12 July 2010

The Past, New And Improved.

Everything from the 1870s and 1970s is new again, but this time we are doing it better.

The 1870s was a time when rail was changing society. Now, light rail, high speed intercity rail, and freight rail are all on the rise. The electric car industry that was emerging at the end of the 19th century is returning, with electric cars on the verge of entering mass production, another proposal of the 1970s that didn't reach critical mass.

With a refocusing on means of transportation other than the automobile has come an interest in returning via New Urbanism to the urban design patterns common in the 1870s. The 1970s marked a period when we were increasingly aware of the malaise of suburban growth patterns, but this awareness didn't take hold.

The 1870s and 1970s were both times marked by thriving drug cultures. Now, the war on drugs is in its final act. Marijuana is on the verge of legalization and its many legitimate medical uses are beginning to be legalized. Medical uses for psychedelics (for example, in treating PTSD) are also beginning to be recognized. Legislatures are finally responding to calls to replace harsh drug sentences with treatment regimes under budgetary pressures. Harsh federal sentences for crack cocaine use are on the verge of being made more lenient. Absinthe subcultures are starting to thrive again.

We also appear to be on the verge of seeing a couple of independent developments that greatly help drug addicts cure their additions. Ibogaine, derived from the African Tabernathe iboga plant is a psychedelic drug that have shown remarkable success in helping alcoholics, cocaine addicts and heroin addicts free themselves of their additions without the trauma of cold turkey withdrawal. Elevating levels of a microRNA called miR-212 in the brain has similarly shown promise in addressing additions to cocaine, nicotine and alcoholism in mouse models. We could be a couple of decades away from highly effective drug driven treatment of substance abuse. We are also increasingly close to being able to identify which people are at high risk of being ravaged by substance abuse and addition and which people are less vulnerable to going beyond moderate use of psychoactive substances, a tendency whose significant hereditary links are now reasonably well established.

Renewable energy projects and environmentally sustainable food production surged in the 1970s, but never really reached critical mass. Now, wind and solar power are making up a meaningful part of the our electrical power supply, there are viable modern sail technologies to reduce fuel consumption by ocean going freighters, and many vehicles on the road were designed to be biofuel friendly. Organic foods now make up an appreciable share of all produce sold, both due to the rise of natural food oriented grocery stores and the increased sold of organic foods in ordinary supermarkets. Fish farming has become the predominant source of many kinds of fish sold in grocery stores.

Recycling has taken hold as a norm, even in places that don't have bottle deposit laws, and large scale compost collection seems likely to follow suit. Together, the development have greatly reduced the volume of waste sent to ordinary landfills. A vibrant scrap metal market (some of its legitimate and some of its involving stolen scrap metal) has arisen in response to rising metal prices.

The nuclear power industry that the Three Mile Island nuclear accident killed, is coming back. A Denver company, Hyperion Power Generation, is well along in developing a telephone booth sized 25 megawatt nuclear power plant (enough to power 25,000 homes) that can be mass produced and has about 100 interested customers. The $100 million plants would produce electricity that could meet baseline power demands at five to ten cents per kilowatt hour, a price competitive with centralized power production, while producing no air pollution. The idea is particularly attractive in remote areas now reliant on oil fired power plants.

The 1870s were known for their elegant urban gardens, and the 1970s for its rather less elegant urban gardens and for kick starting the idea of a community vegetable garden. Urban gardening is back again, ironically, not so much in the land rich suburbs, as in urban residential areas where land is treasured and people have a deep craving to reconnect with all things natural. I admit to being part of the trend. Four years ago, the little front and back yard that my house and detached garage share its fifteenth of an acre with were almost entirely grass. Now, almost half of the backyard is planted in flowers and vegetables. My children have friends who raise chickens in the city.

Others want the fresh from the farm food, without the weeding and watering. My stepbrother, for example, has a share in the farm production of a local farmer that provides him with a steady stream of vegetables to fill his dinner table and feed his juicer for the unique smoothies that complement his biking and running hobbies. For my daughter's birthday, we went to pick strawberries at a 40 acre farm in Brighton that has a constant array of pick your own opportunities for city folk longing for the fresh from the garden tastes taken for granted in the country.

Also coming back from the 1870s is a renewed interest in chamber music, not just as a musical style, but in the sense of holding live acoustic concerts in people's homes and other small spaces. We have an abundance of highly talented musicians who would like to make money from making music as well as teaching others how to do so, but a limited supply of profitable opportunities to record and widely distribute music through traditional radio and record store outlets.

The 1870s was a time marked by interest in race, eugenics and ancient history. Now, we have a far more nuanced sense of our ancient history and roots as we have gone beyond the Origin of the Species to map out the genetic ancestry of populations across the world, and used technologies like radioactive dating to gain a much more firm hold on the chronology of the ancient world, but most investigations now proceed far more cautiously as they are informed by how political and intellectual doctrines based on crude ideas about genetics went awry. But, the rise of genetic engineering brings the ethical issues that were in the past associated with genetics much more serious.

Science has also provided substance to flesh out the field of psychiatry that was just coming into being at the end of the 19th century. We can now describe many of the biochemical and neurological roots of psychiatric conditions that were suspected but not established a century ago, and have added considerable empirical rigor to a science then based upon anecdote and intuition. We know much more about why people are irrationally anxious or depressed, about why people are impulsive or have difficulty paying attention, about what schizophrenia is at a biochemical level. For example, the biological basis on sexual orientation and gender identity is now far better understood now than it was when atypical forms of sexual orientation and gender identity were first systemically studied a century ago by sympathetic proto-psychiatrists.

The nationalism that forged many of our modern nation states in the 1870s has returned as a force for both good and ill in the world. Nationalism has driven the reunification of Germany, while prevailing over other concepts to break up Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. It is on the verge of doing the same thing in Sudan. It is driving the war in Chechnya, and has been an important factor in Iraq, a complex multi-national civil war in which Kurdish and Shiite identities have become more visible. Belgium, Spain, Moldova, the Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the small countries in the Caucuses continue to deal with centrifugal forces that have become less ominous now that the European Union provides a framework to maintain a regime of social and economic liberalism and international fair play of emerging national states.

One way to understand the divide between liberals and conservatives in American politics in through the lens of nationalism. Conservatives strive towards of vision of an American nation-state, with a singular religious and political identity, something that drives their opposition to immigration, opposition to a strong First Amendment establishment clause, and tendency to cast our foreign engagements in religious and ethnic terms, for example, in their embrace of a war on Islam as foreign policy goal. Liberals, in contrast, have a vision of America as a multi-ethnic empire, distinguished not by its shared culture and ethnicity, but by its shared political institutions and broad scope.

Looming is the demise of the Oil Age that distinguished the 20th century. The popularity of Steam Punk is hardly surprising, because our future without oil may look more like the era that immediately preceded the rise of the oil age at the end of the 19th century, than it does like our more recent past.

Science, like it was at the end of the 19th century, seems again to be on the verge of explaining everything. Then, quantum mechanics and relativity destroyed that certainty. Now, we are on the verge of seeing if some variation on the Standard Model of Particle Physics and a quantum theory of gravity of some sort, can restore that certainty. There were loose ends then and now. Then, those loose ends ended up exploding into a completely new worldview as those loose ends had hinted at a vastly complex undiscovered world. Now, it isn't clear if we are approaching the end of science with an overarching Theory of Everything, or are about to witness new levels of complexity that have been theorized but not yet supported by evidence.

This time is different. For the most part, it is new and improved. But, we can learn something from how the last times around played out, as we move forward today.

1 comment:

Michael Malak said...

I, too, have been cataloguing the similarities between the 19th and 21st centuries. You can view my tabulation on a Slashdot comment.

Thank you for your insights -- now I have a couple of more things to add to my list, most notably the legality of drugs.