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Lost opportunities

By Peter McMahon - posted Thursday, 20 February 2020

No doubt about it, the world is in a mess. Global warming threatens to destroy civilisation, runaway technology is taking over our lives, nuclear war remains an immediate existential threat, while the international system is wracked with bitter rivalries and the global economy staggers from one crisis to another. All up, things are about as bad as they have ever been, at least in modern times, with the possible exception of the grim days of World War Two (at least then, people knew it would end).

The world did recover from World War Two, and for a couple of decades afterwards the future looked promising. The superpowers were even extending civilisation's reach into outer space. But much more could have been done to put civilisation on an even keel and so obviate most of the problems now facing us. This piece considers this lost opportunity.

World War Two almost knocked out civilisation on Earth. Europe was devastated, as was Russia, and large parts of Asia were in the same condition. It was really only the existence of a virtually unharmed US that enabled a quick recovery. The US, by far and away the greatest economic power on Earth by then, was able to underwrite a European recovery through the long-sighted Marshall Plan. Japan's impressive rebound was more due to the Korean War, while Russia and China had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.


The basic conditions in terms of economics, politics, social relations and technological development were very different to now. Governments, which had just fought the war, were in control and were mostly unchallenged as the leaders of society. Industry, which had been largely reorganised in wartime, was dominated by government, and the soon to be powerful transnational corporate interests were not yet established. The mass media, having been colonised by state propaganda during the war, took the lead from government. For all these reasons governments were generally trusted and obeyed by the masses

In this situation, having just amassed and deployed huge resources to fight the war, governments were able to direct social and economic forces in pretty much any way they determined. In the victorious nations the military and science were at a high point, and in the US and Britain this continued on into the Cold War, which also formally isolated Russia and China

There were attempts to create global authorities, such the United Nations and the Bretton Woods financial system, but ultimately neither the US nor the Soviet Union was going to give up enough power to create a new era of cooperation.

There was in the 1940s some awareness of environmental issues, even the potential threat of global warming, but not much. Having spent vast amounts to build a few fission bombs, the US was attempting to turn nuclear into a civilian power source. Interestingly, around this time the Eisenhower administration received a report that pointed out that if the money that went into nuclear power had gone into solar the US would have been in a strong position for the future. By 1965 the US President's Science Advisory Committee was issuing a warning about the danger of global warming. A dedicated effort by the huge scientific resources that had emerged from the war could have determined the threats and proposed solutions. Certainly there was already some awareness that reliance on oil was a mistake (and nuclear a chimera), and that a shift to renewable energy sources was necessary. If this had occurred through the 1950s and 1960s, we can reasonably assume that the whole global warming and energy crunch problems we have today would not have arisen.

There was also obvious awareness that the nuclear arms race need curtailing at the least. Aside from the threat of nuclear war, especially by accident, people were worried about fallout from testing which had contaminated the whole world. By agreement, testing went underground and in 1968 the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed, which the nuclear powers then proceeded to ignore.

Coming out of the war, there was definite awareness that the world needed a new economic system. The Atlantic Charter that underpinned the Allied victory called for a new economic world order in which colonisation and unbalanced economic development would disappear. More directly, the global financial agencies (primarily the IMF and World Bank) were established to regulate and stimulate international economic development. That is not what they really did, but originally the intentions were there.


It is true that, outside some prescient science fiction stories, there was little concern with the role of technology in society. A number of technologies had been given massive boosts by the vast resources dedicated to research in the war, including atomic energy, jet engines, radar, computers and micro-electronics. It was the rise of computers and microelectronics under pressure from the Cold War that led to their expansive development.

A whole range of techno-organisational problems that emerged in the 1960s, including in relation to motor vehicle and air transport, the most efficient production and distribution systems, finance and banking, could have been researched in the 1950s-60s and the best solutions implemented in the 1970s. This could have been done in both the developed nations and also in the undeveloped nations under a proper global development plan.

The awareness of growing systemic problems caused by increasingly global scale development was profound by the start of the 1970s. The Limits to Growth computer project, the first real use of computer modelling, confirmed them in 1972. In fact this project, which posited a series of projected options, indicated that serious problems would arise if things continued as they were. As it turns out, the modelling has been basically accurate and we now face the threats outlined by the project.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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