Here’s a question for the holidays, a time for reflection, to which no correct answer exists.
What are the top 10 trends that have shaped the world in the past half a century and which person, associated with one of those trends, has changed the world the most in that time, for better or worse?
Here’s one person’s list (not necessarily in order of importance): 1. collapse of the Soviet Union; 2. rise of China; 3. Islamic jihadi fundamentalism; 4. civil rights; 5. environmental concerns; 6. end of colonialism; 7. fight for women’s equality; 8. widening democracy; 9. high-tech revolution; 10. prolonged peace among the Great Powers.
Fifty years ago, none of these trends seemed likely, with the exception of the anti-colonial movement that began with the end of British rule in India and rippled across Asia and Africa.
In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book that might be said to be the precursor for the environmental movement. While she was opening eyes about environmental degradation, U.S. civil-rights leaders, inspired by Gandhi, were building their campaign against segregation in the United States. It resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Almost 50 years later, a black man is president.
Martin Luther King Jr. should be on any list of people who changed the world, because the movement he led inspired peaceful liberation movements elsewhere.
Nelson Mandela, another on anyone’s list, is a follower of Dr. King in the non-violent tradition, although he spent much more time in prison than did Dr. King. His greatness lay in courage in adversity and dignity in victory and, of course, the end of apartheid.
Is there one person to whom the greatest credit should go for women’s equality? There were feminist writers and many others who demanded full equality in all walks of life and, perhaps most important, for women’s control of their own reproductive functions. It’s hard to select just one.
Nor is there any single person responsible for 50 years without war between and among the most powerful countries. Yes, there were proxy wars during the Cold War. There were crises (the Cuban missile crisis) and bristling rhetoric. And there were wars in which large countries invaded smaller ones to stop indigenous developments, in such places as Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Egypt (by Britain and France).
But no wars directly entangled the Soviet Union and its allies, or the U.S. and its Western European allies. The past half a century has produced the longest period of peace (cold or warm) among the strongest powers since the period between the defeat of Napoleon and the Franco-Prussian War. Some scholars now call this the “Long Peace.” In addition, democracy has flourished in places once considered barren: South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, in many Latin American countries and throughout Eastern Europe.
Obviously, peace has been deliberately disrupted by followers of Islamic jihadi religious beliefs, the most prominent having been Osama bin Laden. Many Islamic “thinkers” spread the intellectual table for the religious and historical interpretations that gave rise to Osama bin Laden’s and al-Qaeda’s world view.
Al-Qaeda’s attacks on U.S. soil and property have changed security, threatened stability in some countries, and led to a struggle against terror that has run from Indonesia and the Philippines to Africa to Western Europe and, of course, to North America.
You could make a case for Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, whose companies revolutionized communications. More than any other factor, their kinds of technological discoveries created the “global village” that Marshall McLuhan once prophesied. Or you could nominate Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and the other Eastern European dissidents who challenged the foundations of communism, after which Mikhail Gorbachev unleashed forces that brought down the Soviet empire.
But one man changed China, and so changed the world in profound ways, by restoring China to the centre of the world from which it had been absent for most of the past two centuries. Deng Xiaoping, nodding to Mao Zedong while ending Mao’s mad policies, encouraged the momentum that created today’s China. What change has been more consequential for us all than the rise of modern China, and in less than 30 years?