Lessons From a Painful Past

The 20th Century brought an immense wealth of marvelous advances into the world – scientific, intellectual, cultural. Yet it was a century of appalling violence, the most destructive in all of human history. An estimated 167 million to 188 million people died at human hands.

The century that produced communism, facism, and nationalism also saw the invention of highly efficient weaponry, and a willingness to direct it against civilian populations on a massive scale.

Perhaps it would be wise for us to look at our current problems in historical context. Will we, as Americans still enjoying the relative isolation afforded by two great oceans, recognize how easy it is for terrible things to happen?

A balanced perspective would lend wisdom to our endeavors and offer important lessons. At the present historic turning point humankind can least afford to repeat the horrifying errors of the past. And how easy it would be to do.

In his 2006 book, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, the historian Niall Ferguson, who I have introduced to you previously, wrote that “the hundred years after 1900 were without question the bloodiest century in modern history, far more violent in relative as well as absolute terms than any previous era. . . . There was not a single year before, between or after the world wars that did not see large-scale violence in one part of the world or another.

I believe Niall Ferguson’s analysis is of value to us because he departs from the typical explanations blaming weaponry and fascist governments, as significant as these were, and instead identifies ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and declining empires as the true causes.

In short, he reminds us of our human vulnerability to emotional insecurity, fear, and tribalism.

The “confluence of crises” I am writing about involves elements of all these things, but also a range of newly emerging concerns that have become apparent more recently, and are related more or less to the material limits of population growth, environmental and resource sustainability, and the capability of technology to maintain critical systems or mitigate major problems.

In every case, regardless of the particular nature of oncoming crises, the challenges we face as individuals and families come into focus as we respond to immediate threats. And, as Dr. Ferguson points out, it is the overreaction of people under pressure that leads to the most terrible violence.

It is my view, as most readers know, that our local communities are the only place where we have the capability and reasonable hope of controlling our lives going forward.

The difference between a violent past and a civilized future will depend entirely on the manner in which we relate to one another, approach problems, and organize our local affairs. In a word, the distinction between past and future will be our attitude.

Community-building is the context in which we can best respond, creatively and constructively, to the degradation taking place around us. It can provide us with the means to build trust with friends and neighbors and to take responsibility for meeting local needs and addressing local problems.

Here it is that we can undertake to work together for the greater good as loyal compatriots. Here it is that the real needs of real lives can be identified and addressed.

And, it is in the process of problem-solving and working shoulder-to-shoulder that we can begin to know, understand, and influence one another.

We must be realistic. Great numbers of people remain under the influence of ingrained prejudices of ethnicity, gender, religion and class. This will only change as we rise above our differences to address the felt-needs we face together in a difficult world.

Patience and determination make many things possible, but necessity brings everything sharply into focus. Interpersonal alienation wanes as we identify common concerns and develop a deepening sense of unity around common purpose.


Next week: Seeing the end in the beginning

A note to readers: You may find related chapter drafts posted on this site of some interest. See especially Chapter Six: The Ground of Freedom, and Chapter Nine: The Individual in Society.