The Terrible, Shameful 20th Century
Of course, amazing improvements can be pointed out as successes of the century. Examples of this are higher life expectancies and declining infant-mortality rates all over the world. Most inhabitants of industrialised countries, and a significant elite in developing nations, now benefit from a level of comfort, education and access to information unheard of a hundred years ago.
But most of the progress has exclusively benefited the richest one-fifth of the world’s people, who receive 80 percent of the world’s income, as compared to the 2 percent earned by the poorest fifth. On its own, the scale of the destruction of human life should be enough to shatter any lingering illusions about how inevitable progress really is. Hundreds of millions of people have starved to death because of permanent food distribution problems. In addition, about 100 million starved in the great famines of the century. War killed 150 million, government repression another 100 million. The total of 14 million who died in the century’s genocides were comparatively few but were the victims of the greatest acts of deliberate murder.
The century both began and has ended with ethnic genocide: the Turkish massacre of Armenians at the beginning and the Serb extermination of Bosnians and Albanians at the end. This again should be evidence of the human incapacity to outgrow prejudice and blood thirstiness. But the Nazi extermination programme stands unique in history for its particular horror – the industrialisation of mass murder and the routine annihilation of six million people by bureaucrats and soldiers simply "doing their job". We can only hope that the Nazi Holocaust will never be repeated in human history.
The other horror of the 20th century is the destruction of the global environment. Every one of our greatest scientific achievements has been marred by causing environmental devastation. Vast increases in food production have destroyed natural habitats and rendered huge tracts of land infertile through over-cultivation. The advantages of electricity or high-speed travel have produced the alarming phenomenon of global warming through emission of gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels.
Single-handedly, humans have both ravaged the earth as well as come close to exterminating ourselves through largely preventable diseases from lung cancer to AIDS, starvation to radiation poisoning. How then, as we look to a bleak future overcast by the shadow of global nuclear war, can we look back with pride at the 20th century?
Adapted from "Heaven, hell and spring sunshine" by Chis Brazier from New Internationalist January/February 1999