Wednesday, April 17, 2013

History of the Contemporary Period, in 7 Paragraphs

Last month I published a short book called Bridge to the Future, which is available in electronic form on Amazonand Barnes and Noble. One of the book's chapters provides strategies for teaching and understanding the full expanse of world history. Since we are living it now, and since most global history teachers are in the midst of teaching it, I decided I would post my account of the "contemporary" period (the historical period beginning somewhere between 1900 and 1914, and lasting until the present).

I hope this excerpt proves interesting and useful to you. Please post a comment with your thoughts!

As the world moved into the 20th century, escalation of standing armies, advances in industrial weaponry and transportation, and competition for prestige and colonies poised Europe, Japan and the United States for total war. Imperialist arrangements and consequences of the Great War altered political, social and economic conditions in Europe and opened the door to revolutions in Mexico, China, and Russia. Following a brief period of high growth during the 1920s the world economy collapsed in a depression. This period of economic shock facilitated the rise of dictatorship in Spain, Italy and Germany, and Japanese aggression in the Pacific heightened tension among the major power players. Genocidal campaigns by the Germans and Japanese resulted in mass civilian casualties. The Holocaust in Europe resulted in murders of more than six million Jews and murders of six million members of other minority groups that the Nazis targeted. WWII lasted more than six years and resulted in an Allied victory, leaving the USA and the USSR as the sole superpowers vying for supremacy in a world clouded by fear of nuclear annihilation. 
In the late 1940s, the competition between capitalist and communist frameworks for industrial development and between democratic and dictatorial modes of political participation became the dominant narrative of both local and international politics. New international bodies such as the UN, World Bank and IMF became forums for political posturing and economic intervention. The Nuremburg trials, which put Nazi leaders on trial for war crimes, helped establish a new precedent for global government, and the military alliances of NATO and the Warsaw Pact drew a line between divergent political-economic models. While the so called “Western” world of industrialized countries split between communist and capitalist camps, over 55 countries declared neutrality in the Cold War, and a wave of newly independent nations, freed from colonial rule, had to position themselves relative to these two poles. 
The US and USSR intervened militarily and economically in affairs across the world, exercising a new kind of imperialism in this modern, post-WWII world. Across the world, various conditions conspired to spark major democratization movements. While Latin America and Southeast Asia experienced brutal dictatorships, in part due to superpower sponsorship during the 1950s-80s, by the 1990s most of these oppressive regimes were replaced by more democratic cultures and forms of government. The independence movements in Africa and Asia succeeded in pushing out their European colonizers. This often left a power vacuum as the European empires, weakened by war, withdrew their imperial reach, along with investment, skilled bureaucrats, and legal structures. Newly independent countries faced an uphill climb to develop their economies so they could compete globally, and pressure from outside interventions and domestic, impoverished masses frequently destabilized fragile governments. In the worst cases, brutal civil wars ravaged countries for decades and genocides occurred in Cambodia, Bangladesh and Rwanda (just to name those with the most devastating numbers of casualties). Such conflicts, at one time fueled by super power posturing and intervention, ended up taking on a different shape—some ending, others persisting—after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. 
New technologies, longer life expectancy, maturing democratic cultures and evolving economic systems all contributed to major changes in local and global culture, with changing gender roles representing one of the most important changes in culture during the 20th century. Improved educational and employment opportunities for women delegitimized patriarchal systems and empowered women to go further, resulting in women earning positions of power and influence in countries across the world. Nevertheless, vestigial biases against women and challenges women face with the responsibilities of motherhood contribute to certain imbalance of gender representation in higher levels of government and industry. 
As the world reintegrated economically starting in the 1960s, the “Asian Tigers” of Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong led an industrial boom in East Asia. A development model that involved incubating local industry and subsidizing hi-tech export markets allowed these countries to make phenomenal growth gains. By contrast, China lagged in growth under Mao, as the Communist regime, established in 1949, initiated a series of collectivization efforts ironically called “The Great Leap Forward.” After Mao’s death in 1976, the country began to open its economy to international trade and in the later decades of the 20th century, China followed elements of the Asia Tiger model, setting the stage to become the largest economy in the world early in the 21st century. The shifting power to the East, away from Europe, and to a lesser extent, away from the United States, has changed the political dynamics of a new multi-polar world of the 21st century. 
The power of oil draws particular attention to the Middle East, where the young nation-state of Israel, formed in 1948, would be the lightening rod for revolutionaries, nationalists, radicals and operatives around the world. Arab attacks on Israel in 1967 were rebutted and the subsequent Israeli occupation of surrounding territories resulted in Palestinian displacement and deep resentment. At the same time, terrorist attacks and anti-Semetic declarations by Arab and Iranian groups have fueled an ongoing sense of Israeli insecurity. The Iranian revolution of 1979 produced an Islamic state in the oil-rich region of Persia, and the rise of the demagogue of Saddam Hussein led to three major wars in the region, two of which involved significant US investment. 
In 2012, the world population passed seven billion. The UN projects that the population will continue to grow until sometime mid-century, when it plateaus somewhere above nine billion. While close to three billion people at the time of writing this live on less than two dollars per day, the fastest growing group of people will live a middle class life in their home country. To sustain levels of consumption these classes aspire to enjoy we would need the resources equivalent to four planet earths.[1] The emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and massive deforestation have driven the levels of carbon in the atmosphere well beyond the “safe” limit of 350 parts per million. As a result, rising sea levels and extreme weather events, including storms, floods and droughts, threaten social-political stability, agriculture, and biodiversity. We are living through a mass extinction event, the poisoning of oceans, land and air, and a scarcity of basic resources needed for human survival and happiness. To meet the need for ecological conservation and equitable human prosperity, calls for systemic reform emanate in books, films, political campaigns and public debates. Unfortunately widespread disagreement abounds about the nature of this reform. Of a range of possibilities, technological innovation, cultural transformation, and economic re-structuring represent the three main areas of debate over how the human race will achieve sustainability in the age newly minted by geologists as “The Anthropocene.”


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