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READ: Era 7 Overview — The Last 100 Years

The world you live in and your own life experience is a product of many thousands of years of history. In this era, we ask, “How can we all be individuals and also part of one increasingly connected world?” How humans answer this question could shape our future. Understanding our shared human history, and its limits, is part of the process.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What is the evidence the author gives for the argument that we are more connected to each other than we ever have been?
  2. What arguments does the author use to suggest that even with these connections, we still live in an era of very different experiences?
  3. According to the author, what is perhaps the biggest problem that we now face in the twenty-first century?
  4. How have poverty rates changed in the past 100 years on both a global scale and on regional scales?
  5. What is the value of having a single global history along with individual or family histories, according to the article?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Are there elements of your family, individual, or cultural history that have been important in shaping your personal story? What are they, and how might they be related to global history or the history of humanity?
  2. Do you think people today (in your own lifetime) are becoming more closely connected, or more isolated? Explain your reasoning using evidence from the article or the course?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Era 7 Overview: The Last 100 Years

Photograph shows a massive amount of modern-day shipping containers, stacked on top of one another. In the background is a city skyline.
By Trevor Getz and Bridgette Byrd O’Connor
The world you live in and your own life experience is a product of many thousands of years of history. In this era, we ask, “How can we all be individuals and also part of one increasingly connected world?” How humans answer this question could shape our future. Understanding our shared human history, and its limits, is part of the process.
How did we get here? How did "history"—the Paleolithic and Neolithic, Iron Age states, the Silk Road, "dark ages" and Enlightenment, revolutions and the Great Dying—all culminate in you and your fellow twenty-first-century humans? How can we make meaning from this history? The American writer Alice Walker once wrote, "All history is current." By that, she meant that we interpret the past to make meaning for the present. We want the past to be usable and relevant. How can you make use of the past, to understand who you are today? How can you make use of it to think about where we are going in the future?
One important question we can ask to make meaning from the past is about you. It's also about your relationship to every other human on the planet today. This question is: "Is there a collective human history?"
World map shows internet connections. The internet connections span across continents and are shown as white dots connected by beams of light. North America shows the greatest number of internet connections.
This is a question that pertains to all of the eras in this course, but especially to Era 7, which covers the last hundred years or so. As we will discover when we explore this era, we live in an age of unprecedented globalization. Where once it was rare for our ancestors to travel more than a few miles from their farms or villages, we can now fly around the world in less than a day, create a video seen around the world in a few minutes, or text each other almost instantly. Where once our ancestors made almost everything they needed themselves, now our most complicated products are produced from materials sourced in over a dozen countries, and then worked on in several other countries before they make their way to us. We originated in numerous small language networks and communities of 100 people or fewer. But now we have trans-national institutions like the United Nations and the World Health Organization. These institutions have tied us all together in the last 100 years. We are connected as one network, one community, allowing us to hopefully solve problems and explore new opportunities together.
But we are also living in an era of great conflict between peoples, and great differences in experiences. Much of the twentieth century seemed like one long, truly global conflict, vast inequality existed throughout this era (and continues to exist), and people are increasingly seeing globalization as a problem as much as it is a solution. So are we closer together, or further apart, than ever before?

Are we better off?

Historians and other researchers increasingly believe that conflict and inequality are problems that are related to how secure people feel economically, how safe they feel in their community, and how connected they are to each other. So, much of our exploration of this era looks at the question of whether people are becoming wealthier, safer, more secure, and more connected, or if instead, problems and challenges are growing. The evidence we find is mixed.
Era 7 begins with the First World War (1914-1918). This was a conflict that was considered unnecessary by many, and it resulted in enormous death and suffering. It was followed by a rise of authoritarianism—seen in communist, fascist, and nationalist leaders. Then came the terror of the Second World War (1939-1945) and the genocide known as the Holocaust. Victory for the Allies in that conflict left the United States and the Soviet Union as the two world powers. They quickly faced off in the Cold War (1948-1989) that lasted almost to the end of the century. The end of these global wars left horrendous problems in place. For example, suspicion still exists between the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia). Another example is the ongoing conflicts in the decolonizing Middle East.
All of these conflicts were tied to great inequality in the production and distribution of goods. Even today, wealth still often seems to accumulate in the hands of just a few, while many suffered. Large regions of the world—especially in Africa, southern Asia, and Latin America—continue to have high poverty rates. These patterns seem to be at least partly the result of long-term historical trends, such as enslavement and colonialism, whose effects are still felt today even after they have technically ended. Finally, even within wealthy societies, inequality means that some people had few opportunities.
Graph shows a dramatic increase in surface temperature, especially from 1980 to today.
Increases in global temperatures from 1880 to 2019. By the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Centers for Environmental Information NCEI
But perhaps the greatest challenge facing humans in the twenty-first century, however, is the growing threat posed by our over-use of Earth's resources. As human populations continued to increase over the past century, environmental effects worsened. Larger areas of forests were converted to farmland and the use of fossil fuels increased. This has led to a dramatic increase in pollution, including the release of billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. This has contributed to the overall warming of our planet. Climate change is already reshaping human populations. It is changing weather patterns around the world. But its impact is only beginning to be felt. By moving plants and animals around, affecting the climate, reshaping the land, humans have become an important force in the changing of the biosphere. So much so that some scientists now argue we have entered a new geological era, the "Anthropocene". The Anthropocene is the era in which humans have become the single most important force shaping the biosphere.
But the story of the twenty-first century, like the larger story of history, is not a tale of inevitabilities. It doesn't have to end one way. By almost any measure, Era 7 has seen marked human progress. You may learn of horrors in the news and feel that life is getting worse—most people certainly do. This is partly because there are many profound injustices in our world and calling attention to them is important. But it is also partly because bad news sometimes happens all at once and is often shocking and upsetting, whereas good news usually happens very slowly.
For example, there is some evidence that poverty is declining, and that the benefits of broad economic growth are finally being felt by those living in poorer regions. As recently as 1970, most humans lived in so-called "absolute poverty". This means they did not consistently have enough food and other resources to survive. One set of data suggests that today, only 10 percent of people live in absolute poverty. Not everyone agrees with these numbers precisely, but by many measures, life seems to have improved broadly for humans over the last several decades. Child mortality has dropped faster since 1990 than at any time in human history. More children are in school, and a greater percentage of people can read and write than at any time in history. The rate of deaths by violence has been decreasing for six decades. These rates are probably the lowest they've ever been in our 250,000-year history. But of course, this story is not equally true for everyone, everywhere. Some regions have had greater positive change than others. In a few places, poverty and child mortality rates clearly remain the same or are even growing.
A photograph of a group of girls standing together and smiling. They are holding flags and wearing red and green colored clothing.
Group of girls in Afghanistan returning to school, 2002. By US Department of State, public domain.

Globalization and you

The world you live in and your own life experience is a product of many thousands of years of history. But it is particularly influenced by the long nineteenth century revolutions. Industrialization, liberal political revolutions, imperialism, and economic transformations have had a significant influence. Members of your family may have served in the wars of the twentieth century, or been forced to move, or suffered deaths. You may have a family history influenced and shaped by empires, and by the economic ups and downs of the twentieth century. The jobs that your ancestors and parents worked were available (or not available) because of many of these same trends. The foods you eat may have been influenced by their migration patterns.
All the great paradoxes of history remain with us. We have moved toward larger and more deeply connected communities. But in some ways, we have become less connected to each other. Humans used to live in tribes of dozens where parenting and other responsibilities were shared. Now we primarily live in smaller, so-called "nuclear" families. We have moved toward a world of more wealth and power available to humans. But many have been left behind and seen little of the benefit from that growth.
In this context, there is great value in everyone pulling together to solve our shared problems. But there is also value in our individual stories, our family histories, and our local cultures. How humanity answers the question of how we can all be individuals, and communities, and yet part of one increasingly connected world will very likely shape our future. Understanding our shared human history, and its limits, is part of the process of answering this question.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African and World History at San Francisco State University. He has written or edited eleven books, including the award-winning graphic history Abina and the Important Men, and co-produced several prize-winning documentaries. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.
Bridgette Byrd O’Connor holds a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford and has taught Big History, World History, and AP U.S. Government and Politics for the past ten years at the high school level. In addition, she has been a freelance writer and editor for the Big History Project and the Crash Course World History and U.S. History curriculums

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