Ian Mortimer’s magnificent new book ‘Centuries of Change’ describes the myriad ways in which European societies have been transformed over the past thousand years. This series of blogs summarises Mortimer’s work and asks just how much progress have we made?
This third post brings us up to the present by looking at the breakneck speed of change during the twentieth century.
‘History teaches us how violent, sexist and cruel our societies have been – and could be again.’ Ian Mortimer
Technology, Literacy, and Social Change
The twentieth century saw continued developments in technology and further improvements in literacy and women’s rights. Reductions in poverty and destitution occurred as countries of the west developed national systems for healthcare, pensions and unemployment and disability benefits.
Following the development of penicillin in 1928, a range of diseases from meningitis to gonorrhoea became treatable. Penicillin became one of the most important life savers of the century.
Such advances meant that babies born in 2000 in the developed world could expect to live almost twice as long as babies born in 1900.
The major new transport technologies of the century were cars and air travel. Regular passenger flights between Europe and America began in 1939, with a travel time of around 24 hours. The introduction of the jet engine and, later in the century, the Boeing 747 transformed air travel by making long distance travel fast and affordable to many.
Increased global transport links forced farmers to compete internationally. For the first time in history, most developed nations gave up being self sufficient for their food and imported some of their requirements from cheaper overseas producers. By 2000, the West was completely dependent on its transport infrastructure for its food security.
This was the century of media – public cinemas, radio, television, and the internet all became a feature of everyday life. It was also the century of electrification – by 2000, virtually every aspect of the modern world, from electric lighting, computer devices, household appliances, office machinery, transport systems, communications and entertainment depended on electricity.
Decolonisation and Democracy
In 1800, half a dozen empires ruled most of the world.
The largest was the British Empire, which included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and around two fifths of Africa. The French Empire consisted of territories in North and West Africa, Vietnam and Cambodia, as well as colonies in India, China and the Pacific.
The Russian Empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea, while the Austro-Hungarian Empire encompassed large parts of central and eastern Europe. The Ottoman Empire included Turkey, the Holy Land, Macedonia, northern Greece and Albania. And finally, the German empire, although smaller in scale, included territories in Africa and the Pacific.
During the course of the twentieth century the principle of equality found expression in the fall of empires and the independence of nations; and in the end of monarchy and the spread of democracy.
The Russian empire fell in the revolution of 1917. The Austro Hungarian, German and Ottoman empires were all dismembered in the aftermath of World War One. The British and French empires underwent a process of decolonisation, hastened by the Second World War.
Decolonisation was accompanied by the end of monarchy and the spread of democracy. In 1900, France, Switzerland and the U.S. were the only large western countries that were not ruled over by a hereditary sovereign. By 2000, the few European monarchs left were subservient to democratically elected governments. By the beginning of the 21st century, democratic and near-democratic countries contained nearly half the world’s population.
The Great Convergence
During the twentieth century the scientific, medical, agricultural and industrial revolutions, experienced by the west over the course of centuries, spread across the world. Many non-Western countries experienced these revolutions simultaneously in the course of just a few decades, resulting in extremely rapid global change.
In 1900 only 13 percent of the world’s population lived in towns and only around 20 percent were literate. In 2000 half the world’s population lived in urban areas and over 70 percent were literate. World population increased from 1.6 billion to 6.1 billion in the course of the century.
The latter half of the century witnessed remarkable economic growth in some of the world’s largest developing nations, including China, India, Indonesia and Brazil. China in particular rose to become a major economic power.
By 2000, the world economic and political landscape was changing fundamentally as the larger developing countries caught up with the west.
War and Tyranny
Despite the progress of previous centuries, the twentieth century was a brutal reminder that mankind remained as cruel and inhumane as ever.
The major technological advances of the century – tanks, poison gas, fighter aircraft, bombers, submarines, atomic weapons – utterly changed the nature of warfare. Advances in aviation, missiles, and weapons of mass destruction made everyone a potential target – in the case of nuclear weapons even those citizens in countries not at war.
The century’s experiences of war and tyranny cast doubt on the very idea of progress. As Ian Mortimer writes, ‘the supposedly superior modern age prove[d] itself more destructive to human life than all the superstitious, hierarchy-riddled monstrous regimes of the past five hundred years.’ 
The traumas of World War One and World War Two led to attempts at establishing a system of international law, and international organisations charged with preventing future wars between nations, namely the League of Nations and the United Nations. The aftermath of World War 2 also saw the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, aimed at protecting citizens from the tyranny of governments.
As the twentieth century drew to a close, there was an increasing global awareness that a range of issues posed very real threats to humanity:
Environmental degradation – The massive increase in the world’s population was seen to be having a major impact on the planet, including the depletion of resources, such as soil degradation and water depletion; reduced habitats causing species extinctions; deforestation and desertification; and air and water pollution.
Political violence – The massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons continued to pose an enormous threat to human existence. As the century ended, the dangers of such weapons falling into the hands of terrorists increased as violence escalated across the Middle East and the number of failed states increased.
Poverty – Despite a decrease in the proportion of the world’s population living in absolute poverty, the total number of people living in destitution remained staggeringly high. Almost half the world’s population still lived on less than two dollars fifty cents a day.
Global warming – By the end of the twentieth century it was clear that human activity – in particular the burning of fossil fuels – was causing a gradual increase in the average temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere and its oceans. The consequences of further permanent changes in the Earth’s climate were predicted to be catastrophic.
This awareness of humanity’s vulnerability, and a growing acceptance of the unsustainability of existing political, economic and technological systems, was perhaps the greatest change of the century.
At the beginning of the twenty first century, however, the ability of national and global political institutions to deal with the challenges of the age was increasingly being questioned.
Centuries of Change: Which century saw the most change and why it mattes to us, Ian Mortimer, Bodley Head, 2014, page 288