Saturday, August 02, 2008

How We Got So Far, So Fast

My Dad was born on a small farm in southwestern Ontario. He was born in the farmhouse, on the kitchen table to be exact. No hospital, no birthing classes, none of that stuff we now take as absolutely essential.

My Dad grew up in a house where you pumped your water, by hand. Heat came from a wood stove, light from coal oil lamps. No electricity, no indoor plumbing. Certainly no telephone. When those things arrived, they were revolutionary. His life was a succession of revolutionary advances.

He remembered quite clearly his father's first car, a revolutionary advance over the horse drawn wagon. He remembered quite clearly seeing his first airplane and his first airplane ride at a county fair. He remembered the ice box giving way to the electric refrigerator. Revolutionary.

In the span of his lifetime almost everything changed as revolution begat revolution. The way we produced and distributed food changed. We became estranged from the farm and umbilically connected to the grocery store. The way we travelled and travel itself underwent revolutionary change. The way we communicated was a succession of quantum advances. Relationships among individuals, with communities, societies and governments were radically transformed.

My Dad was born into a world with few creature comforts. In several respects the world at his birth more closely resembled the world of previous centuries than the world of today, just decades later. His was a primarily agrarian society. Industrialization had taken hold but the fruits of it had barely reached the stage of mass consumption. He was born long before the world population first reached 2-billion.

The great majority of all the scientific developments in the history of mankind occurred during my Dad's lifetime. Medical breakthroughs led to the most massive expansion of longevity in man's history. Mechanization was brought down to the level of the individual to the point of a near total dependency on everything from computers to cellular phones, lawnmowers to power tools to kitchen appliances.

Now these advances seem to be running out of steam or maybe it's just that their inevitable side-effects and repercussions are beginning to catch up. Now we stand poised to reap the whirlwind of our revolutionary advances and excesses - overpopulation, pollution, desertification, species extinction, resource exhaustion and the depletion of renewables, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and, of course, global warming.

In my Dad's lifetime we developed the means to create truly existential threats. Nuclear Armageddon, cataclysmic global warming. We have perched ourselves at the edge of this precipice and we did it without thinking, almost inadvertently. We have abruptly come to realize that the mantra of growth that we embraced for so long may have failed us. The challenge for the coming decades may be to make sense of all these revolutionary changes and retake the control over our lives that we surrendered to them.


Raphael Alexander said...

My grandfather died recently [January], at a similar age as your father. He was actually 92. Like your father, he served in the military, but did not see action because of an accident in training.

I also thought about the many things he saw during his lifetime. He grew up in Toronto before cars dominated the landscape. When the tallest building was the Royal York Hotel. When farmland surrounded the city proper. His first driver's license was given by an auto mechanic after he had been driving for years and consisted of a road test of four right turns.

He was born during the Great war. He lived through the depression. He saw the rise and fall of Hitler. The invention of rock and roll. The peace and love sixties. The "me generation" 80's. The computer boom 90's. The western invasions of the Middle East.

What a long and full life he had, and what marvels he must have seen. To have watched Gordie Howe visit Toronto live. Bobby Orr. Howie Morenz.

To see the rise of the CCF and NDP, the change of the political landscape. The comings and goings of PM's and MP's.

On his deathbed he said the one thing he worried about for the future was money. People place far too much value in money, he said, and not nearly enough in people.

The Mound of Sound said...

I have your point, Raphe. We've come so far and now we have to tackle separating the wheat from the chaff, keeping the essential good and ridding ourselves of the detrimental and superfluous. I think our days as an acquisition-based society may be drawing to a close. The good part is that the shedding of this excess baggage can actually be productive, even enjoyable.

Toban said...

The roots of the modern West (e.g. Western cities, e.g. Western war) go much further back, of course. The influence of the Renaissance is indisputable; yet, in some ways, contemporary Western (in the Anglo and European countries in particular) is an outgrowth of ancient Rome -- if not ancient Athens.

The Mound of Sound said...

Clearly our Western traditions trace back to ancient Rome and Greece through Magna Carta to what passes for modern democracy but, during most of that era, we were relatively static economically and technologically. The influences and pressures of technology have been largely of the 20th Century, having grown out of the industrial revolution and the development of coal-fired steam engines.

Mike said...

Very nice piece MoS. I was back home, in Petrolia and Wyoming Ontario all last week. You description of your father's life applies to many of my now passed relatives as well.

We should reflect on the changes in our lifetimes alone and then multiply by 100.

BTW, if you don't mind my asking, as one SW Ontarian to another, where abouts was your Dad born.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi Mike. Petrolia indeed! My Dad and Mom were from Leamington, Heinz ketchup country. Most of my extended family was from that town but we also had a few in Sarnia so I'm familiar with Petrolia.

What troubles me is how, in the span of a couple of generations, we've surrendered so much control over our lives to technology. We get so much out of modern technology and we flock to embrace the latest and greatest yet fail to see that a lot of it comes with a hefty price that's often deferred.

Mike said...

Technology must be the servant not the master. I think that is the real problem.