TOMORROW, I will mark a small personal milestone by turning 50. I generally do not make much of birthdays – every one past the 30th is just a grim reminder of the unstoppable march of time, anyway – and this one is not much of an exception: I will be at work as usual, and my birthday meal will be the same thing I eat every other day, take-out fastfood from one of our neighborhood’s fine purveyors of shredded meat by-products.
But even while I may not be terribly impressed with myself for living to an age that at several points in my life seemed unreasonably optimistic, the changes the world has undergone since I shuffled onto this mortal coil are fascinating.
I was born at about 3 a.m. on Wednesday, March 8, 1967, in a hospital in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Lyndon Johnson was president of the US. There was no European Union, and in fact, the precursor to the EU, the European Economic Community, wouldn’t be contrived for another six years. Germany had two parts – West and East – with Berlin a Western island deep in Communist East Germany. The Balkan nations that have existed for all or most of the lives of the generation now coming of age – Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia – were lumped together into a single state, Yugoslavia. Cyprus was still a unified country, and Lebanon was a nice place to visit. The Shah ruled Iran; Iraq was under military rule.
Here in Asia, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, who is the world’s third-longest reigning monarch and the oldest one who has an actual job (Queen Elizabeth II and Sultan Abdul Halim of Kedah are largely figureheads), would not come to power for another seven months. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which at this point is the world’s most enduring multinational cooperative, wouldn’t be founded for another five months. The Vietnam War was approaching its peak, with troops from the US – as well as those from allies like Australia and South Korea – pouring into the country in increasing numbers.
The Philippine peso traded at P3.90 to $1 on March 8, 1967. Not much long-lasting significance was happening here in the Philippines that day. Operations by the US Navy and Air Force at Subic Bay and Clark Airbase were busily supporting the war effort about 600 miles farther west in Vietnam, and the day was a special school holiday for the University of Santo Tomas, by virtue of a proclamation signed by President Ferdinand E. Marcos the day before.
When I was born, there were approximately 3.46 billion people on Earth. Today, there are about 7.52 billion. Our planet is becoming crowded, and as a result, within the next 50 years, tens of millions of people are likely to die of famine and tens of millions more forced to relocate due to rising sea levels, both the result of a growing human population using too many of the world’s resources too quickly.
Yet despite this, the world and its people are living better than they did 50 years ago. Diseases like smallpox and polio that were once common plagues have been virtually wiped out. The number of people living in profound poverty has been dramatically reduced, and our technology, which puts near real-time global communications in the hands of people in even the lowest economic strata has made people better informed, smarter, and not just able to tap greater opportunities, but inspired to do so. Multilateral trade, which hardly existed even as a concept 50 years ago, spreads not just products and services but ideas and cultures around the world.
As a result of all this, the world has experienced a remarkable half-century of peace. Since the Vietnam War, both military and civilian deaths in conflict have declined dramatically, despite seemingly large-scale horrors that have occurred in that time like the Cambodian genocide, the Bangladesh war, the Rwandan massacres, and the current civil war in Syria.
Although the specter of global war is occasionally raised, no one really takes the possibility seriously any more.
The reason is that the last half a century has been a period of a most remarkable sort of human evolution – we have, in my lifetime, moved from ruling the societies we create through ideology to ruling them through commerce. The entire world is so deeply connected through exchange – trade in goods, services, and ideas – that, with very few exceptions, any group of people of any significant size simply cannot completely extricate itself from the rest of the world in order to be an antagonist. Even North Korea, long considered a troublesome hermit kingdom, relies on what few ties it has with the outside world for its continued existence.
The world today is a fantasy no one but the most imaginative futurists and science fiction writers could have envisioned 50 years ago – or even thirty-odd years ago at my first job at a newspaper, where we used a strange alien device known as a “typewriter” to do most of the work, and at least some of the preparation for printing the paper still made use of an even more archaic contraption called a linotype. What the next 50 years will bring we can only imagine; but having watched the world grow healthier, wealthier and wiser in the last half a century, I’m optimistic humanity will still be here.