I wrote this in 2008, but I think most of it still applies today.
In a few months, I will attend my 54th high school reunion. I graduated from high school in 1954, barely past the midpoint of the 20th Century. The Second World War had concluded only 9 years earlier. It was so long ago that my brain hurts just thinking about it. But every time one of these reunions approaches, I find my mind doing “flashbacks,” recalling what life was like in that far distant past.
Life was decidedly different back then. Nobody was worried about running out of oil. Air and water pollution were not even discussed, nor was global warming. A gallon of gasoline cost 25 cents. Sometimes they had “price wars” and it dropped to 18 cents. World population was around 2.5 billion. If you went for a drive on a rural road, you might go for several miles without seeing another car. Nobody had even heard of a computer. TV’s were black-and-white…and rare. Most people listened to the radio for entertainment. We washed our clothes in a wringer-washer and hung them on a clothesline outside to dry. I was the automatic dishwasher…or dryer.
Today, world population approaches 7 billion, and most of them want at least one car, a wide-screen TV, a computer, a refrigerator, washer, dryer and a lot more stuff. A different world, indeed, from the one of my childhood.
When I think back over the intervening years, I am constantly reminded of how lucky I am to have been born in the United States of America in 1936. I believe that people of my generation are among the most fortunate humans who have ever lived. Our capitalistic system enabled us to build the richest and most powerful nation the world has ever seen. We were the beneficiaries of the industrial revolution that began late in the 19th century, and the technological explosion that followed in the second half of the 20th. Never before in human history have so many people had such wealth, enabling them to buy cars, houses, and all manner of electric appliances and gadgets to make life easier. Food was plentiful and cheap. The automobile and the airplane gave us mobility that would have been mind-boggling to people even a hundred years ago, when many rural folks never ventured more than a few miles from their birthplace in their entire lives.
The result of all this wealth and mobility has undoubtedly been a richer life. We take all of this for granted…the ability to jump in a plane and the next day, be skiing in the Alps or on safari in Africa. Six months ago, I was sitting in the incredible Sydney Opera House in Australia, watching a performance of Puccini’s opera, “La Boheme.” The year before, I stood on the summit of Table Mountain and gazed down on the city of Cape Town, South Africa. A few years ago, I walked among the penguins in Antarctica. When I was growing up, I never imagined that I would be able to do such things.
This all came at a price, of course…depletion of our fossil fuel deposits, pollution of the ecosphere, impending climate change, etc. For our generation, there is virtually no cost for any of this. Future generations, including our own children and theirs, will pay for our excesses. We have an embarrassment of riches, and we should be embarrassed at how we are squandering them. It won’t last much longer, and that may be a good thing. Changes are coming, and they won’t necessarily be all bad. We are going to have to learn to “live within our means” as a species, just as we do with our personal lives.
It is possible that I will live long enough to see how we, the people of the earth, deal with the coming changes. It may not be pretty, but I would like to see it anyway. The trajectory of my life, after all, parallels much of the grand trajectory of minimally restrained capitalism. It lifted us to unimaginable heights but, like fruit flies in a bell jar, its very success has produced the seeds of its own inevitable demise. Let us hope that, out of its death throes, emerges a system that allocates the resources of our planet in a fairer, more equitable, more sustainable fashion.
Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in software design. He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects. His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two. Many of his writings are posted on his web site, bigelowbert.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.