Taking Stock of Our Progress

The World at the Turn of the Century – 1880 > 1910


            At the dawn of the 20th century, the West was truly the dominant region of the world.  The ages of the Muslims, the Indians and the Chinese had passed with each of these once great civilizations forced to bow to the economic whims of European capitalists.  All signs pointed to Europe as the preeminent society, able to bend the planet to its will.

            Much of this dominance could be attributed to its military firepower.  Starting with Napoleon a century earlier, the national budgets of Europe went almost exclusively to the research, the development and the mass production of firearms and the maintenance of massive conscripted armies.  Nations spent between 40 and 80% of their entire budgets just on their militaries (compare that to the 5% spent by the US today).  Because of this colossal build-up of arms, there wasn’t a nation on Earth in 1900 that could come close to rivaling Western force.

            But it wasn’t just its military that dwarfed the rest of the world’s nations.  Its industrialized economies spewed out goods at an unprecedented pace.  Its banks financed 9/10ths of the global trade.  Its steam ships and trains crisscrossed oceans and continents, and its telegraph lines put the world within a few seconds of instant communication. 

            By any metric, the West was the most technologically advanced society in the history of mankind, but with all of its industrial successes, it still faced monumental challenges from within.  Industrialization, global trade networks, bloated bureaucracies and the rising tide of urban population brought to the West all the material successes their nations could imagine, but with them came a laundry list of ailments that would need to be remedied or else risk perennial discord, if not outright revolution. 

            One by one, the nations of the West adjusted their societies to assuage the fear, pain and frustration that accompanied this newfound prosperity.  And the rest of the world took notice of these reforms.  This time around, the rest of the world wouldn’t ignore the transformations of the West.  Their ignorance and overconfidence doomed them a century earlier.  They couldn’t make the same mistake twice.

            In the West, the most alarming threat stemmed from the rapid, intense growth of cities.  From 1850 to 1914, Europe’s population shot up from 265 million to 468 million, and in America, total population numbers more than quadrupled.  And almost all of these people were...