We live in an age in which bad news and negativity reigns, making it easy to overlook the positive things that have taken place in our world over the last half century.
Further, one doesn’t need to view the world through rose-colored glasses to see the many things that have transpired over the last few decades all designed to make all our lives easier, safer, and overall less challenging than they were for our forbearers. All one needs to do is compare the present to the fairly recent past to recognize that while there are still things to be depressed about, there are a number of things that have improved dramatically. So what are these “positives” of which I speak? Below are my top ten “things” that have dramatically improved since 1964—and many of which show signs of getting even better in the future—so eat your hearts out, all you purveyors of doom and gloom out there.
When one considers the automobiles of yesterday, one can’t help but be astonished at the dramatic improvements we see in the vehicles of today. Consider that the average car in 1964 had no seat belts, air bags, crumple zones, or crash bars, got maybe 12 miles to the gallon, and belched prodigious amounts of toxins in the air, it’s not difficult to see how much safer, fuel efficient, and cleaner cars are today. While one can argue that styling may have been more interesting back then, and no one can deny the mystique the classic muscle cars of the late 60s and early 70s held—and continue to hold for many today—it’s obvious that today’s cars are technological wonders compared to their ancestors. In fact, with GPS navigation, Bluetooth, Sirius radio and a host of other gadgets that come standard with many models, today’s vehicles are veritable spaceships when compared to a 60’s car. Plus, the selection is almost unlimited, with everything from subcompacts to monster trucks being available to the consumer, whereas back then selection was mostly limited to a basic sedan, a station wagon, or a small truck. Further, consumers had only a dozen or so models to choose between back then whereas today there are literally scores of makes and models to select from (not to mention the emerging hybrid and all electric markets to consider). Yes, today’s cars cost more than cars did fifty years ago, but most vehicles are actually cheaper than their predecessors when one factors in inflation and the cost of a new car as a percentage of average annual income. Finally, with new and even more astonishing technologies on the drawing boards, the future looks even brighter for the venerable automobile—which I believe will continue to play a big part in the 21st century and beyond.
9. Air Travel
I know that in the post 9/11 world, air travel is more of a hassle than it was fifty years ago (when one could walk through security with barely a whimper), but it can’t be denied that travel by air has improved dramatically. First of all, it is cheaper to fly today than at any other time in history. Fifty years ago, airfares were set by the Civil Aeronautics Board, and could often be expensive. For example, a round-trip airline ticket from Miami to New Orleans cost around $130 in 1964—which is about $900 in today’s dollars. By comparison, today you can fly that same route for about $330 (or even cheaper if you’re one to look around for good deals). Second, airliners today are faster, more fuel efficient, and more environmentally friendly than at any time in the past, drastically reducing the amount of particulates they spew into the air, reducing flight duration, and generally making for more comfortable flying. Third, airlines fly to more places than ever before, making practically any point on the planet accessible by air. And, finally, air safety has improved dramatically in the last five decades. How much has it improved? According to statisticians at M.I.T., the death risk for passengers in the United States today is one in 45 million flights. In other words, flying has become so reliable that a traveler could fly every day for an average of 123,000 years before being in a fatal crash. (Compare that to fifty years ago, when there were ten fatal airliner accidents worldwide that left a total of 466 people dead. In 2013, only 195 people perished and this despite the fact that there are ten times as many aircraft flying than there were fifty years ago.) All things considered, travel by air is still your best value and the safest means of travel known to mankind.
Imagine if you were to go back to 1964. You would probably be watching a black and white television that gets maybe four channels, listening to AM radio, playing vinyl records on your Hi-Fi, and generally making do with a minimum of electronic gadgets. In contrast, today you have iPods, iPhones, personal computers, game stations, massive HD flat screen TVs with 300 cable channels to choose from, GPS tracking, satellite radio, microwaves, and a whole host of other innovations and devices undreamed of fifty years ago. When you consider that your little beat-up, ten year old piece-of-junk PC you can’t even give away has a thousand times more computing power than the largest and most expensive computer in 1964 possessed, you can’t help but be impressed with the strides electronics have taken in just the last thirty years alone. Plus, it’s extraordinarily cheap, especially if you wait a little while after a new device is introduced for the price to tumble (as it invariably will). It’s almost scary to imagine where this revolution will take us in the next fifty years, but if the last fifty has been any indication, get ready to be dazzled!
7. Human Rights
I know there are still despots and tyrants out there who treat their own populace like cattle, and starvation, disease, and poverty are still concerns in many spots around the world, but when compared to what things were like fifty years ago, only the most hard-core pessimist can fail to see the tremendous improvements that have taken place since then. When one considers that homosexuality was considered a treatable mental illness fifty years ago (at best), women in positions of power were practically unheard of, and three quarters of the world’s population lived at or below poverty level, one can’t help but see improvement. Yes, there is still income inequality in some countries, the rights of women and minorities are still suppressed in some regions of the world, and poverty remains the norm in some of the poorest counties, but the fact is that for most people, things have improved dramatically. Disease and starvation are far less common, more democracies exist than ever before, and—thanks in part to the internet—human rights abuses and atrocities are far less tolerated than in the past. We’re far from achieving anything approaching a utopian world—nor are we likely to anytime in the near future—but it’s hard to deny that there is at least progress being made.
6. Frozen Dinners
Before the advent of the microwave some fifty years ago, frozen dinners were dismal affairs whose taste was often indistinguishable from the containers they were packaged in. Plus, it took a good twenty to thirty minutes to heat up most of them, and the selection was very limited and largely unimaginative. Today, in contrast, one can find a veritable smorgasbord of international culinary delights in their freezer that can be prepared in a few minutes, many of which rival the food served in many of the finest restaurants in terms of quality and taste (and, I might add, they are cheaper. Restaurant food can be pricey.) In fact, so good and easy have frozen dinners become that today they comprise many people’s main diet, with most families preparing a meal from prepackaged frozen dinners as often as four times a week. While this has had the unfortunate consequence of making traditional cooking a dying art, it has the benefit in that frozen dinners save the gastrointestinal system of those whose partner or parents are horrible cooks. Further, frozen dinners have also almost single-handedly banished that scourge of the refrigerator and freezer: the dreaded leftover. If that isn’t something to rejoice about, I don’t know is.
5. Movie Special Effects
Growing up in the sixties, I was often subjected to special effects that could only be described as primordial at best, from a guy in a rubber suit stomping on a model of Tokyo to stop motion animation and rubber spiders on strings. Of course, as a kid, at the time I thought these effects were pretty cool, but when I see these same movies on late night TV today, I can only cringe—or laugh—at how hokey Godzilla looked and how cheesy the first Star Trek episodes were. Today, thanks to CGI (Computer Generated Imagining), we can make astonishingly convincing dinosaurs, dragons, spaceships—even entire ancient cities—that early special effect wizards could only dream of. Some of the best of this stuff is so real, in fact, that one can often have trouble determining reality from good CGI. Unfortunately, as is often the case with all such improvements, there is a down side. Many movies have become so enamored with dazzling effects that they have forgotten how to tell a good story, or they so overdo it that eventually one becomes indifferent and even bored after seeing the same effects a dozen times. Still, when great special effects, good acting, and a compelling story are brought together—as is occasionally the case—the results can be remarkable.
4. Space Travel
In 1964, America was still taking its first, unsteady steps into outer space in the little two-man Gemini spacecraft, unsure if its astronauts would survive the next mission. The spacecraft were small, expensive, and dangerous, but they were necessary steps in man’s quest for the stars. Today, in contrast, space travel is almost routine, far more cost effective in terms of cost per pound of payload, and so simple that even civilian companies are getting into the act by offering to fly rich tourists into orbit for the chance to gaze upon the planet from fifty miles up. Of course, none of this would be possible without the dramatic advances made in electronics and rocketry, and space travel is still a risky business, but compared to where it was fifty years ago, it’s no longer that amazing an accomplishment to put a man—or woman, for that matter—into space. Further, this trend will only continue as rocket engines get smaller and more powerful, construction materials become more rugged and cost effective, and the private sector takes over space in much the same way it took over the airline industry almost a century ago. As a result, one day our grandchildren will see spaceflight as no more remarkable a feat than an airline flight from New York to Paris is considered today, and will wonder what all the fuss was about.
Fashions come and go, but consider that back in 1964 things were far more ordinary and less flashy than they are today. Back then the average Joe—and Jill—didn’t have a huge selection of styles or materials from which to choose. As a result, men commonly wore suits and leather shoes and women generally wore dresses adorned with bizarre hats of all shapes and sizes. There were not nearly a thousand different brands and kinds of tennis shoes to choose from (there were only KEDS canvas sneakers), patterns were generally limited to stripes, solids, or polka dots, and most clothing was made from cotton, wool, or something in between. In contrast, today the sky’s the limit in terms of fashion choices available to both men and woman, with all the benefits (and consequences) that portends. All the colors of the rainbow in any material you can imagine are readily available, and styles are as varied as each person’s personality type. The only downside is today it can be difficult to pick out the women from the men as clothing styles are largely unisexual, and then there’s that nasty epidemic of ugly tattoos and bizarre body piercings out there to deal with. On second thought, maybe fashion is in a downward spiral after all…
I know that concerns over global warming, climate change, the ozone layer and such are all the rage, but it is difficult to maintain that things have not improved dramatically over the last fifty years—especially in the west. During the sixties, smog was bad in most major American and European cities and only promised to get worst as populations continued to grow and more automobiles hit the roads. Further, streams were often dumping grounds for all manner of toxic chemicals, and piles of trash were ubiquitous alongside of roadways, in alleys, and even in nature, which was often looked upon as one great garbage dump. Contrast that with today, with our much more stringent emission standards on both automobiles and industrial plants, the shift towards renewable energy, and strict dumping and waste management standards and smog has become rare in most cities, rivers and lakes are far cleaner, and even littering is becoming less common. Clearly, changing public attitudes, a vigorous recycling infrastructure, and greater environmental awareness have also done much to improve matters. Of course, pollution is still a big problem in some developing countries—in particular China and India—and it is growing worse (at least in some developing nations) but it is only a matter of time before even they are forced to raise air and water quality standards for the good of public safety, portending a cleaner environment in the future.
1. World Peace
I know many people imagine the world to be one big tinderbox just waiting for a match to be thrown, but the fact is the world is a far more peaceful place than it was just fifty years ago. Some may laugh at such apparent naiveté on my part, but consider the facts: between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and thirty years later in 1975, there were no fewer than four Arab-Israeli wars, three wars between India and Pakistan, devastating wars in Korea and Vietnam, major insurgencies in French Indochina, Algeria, and the Belgian Congo, and costly civil wars in Nigeria, Greece, Indonesia, Hungary and Cuba. Further, dictatorships ruled most of South and Latin America, Africa, and Asia, while the shadow of the cold war hovered over the entire world, just waiting for someone to make a mistake, ushering in a nuclear Armageddon. What a difference a few decades have made. With the collapse of communism in Russia and the fall of the Soviet Union, Germany became reunited, the counties of eastern Europe became free, and the danger of nuclear holocaust became greatly diminished. Further, normalization of relations with a once implacable Red China has turned that country from a fierce adversary into a major trading partner, while one by one authoritarian regimes have been supplanted by democracies all around the world. Of course, there are still wars—though they tend to be smaller, shorter in duration, and less destructive affairs than those of the past—and terrorism remains a threat, but it’s hard to deny that the world is not nearly as dangerous a place as it was when I was growing up. Of course, all of that is subject to change without notice, but the threats to peace we see today from countries likeNorth Korea and Iran are mere fleabites compared to the twin dangers Stalinist Russia and Mao’s China posed just a few decades ago. Not peace in our time, perhaps, but steps in the right direction.
1/2 Century of Progress – 1964 to 2014