Ya win some, ya lose some.
"What Will This World Be Like Fifty Years from Now?"
A Startling Prophecy Written in 1931
H. G. Wells
A Startling Prophecy Written in 1931
H. G. Wells
What, I have been asked, will our world be like in fifty years' time? The question is as attractive as it is absurd. Myriads of unpredictable things may occur to thrust events in this direction or that. It is a much more difficult question to answer now than it would have been fifty years ago, because it is plain we are living in less steadfast times. Fifty years ago the world was divided among firmly established and stable governments sustained by powerful traditions; the system of mechanical developments which formed the substance of Progress went on steadfastly; it was easy to foretell automobile, airplane, the abolition of distance, the concentration at the center of great cities, and the diffusion of suburbs. Radio was already working in the laboratories. Its appearance on the street was only a question of time. The recovery of the United States was plainly going on — the growth of a mighty Great Power on the new railway net between Atlantic and Pacific, and the industrialization of the North and East. The dividing up and struggle for Africa was obviously coming. The Franco-German revanche or a counterattack was as manifest a certainty. There was nothing to stop the merry game of armament, and so the War in the Air also was inevitable.
Prophecy was indeed an easy game in those days. A writer had to be blind to the obvious if he did not score a fairly high percentage of hits.
But things are not like that today. Instead of progress there is crisis everywhere. There is no government, not even the American, which has now the manifest fixity of the "Great Powers" of the 1880s. There is a growing skepticism whether any existing government is as necessary as it ought to be. All contemporary governments have been outgrown — physically and mentally — by the needs of mankind. The abolition of distance, foretold fifty years ago, is achieved. That has made all the governments in the world misfits. Seventy-odd sovereign governments, all acting independently and competitively, all jammed together by that abolition of distance, are trying to carry on the affairs of our race, which now, under the new conditions, would be far more conveniently and successfully dealt with as one world business. Human life has become a world-wide thing, but governments remain cramped and partial things.
More and more people are coming to realize this. Yet none of us know clearly how to change over to a more comprehensive and securer way of running the world.
While we puzzle over the riddle, armaments go on, and the old — and now utterly stupid — tradition of malevolence between sovereign governments and their "peoples" is maintained. International politics still consist largely of idiotic attempts on the part of these seventy-odd governments amid which our affairs are entangled to get the better of their rivals, to maintain a flaming prosperity within their borders while restricting and injuring the welfare of all other peoples.
The old game goes on because the world lacks the mental energy to call it off. So we are all drifting through needless and wastefull economic war toward actual military war. Some years ago I wrote that the salvaginging civilization was a race between education and catastrophe. Nowadays I am forced to add a qualification. Catastrophe indeed travels briskly; tariffs strangle trade; gold — the life blood of trade — is being hoarded against some fresh day of reckoning; armaments increase; the friction between states intensifies. The new air war is being prepared. The new gas war is being prepared. But education has not even started yet. There is no race. It looks like a walk-over for catastrophe.
In the schools of Britain, America, France, Germany, Italy, Japan today the school-teachers are still doing the fundamental work of mental armament. There are few exceptions. And the hundreds of millions of "modern democracy" show as much ability to protect their minds from subjugation and arrest the advancing disaster, which will enslave, torture, mutilate, and destroy the greater proportion of them, as a trainload of hogs bound for Chicago.
Most people realize that there has been a profound industrial depression, but few realize how near the economic life of civilization came to absolute smash in the secret eventful days that preceded President Hoover's announcement of a year's holiday for war-debt payments. And that announcement, hailed everywhere as an immense relief, made nothing more than a temporary alleviation, a breathing space, in the march of events. It touched nothing of the essential forces — the blind suspicions and rivalries between nations, the strangulation of enterprise by debts and the gold standard, and the failure to develop methods of mass consumption to balance mass production — that are carrying us all to disaster.
Gladly would the prophet prophesy pleasant things. But his duty is to tell what he sees. He sees a world still firmly controlled by soldiers, patriots, usurers, and financial adventurers; a world surrendered to suspicion and hatred, losing what is left of its private liberties very rapidly, blundering toward bitter class conflicts, and preparing for new wars.
The economic machine is stalling in every country in the world. The decline is going on under our eyes. Production is diminishing, trade is declining; presently we shall find even our present educational and hygiene services too costly for our existing methods of payment. Few people realize yet how flimsy are the liberties and securities, the plenty and the leisure, we still enjoy. But it is more probable than not that in fifty years' time men may be less secure, less well fed, and clothed and housed less comfortably than they are today, and that in that retrogressive age it may already have become as difficult and dangerous to travel from San Francisco to London or Paris as it was to go from London to Moscow in the thirteenth century.
The prophet must say what he sees. To me — to put it plainly — it is as if I was watching a dark curtain fall steadily, fold after fold, across the bright spectacle of hope with which the century dawned. I do not see any adequate effort to prevent its fall. Efforts are being made, but they are limited and insufficient. The way toward a great world state of power, freedom, and general happiness is still plainly open to mankind. We have been brought to the very borders of the Promised Land of Progress. And the amount of visible human determination to cross those borders and escape from the age-long sequences of quarreling, futility, insufficiency, wars, and wasted generations that fill the bloodstained pages of history, is — contemptible.
No one is justified in accepting defeat until defeat is altogether complete. The present lassitude, the present oafish drift of Homo sapiens toward fresh disasters, could be challenged and arrested by an adequate renascence of human courage and creativeness.
There is no inevitability in the approaching catastrophe. I confess I see no signs whatever of any such awakening as might save us, but who can tell what may be happening among the young, among the intelligent and willful, outside one's range? It would need nothing superhuman to avert the decline. We are not being beaten in an honorable struggle; we are loitering and rotting down to disaster. A few thousand resolute spirits, the tithe of a tithe of the misdirected heroism that went to waste in the Great War, a few hundred million dollars for a world campaign for the new order, might still turn the destinies of mankind right round toward a new life for our race.
Professor Einstein has said that it needs only two per cent of the populations of Europe and America to say plainly that they will resist any war that may be contrived for them, to put an end to the foolery of militarism forever. I agree. I would go further and say two per cent in the five leading countries in the world. And to that I would add something even more obvious. It needs only that the governments of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia should get together in order to set up an effective control of currency, credit, production, and distribution; that is to say, an effective "dictatorship of prosperity" for the whole world. The other sixty-odd states would have to join in or accommodate themselves to the overruling decisions of these major powers. It is as simple a business as that, which our presidents, potentates, statesmen, kings of finance, and so forth, do not even realize they could carry through. With human decay and disaster plain before them!
They just fumble along. The bands play and we "troop the colors." The party men twaddle about debts and security. They cant patriotism. They love their countries so that they would rather see them starve than let them cooperate with nasty foreigners. They do their best to reassure the world — and do, it seems, succeed in reassuring the world — that this skimped, anxious, dangerous life we lead is the best that can be done for us. These rulers and leaders and statesmen of ours get in front of the cameras at every possible opportunity to put their fatuous selves on record, while Death, the Ultimate Creditor, and Collapse, the Final Stabilizer, add up their inexorable accounts.
But given that wave of sanity, that sudden miraculous resolve to stop this foolery, and what sort of world might we not have before another half century has passed?
Everyone alive might be by then a citizen of the whole world. All of us would then be free to go where we would about this fascinating and sometimes so lovely planet, which would have become our own. For most of our lives we should be released from toil. All the necessities of the human population — food, abundant transport, clean, fresh, and beautiful housing and furniture, adequate health services, education, social security — could be supplied now under modern conditions by something between twelve and twenty years of not too arduous work on the part of everyone. The town, the countryside would be undergoing constant revision and improvement: the world city would be constantly more gracious and pleasant; the world garden constantly more beautiful. The layout of industry could be as exciting as a game.
These are not the assertions of an "imaginative writer"; they are possibilities proved up to the hilt by economists and by the scientific examination of these matters. Some fifteen or twenty years of growth, education, and preparation there would have to be for everyone, and the rest of life would be free for creative work, for graceful living, for movement and experience. There is no need now why the vast majority of us should still be prisoners, kept in this or that narrow country by restrictions upon migration and unable to move because of our poverty and in subjection to this or that form of drudgery that could have been rationalized out of existence years ago. There is no need why any human being now should be underclad or ill-clad, badly housed or sickly. The whole world could be run as one concern and yield a universal well-being.
And it is no good mincing matters when it comes to saying why we have not this universal well-being at the present time. Most of our rulers and directors are, to put it plainly, narrow-minded, self-centered, mentally indolent, pompous, and pretentious creatures of the past; and we others are fools enough to tolerate their mismanagement. These ruling and controlling people have got enough for themselves, they stick to the controls like barnacles, they live in relative comfort and immense dignity, chiefly engaged in the defense of their own conceit, and the mass of us lacks the spirit, will, and understanding to call them to account.
A thousand million human beings are leading lives of want, limitation, humiliation, and toil; scores of millions are in immediate danger of the futile tortures of war, and these dull, self-protective folk in control of things do nothing of what they might do and pose for our respect and admiration with infinite self-complacency.
But in another fifty years after that renascence — if, after all, it should occur — things will be different. For an ignorant world we shall have a soundly educated world, aware of its origins, capable of measuring and realizing its possibilities, and controlling its destinies.
Every human being born into that world of plenty will learn from the beginning of the varied loveliness of the life before it, and of the expanding drama of human achievement in which it has to play its part. Its distinctive gifts will be developed. It will be taught another history than that of kings and conquerors and armies. It will do its fair and definite share in the productive or other necessary service of mankind, and for the rest it will be released to accomplish whatever possibilities it has of innovation, happiness, and interesting living.
That wide fine life is within reach of mankind; it is there for the taking. But mankind is not taking it. The curtain is falling. When the Promised Land is cut off forever, Homo sapiens will be readily convinced there never was a Promised Land. The last thing we human beings will produce is concerted effort; only under the spur of greed or panic do we produce that. We shake our heads sagely at the "dreamers." As long as possible we will go on living the close, ignoble lives of thieves, bullies, and drudges to which we are accustomed. We will snuffle our satisfaction that we are not in any "fantastic Utopia." And when presently the rifles are put into our hands again, we shall kill. The whips will be behind us and the "enemy" in front. The Old History will go on because we had not the vigor to accept the new.
Publication Date: October 17, 1931