport for the common man in much of the world. As one author expressed it, “life in the late 20th century is almost inconceivable without motor vehicles.”

In Pursuit of Pleasure

Traveling used to mean going where you had to go. But during the 20th century, things changed—especially in developed lands. As well-paying jobs became more available and as the workweek shrank to 40 hours or less, people had the money and the time to travel. Traveling now meant going where you wanted to go. Cars, buses, and airplanes made it easier to pursue recreation in far-off places. Mass tourism became a major business.

According to The Times Atlas of the 20th Century, tourism “had a dramatic impact, both on those countries receiving tourists and on their home countries.” Some of the impact has been negative. Tourists have too often contributed to ruining the very attractions they were drawn to see.

Now people also had more time to pursue sports. Many became participants; others settled for becoming ardent, and sometimes rowdy, fans of their favorite teams and athletes. With the coming of television, sports events became available to almost everyone. Domestic as well as international sports events drew hundreds of millions of enthusiastic television viewers.

“Sport and film established the contours of the mass leisure industry, which is now one of the world’s largest employers and biggest earners,” says The Times Atlas of the 20th Century. People annually spend billions of dollars on entertainment, including gambling, a favorite form of recreation for many. For example, a study in 1991 listed gambling as the European Community’s 12th-largest industry, with an annual turnover of at least $57 billion.

As such recreation became commonplace, people started reaching out for new thrills. Their experimentation with drugs, for example, was so widespread that as of the mid-1990’s, the illegal drug trade was worth an estimated $500 billion a year, making it, as one source says, “the single most lucrative business sector in the world.”

“Amusing Ourselves to Death”

Technology helped turn the world into a global village. Political, economic, and cultural changes now influence people worldwide almost instantly. “Clearly, there have been other lifetimes in which epochal upheavals occurred,” said Professor Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, back in 1970. He added: “But these shocks and upheavals were contained within the borders of one or a group of adjacent societies. It took generations, even centuries, for their impact to spread beyond these borders. . . . Today the network of social ties is so tightly woven that the consequences of contemporary events radiate instantaneously around the world.” Satellite television and the Internet have also played a part in influencing people the world over.

Some say that television has been the most influential medium of the 20th century. A writer commented: “While some people critique its content, no one debates television’s power.” But television is no better than the individuals who produce the programs. So along with its power to influence for good, it has power to influence for bad. While programs of shallow content, filled with violence and immorality, have given some people what they want to see, such programs failed to improve human relationships and too often worsened them.

Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, mentions another danger, saying: “The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining . . . No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.”

As people gave greater priority to pleasure, spiritual values and morals plummeted. “In much of the world organized religion has lost power during the 20th century,” says The Times Atlas of the 20th Century. While spirituality declined, pleasure-seeking became a priority far out of proportion to its real value.

“All That Glitters . . .”

Many positive changes characterize the 20th century, but, as the saying goes, “All that glitters is not gold.” Although individuals have benefited from a prolonged life span, the increase in world population has produced huge new problems. National Geographic magazine recently noted: “Population growth may be the most pressing issue we face as we enter the new millennium.”

Automobiles are useful and enjoyable but also deadly, as proved by the estimated quarter of a million annual deaths from traffic accidents worldwide. And cars are a major producer of pollution. The authors of 5000 Days to Save the Planet say that pollution “is now global, destroying or undermining the viability of ecosystems from pole to pole.” They explain: “We have gone beyond simply damaging ecosystems and are now disrupting the very processes that keep the Earth a fit place for higher forms of life.”

During the 20th century, pollution has become a problem former centuries scarcely knew. “Until recently no one thought that human actions could affect the world on a global scale,” says National Geographic. “Now some scientists believe that for the first time in recorded history such changes are occurring.” It then warns: “Humankind’s collective impact is such that mass extinctions could occur within one human generation.”

Truly, the 20th century has been unique. People, blessed with unprecedented opportunities to enjoy the good life, now find life itself in jeopardy!

The featured image credits to the promiselife

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