Episode 33: The Transformative 20th and 21st Century
The Big History of Civilizations (2016)
Dr Craig G Benjamin
The main theme of this lecture is the unprecedented technology progress mankind has made in the 20th and early 21st century manifesting, allowing it not only to dominate the planet but to threaten most other species to extinction. Benjamin cites
- an explosion in global population (adding 5 billion people in the 20th century) and a doubling in life expectancy from 31 to 66
- massive innovation in communication, information sharing and collective learning.
- massive increase in the destructive potential of global militaries owing to the development of nuclear weapons and willingness to bomb civilians. Important byproducts of military spending included penicillin, radar, synthetic rubber and jet engines.
- development in the ability to move people and goods long distances cheaply and efficiently
- greater control of energy use (via development of nuclear, solar and wind), coupled with risk we may destroy civilization unless we reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
His introduction to the topic is reasonable, beginning with a description of the brutal suppression of colonial independence movements in the early 20th century by European powers.
Otherwise he makes a number of assumptions I disagree with. In contrasting strong US and weak Soviet economic growth, he credits the US use of “entrepreneurial markets” to promote innovation. He totally omits the obvious role of the US imperialism in hijacking Third World resources and labor. With the Soviet Union, wealth flowed in the opposition direction, with Moscow using its wealth to shore up poorer allies, such as Cuba, Egypt and Nigeria. He also neglects the federal government’s massive subsidization of US innovation. Since the end of World War II, most innovations in medicine and information technology are developed by the US government and turned over to private corporations to mass produce.
Other points I disagree with:
- His statement that vaccines and antibiotics are the main basis for increased global life expectancy. Epidemiological research shows a much larger role for improved nutrition and improved sanitation than medical interventions.
- His claim 20th century technological achievements allow modern humans to live better than ancient aristocrats. This would only apply to the middle class lifestyles of industrialized countries. His remarks clearly don’t apply to inner city residents, America’s growing homeless population or the majority of the Third World.
- His claim industrial agriculture has allowed the global food supply to outstrip population growth for the first time. Unfortunately he neglects to mention that this has come at the expense of destroying most of the world’s topsoil and contaminating most of its fresh water.
- His claim GMOs increase crop yields, though most farmers report the exact opposite. .
- His claim gender divisions between men and women have “broken down,” even though women still earn much less than men and continue to suffer high rates of sexual and domestic violence that is rarely prosecuted.
- His claim that “corrupt rulers and massive debt” sabotaged new 20th century capitalist economies in the Muslim world, Africa and South America. He neglects to mention these rulers were usually puppets installed by the US.
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