During the 10th century, an entire empire collapsed. For its time, it was huge, a society of about 2 million people clustered around a central city of about 200,000 inhabitants. Other cities held populations between 5,000 and 50,000. Its location was in Mesoamerica, principally throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, and its people were known as Maya.
However, the disintegration of this society had no effect on the domains of Charlemagne in Europe or the lands governed by the Emperor of China. In fact, neither of these rulers had ever heard of the existence of the cities of Chitzn Itz or Tikl, or even the continents that would eventually be known as the Americas. But today, events in one part of the world have repercussions nearly everywhere.
During the mid-1980s, while a traditional textbook written by Elbert Stewart and me was being prepared for an international edition by McGraw-Hill Book Company, I started thinking about the fact that when the stock market in New York plummets, the financial institutions of London, Tokyo, Berlin, and Buenos Aires are affected as well. This happened because the world was no longer composed of isolated realms. Kenneth Boulding proposed in 1985 that the world had become a “total system,” and that its components had reached a vital point of interdependence.
It was about that time that I started looking for an editor and publisher who shared this understanding. Nearly a decade later, editor Alan McClare sat down with me to come up with a plan for a new book that would develop from the “total-system” concept. But, the scope of the book was so enormous that I knew it would take me many years to complete it on my own, and the need for the text seemed to be immediate. In 1996, “Global Social Problems,” written by me, Charles F. Hohm, and Elbert W. Stewart was published by HarperCollins College Publishers.
The memory of these events that occurred between 30 and 20 years ago came to mind when I looked at my calendar and realized that Monday is United Nations Day. On Oct. 24, we celebrate the anniversary of the organization that was founded in 1945 (at the conclusion of the Second World War) to promote human rights and world cooperation, the topic of the concluding chapter of our book.
The United Nations is essential because we are all part of a “superculture” that includes a broad spectrum of local cultures that have languages, customs, religions, occupations, and practices that are independent of the whole. Still, what happens in one country is likely to affect other lands. When there is deforestation in tropical areas, it influences the climate of the entire world. Poisons have become so toxic that chemical spills in upstream countries have disastrous effects on downstream people. Nuclear meltdowns in the former Soviet Union or in modern Japan have serious consequences far outside the borders of the site of the accidents.
Today’s world is much smaller than it was in the days of Columbus and Magellan. Past and continuing advances in transportation and communication amaze us with enthusiasm over what human ingenuity has accomplished. Yet, we need to remind ourselves that we exist in a limited world with limited resources. The pace of change has accelerated in recent decades to the point that we may be replicating a fable that was created by humorist James Thurber 60 years ago.
The Thurber Fable
In 1956, James Thurber wrote “Oliver and the Other Ostriches.” In this little story, an elderly ostrich is lecturing his fellow ostriches about the superiority of their species. After all, there was no creature anywhere in the world who even approached the magnificence of the long-necked birds. They were, indeed, destined to dominate all other animals.
One of the younger ostriches, Oliver, does not agree. He feels a certain sense of inferiority because Man (sic) can walk, ride on motorized vehicles, and even fly. And, when Man flies, he does so sitting down while enjoying a libation. But, Oliver says, ostriches have no cars or trains, and they are birds who can’t fly at all.
The old ostrich becomes greatly annoyed at Oliver and lets him know, in no uncertain terms, that Man has no future. The preacher glares at Oliver severely, first with one eye and then the other.
“Man,” he instructs, “is flying too fast for a world that is small and round. Soon he will catch up with himself in a great rear-end collision, and Man will never know that what hit Man from behind was Man.”
Through a series of goals, resolutions, and declarations adopted by the member states of the United Nations, the world has developed a set of commitments, actions, and goals to try to prevent such a “rear-end collision.” But, the U.N. does not exist to impede the pace of change; rather it was designed to monitor occurrences in the world and to give advice that may lead to improving the quality of life for all human beings.
Today, a great deal of international cooperation takes place through the internal agencies of the United Nations. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), for example, aims to improve global nutrition. The World Health Organization (WHO) tries to suppress widespread diseases with immunization and treatment. The International Labor Organization (ILO) attempts to improve working conditions. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) promotes the peaceful applications of atomic power. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) works to create sound environmental policies. The United Children’s Fund (UNICEF) provides assistance to mothers and children, particularly in developing countries, by establishing community-based health facilities and schools. And, the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) fosters the exchange of cultural ideas and viewpoints in regard to science and education.
Currently, the United Nations is trying to deal with a refugee problem of epic proportions. At the end of 2014, there were nearly 60 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, the highest level since World War II. But, here is a significant difference between today’s refugees and those created by a world at war. In 1945, world population was only 2.3 billion and, although many European cities were ravaged by war, there was room. Today, the world holds 7.4 billion people, and land — along with other resources — are stretched much closer to their limits.
So, happy birthday, United Nations, and good luck in trying to prevent that rear-end collision.