Many historians date centuries based on relevant events, not the turn of a calendar page. (From the collection of the State Library of Victoria, Australia. Click here to see it as more than a thumbnail.)
The 20th century, in other words, did not start on January 1, 1901. It started with the Guns of August. World War I ushered in the Great Power era, the wars of ideology, the mass murders, and the auto civilization for which the 20th century will always be known.
We are still living in that century. We still depend on cars, and oil. We still obsess over ideology. We still die over resources, and in vast numbers. We are still divided.
But this old order is dieing. If the War in Iraq should prove useful in any way, it is to kill these presumptions about ideology and resources. Capturing Iraq's oil did not make its price manageable. The "good vs. evil" Cold War game the Bush Era created has been shown to be a sham.
The 20th century is not going out with a bang, but with a whimper. What began in shock and awe is going out in economic and environmental dysfunction.
Most of us have known for many years what the 21st century will be about:
- The Global Crisis of climate change.
- A single planet requiring a single set of standards.
- The Infosphere, science vs. reality.
If we don't deal with the climate crisis then man will just fade away. The world's human population will appear, in retrospect, as the boom-and-bust cycle of Internet stocks a few years ago. Most of the world's major cities will be underwater by 2100, and those who are left will have lives which are nasty, brutish and short.
Nationalism has also reached its limit. America cannot export its social problems to Mexico -- the price is becoming prohibitive. Nations can no longer be sovereign to commit genocide. Even behaviors by government must fit inside boundaries or entire continents are turned upside-down.
Moore's Law is heading into overdrive. It is making us one great hive mind, in which all learning starts from a very high base, and can proceed literally with light speed. Questions, not answers, are the bottleneck for invention. The results, and the need for result, puts increasing pressure on every human soul.
This is not what the 20th century was like. This is a completely new vocabulary.We have gotten, as a people, to the point we are at because we have refused to address these issues, instead acting in the same knee-jerk behavior we became accustomed to over generations.
But that won't do any more. We can't solve our problems by just crafting a 51% majority or 270 electoral votes. We can't solve our problems by ourselves. We can't kill our way out of our problems, and our ideology is useless against them.
Liberals, who are by political tradition (if not organizational inclination) more willing to embrace change than conservatives, have taken the first leap into this unknown. Conservatives (despite the fact that business has proven its flexibility to deal with problems like this) have held back. Were Republicans today given a choice, I have little doubt that they would gladly renominate George W. Bush, even over John McCain -- I saw a truck in my front yard just yesterday still sporting a W'04 oval.
But just because liberals are jumping into this unknown first
doesn't mean they know what they're in for. The challenges before us
are bigger than Barack Obama can ever hope to overcome. He, and we, can
only begin the process of starting to come to grips with them.
Right now we feel depression, and anger, and grief, and sadness,
over the passing of the century, and its way of dealing with the
problems of the world. What I would like you to feel, instead, is the right to take
a a different approach, a younger approach, a more hopeful approach.
Change is both frightening and exhilarating. But change is what we
must do. The future is unknown and unknowable, but there is no way to
go but forward.
The 21st century begins for real in January.