Friday, August 10, 2007

The Rest of the Century

In the August doldrums of a Congress-less Washington, pundits who must continue filling the airwaves and putting ink on paper (or pixels on screens) speculate that for "the rest of the century" we will be combating a jihad or losing trade share to China and India or watching glaciers melt -- or whatever. Since I am not likely to be around for the bulk of this century -- certainly not to see its outcome -- I wonder what would have been said in 1907 or 1807 or 1707 of centuries whose outcomes I know.

In 1907 my maternal grandfather, as a very low-grade middle-aged poet, had composed a poem to the match; he feared its disappearance with the spread of electric lighting.

Did he imagine Hiroshima or Auschwitz? I doubt it. His notebooks show he lamented the decline of the noble steeds of the countryside, where he had grown up, and harbored some well-founded pessimism about humanity. He might not have been surprised about 9/11.

Of course, for the 20th century he would have expected progress, a word of which he was none too fond. Most strikingly, his vision of the 20th century would have been very different from a view of the 19th in 1807.

For 1807 I imagine my paternal great-great-grandfather as a young man across the ocean in one of the territories threatened by a Corsican military genius.

"This will be the century of Napoleon and war," he might have ventured -- meaning perhaps merely an imperial Napoleonic France looming over Europe -- had a television reporter stopped him in the street.

Of course, there were no television reporters, or "twinkies" as we print folk call them. In any case, his forecast would have missed the entire Victorian century and the concert of Europe devised by Metternich just eight years later -- all by miles.

Then again, would he have thought in centuries at all?

Weren't the roads he traveled on horseback as dusty in summer and muddy in winter as they had been in 1707? Had anyone he knew traveled more than the 30 miles to the nearest port that was the villagers' limit in 1607? Weren't the meals his mother and sisters prepared just as limited by the local livestock and produce as they were in 1507?

When had life last memorably changed? I know for certain his family traveled from distant lands and in 1407 would not have had that meal I just speculated about where they likely had it in 1507.

What about earlier? Did they live in roughly the same country throughout the entire Middle Ages?

If so, perhaps, to them the years 1407 and 407, when Latin was still the lingua franca (even if it was in a form Cicero would hardly have recognized), bore the same relationship that 1807 bore to 1907 or 2007.

All I know is that by 2107 people better have solved the problems of 2007, or there won't be people. I just read in the Harper's Index that this year China is expected to overtake the United States in carbon emissions; it was only in 2004 when this was not expected to happen by 2024!

Time is accelerating as my time is slowing down to a crawl.

Let me venture without risk that by 2107
  • Osama bin Laden and his pals will not be known by schoolchildren, or their parents;
  • the European Union, not China and India, will be the economic powerhouse;
  • quantum physics and astronomy combined will provide for energy needs and conservation.
And whatever will not happen. I may be wrong. So sue me. In 2107.
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