For years, as we moved relatively steadily through “the American Century,” I thought of history as something we studied in school. Now I am older, with a longer perspective, and the American Century is itself history. There are individual events I lived through that will merit mention in future history books: the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of the Kennedys and King. But there are bigger trends that have only become obvious in the last 20 years that will be studied centuries from now, assuming men are still here to study them.
The biggest of these is climate change. By now it is irreversible and will affect every aspect of life as we know it. The causes will be obvious, but the question of why we didn’t stop it will be as fertile ground for debate and study as the causes of the Civil War or World War I.
The rise and fall of democracy as the dominant form of government is lurking on the horizon. Twenty years ago it seemed self-evident that all peoples would want to govern themselves along the one-man-one-vote lines established, not without difficulty, in the U.S.; and U.S. foreign policy was aimed at installing this system, by force if necessary, everywhere in the world. Now we see democracy failing to take root throughout the Middle East, being done away with in Eastern Europe, and simply not working in Latin America. The American model is not much of a model anymore. Where there are problems – and problems seem to be multiplying – countries are increasingly turning to one-man rule.
Which brings us to geopolitics and the rise of China as the world’s most powerful nation, replacing the U.S. It hasn’t happened yet, but the trend lines are clear. China is consolidating its dominion over Asia and making inroads in Africa. Where the U.S. is paralyzed by its internal power struggles, the Chinese government can act without consensus or consultation. We should have known from our study of history that no empire – Roman or British, Han or Ming – lasts forever; but somehow, as we surveyed the world stage from America in the second half of the 20th Century, it was hard to see how our dominance would end, let alone how soon it could.
The last of the historical trends I see for future study is less a trend than a problem, summarized but not fully explained by the word “immigration.” People have moved around the world forever, but in the past there was always room to absorb them (not that indigent populations didn’t often suffer in the process). Now, because of climate change, overpopulation and wars, there is no spare room to accommodate the large migrations that have begun and will only continue. How the world handles its dispossessed populations is a lurking time bomb of historical proportions.
There may be one more social revolution I am missing, because it seems still further in the future but in fact may be right on the horizon. I’ll call it “artificial intelligence,” although I don’t understand what exactly that term means. If we no longer need people to do what humans have been doing forever, how will people be occupied, compensated and gratified? Will income inequality be magnified? Will social unrest and revolution follow?
In short, I feel, and fear, that we are on the cusp of a moment in history.