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Copthorne Macdonald's review of:

Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces
by Walter G. Moss

Published by Anthem Press ( 2008 
Hardback.    $35.00.    ISBN: 9781843313014

Available from and other booksellers.

It has been said many times: If you want to create a better world, you'd better understand how things came to be the way they are. In his latest book, AN AGE OF PROGRESS?, historian Walter Moss helps us do just that.

In this book Moss paints a vivid and comprehensive picture of humanity's successes and failures during the 20th century. He does this by looking at the century's key happenings and the global forces associated with them from a variety of illuminating perspectives. And throughout the book he weaves personal stories which make the parade of events and phenomena come to life.

Among the century's most regressive features were the "violent conflicts and murderous government policies" that resulted in the deaths of somewhere between 167 and 300 million people. Moss begins the book with a chapter headed "A Century of Violence," and in it presents a detailed look at the pervasive and often extreme violence which extended its shadow from the beginning of the century to the end. Chapter 2's perspective on the century, "Science, Technology, and the Acceleration of Change," delves into the positive and negative in those areas. Clearly, the increase in longevity and general health, coupled with the rise above subsistence living for billions of people smacks of progress. But as he points out, technology has also "made killing easier." In Chapter 3 Moss discusses the three major economic and social systems of the twentieth century — Capitalism, Socialism, and Communism — and their waxing and waning as the century progressed. Chapter 4 looks at the world's political and economic realities from the overarching perspectives of "Imperialism, Nationalism, and Globalization." In Chapter 5, "Freedom and Human rights," he reviews humanity's successes and failures in these areas. There have been many advances, but their price in human terms has often been high. "Changing Environments" is the title of Chapter 6, and here Moss explores not only the impact of technology and human activities on the natural world, but also addresses social environments and the movement of people from rural, to urban, to suburban settings. In addition, he explores the changing media environment over time, as well as changes in the pace of life. The next chapter, "Culture and Social Criticism," is devoted to culture defined broadly to embrace "the whole way of life of a group, including their physical and mental activities." Here Moss not only describes the century's progression of cultural and subcultural movements, but also presents the voices of their critics. The penultimate chapter, "Values and Virtues," opens with a discussion of postmodernism and its impact on late-twentieth-century intellectual thought and moves into a discussion of educational trends, values, and virtues. Data from a series of World Values Surveys made during the last two decades of the century looks at differences in attitude about these matters from a geographic perspective.

The book's final chapter, like the book itself, is titled "An Age of Progress?" — complete with that question mark. It deals first with the philosophical notion of progress. Is progress largely economic progress in the Adam Smith sense where, as Moss put it, "an 'invisible hand' was guiding individual acquisitive desires toward the overall improvement of mankind"? Or was it perhaps Tolstoy's view of progress as an overall improvement of well-being? Moss presents several takes on this issue and makes the observation that "by the end of the century, it was indeed evident how difficult it was for people's prudence, wisdom, and morality to keep pace with technological change." He then goes more deeply into the wisdom issue, and you can read what he has to say about it at

If we want to create a wiser world it is helpful to understand more about both wise and unwise ways of doing things. While the twentieth century may have been characterized more by the lack of wisdom than its presence, Walter Moss's book gives us examples of both and is a valuable, thought-provoking read for anyone who is interested in creating a more wisdom-centered world society.