A few days ago was the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the first World War. For anyone who cocks even half an eye to history, it’s been pretty much impossible not to be aware of the past. I can only speak for the UK and to an extent western Europe, although I imagine the same would be true in all the other countries and regions that were involved, and the commemorations have been moving, from the ceremonies at Mons to the Edward Grey-inspired “lamps are going out” evening of 4th August to the ceramic poppies flowing like a blood-soaked river around the moat of the Tower of London. I’ve heard the argument that in fact the Second World War was the greater bringer of change, but I’m afraid I don’t buy that. I stick with the more conventional view that 1914-18 was the tipping point when the world shifted from the last knockings of a structured society into the infinitely more complex and flexible modern age.
Stability and Control?
We can look back at 1914 and marvel at how stable and controlled the environment was. Society was ordered and structured, and life seemed to stretch away in the distance to a smooth, untroubled horizon. But from here, we can see that actually it wasn’t like that at all. Lurking round the corner, ready to shatter the gilded Edwardian idyll, was a cataclysm that appeared out of a sunny Bank Holiday weekend. A couple of shots in a far-off backwater of Europe changed things irrevocably. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we understand the tensions that existed - unknown to the majority of people - and we can see how that one final act was like a gentle push to set all the dominoes falling.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
But how would 2014 look through the eyes of 1914? My guess is that it would be perceived as a time of total chaos, with nothing resembling the structure and order of the Edwardians (and, since he died in 1910, immediate post-Edwardians). Look at the extractive industries as an example. In 1914, they would have been familiar with a world where miners and drillers operated in a stable environment, resources exploited across the globe by companies domiciled in London or New York, product shipped back to be consumed in Europe or the US. In 2014, what would they see? Oil extracted in war zones or from politically ‘interesting’ regimes; copper - still from stable Chile, sure - but also from the difficult environments of the DRC, Zambia, Mongolia. Some of the next new hot prospects for copper are apparently in Afghanistan, amongst others; that will test the fortitude of the miners. A real mish-mash of uncertainty compared with a hundred years earlier, is how it would look.
That’s just using natural resources as an example; extend that thought to society as a whole, and it holds true, that we look back and see order and structure, and if they could have looked forward they would have see disorder and chaos. The threats in 1914 were hidden, in 2014 they are all too visible, until, of course, something still comes unexpectedly out of a bright blue sky - think of September 11th. Bad things happen; they did then, they do now. One might expect the structured environment to cope better, but the paradox is that the ordered society of 1914 was unable to compartmentalise; that small event in Sarajevo couldn’t be contained. In 2014, we seem more able to do that. Large parts of the Middle East are a war zone; Ukraine - and I very much hope I’m wrong here - looks ominously like the Balkans of the early 1990s. Am I right to think that in fact in 2014, despite the sharp contrast with how it appeared in 1914, these things are more able to be contained? Or am I just channelling Dr Pangloss?
I shall be on holiday for the next two weeks; whether or not there is anything published here will depend on internet connections.