RECAP: “The History of the World, 1950-2000,” February 10 Colloquium w/ MU Curators’ Distinguished Prof. Jonathan Sperber

Cuba. Computers, lasers, genetic engineering. The Internet. Women asserted themselves, a lot of demonstrations happened, colonial legacies were dismantled. The rise of East Asia, cell phones, McDonald’s. A list like this, MU Curators’ Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus Jonathan Sperber joked, is how pundits and journalists might sum up the topic of his February 10 colloquium as well as his new Oxford University Press monograph, The Age of Interconnection: A Global History of the Second Half of the 20th Century. To paraphrase The Winter’s Tale: Exit pundit, pursued by historian willing to do the heavier lifting of tracing main trajectories of development, parsing causality, and periodizing.

In terms of the particular era in question here, Prof. Sperber explained how his process for fashioning historical through lines began with identifying and harmonizing data from a wide variety of places, primarily divisions and organizations within the United Nations—e.g., the WHO, UNESCO, International Telecommunications Union, World Tourism Organization—but also individual countries’ statistical agencies and multi-national institutions like the World Bank. From here, certain categories for telling the history of 1950-2000 materialized, six of which he zoomed in on in his talk through looking at a series of charts, graphs, and maps.


The raw numbers show that global population grew from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 6 billion in 2000, including at a clip of 2% per year—the fastest in human history—from the 1950s to the 1970s, at which point the rate of growth began to taper. And with all the data at our fingertips now, Prof. Sperber continued, we can likewise glean more granular trends from this big picture. For example, life expectancy in developing nations dropped in the 1980s, much as it did in the mid-century, as a result of a rise in infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and vaccine-resistant tuberculosis. While we tend to associate the 1960s with youth, population growth in the 15-24 age range actually peaked in the 1970s. Rather than as a demographic phenomenon, then, we might think about the era of youth rebellion in social and cultural terms—i.e., in terms of policies that resulted in expanded access to university education or the growth of global consumerism as seen through the lenses of fashion and pop music.

Natural Resources

For better and for worse, the second half of the 20th century was a boom period for natural resource production and consumption. On one hand, the implementation of technological innovations from the century’s first half came to bear in its second. Average grain yields doubled, and then tripled, between 1961-2000, as hybridized grain crops made their way from wealthier nations to Asia (India and Pakistan, for context, achieved grain self-sufficiency during this period). Corn production was in such abundance—growing by a factor of 8 from 1930-2000 after showing no growth from 1870-1930—that many countries simply ran out of places to plant it. On the flip side, both oil and natural gas had surpassed king coal as the leading source of global energy by 1970, which resulted in carbon dioxide emissions quadrupling from 1960 forward, a date which might settle the debate about when the Anthropocene Age began.

The Economy

On all but one front, the mid-1970s served as a stark inflection point for tracking economic development. World GDP grew astronomically from 1950-73, and even those regions where it was slowest—the newly independent nations of Africa—saw a 4.4% increase per year. Post-1975, however, the only part of the world to experience sustained growth was East Asia. Why? As Prof. Sperber showed by pointing to the British Petroleum archives, the economic downturn can be directly attributed to oil prices, which skyrocketed in the 1970s after some 75 years of relative stagnancy. In a predictable consequence, declining economic growth rates took a toll on durable good consumption. A 20-year period of automobilization in the U.S., Britain’s former settler colonies, and Western Europe all but ended worldwide in the mid-70s. The outlier in this section of the talk was global foreign investment. Virtually non-existent in 1960, it numbered in the trillions by 2000.

Society and Gender

The theme of the 1970s once again surfaces. After the needle hardly moved in the 1950s and 60s, save for in Communist countries, the percentage of women of peak reproductive age (25-29) in the paid labor force spiked to as high as 75% post-1970, reflecting more or less a reversal of social ideas about the compatibility of employment and the nuclear family. Mapping onto this was a similar growth of women in higher education per 100 men. Once hyper-masculinized institutions, universities in Bulgaria, Ecuador, Italy, and the U.S. saw women outnumber men on the graduation dais toward the end of the millennium. At the same time, and likely a result of both the social changes and economic malaise of the last third of the 20th century, out-of-wedlock births steadily rose, signaling gravitation away from considering marriage as the site of family life.


“In engineering, in research, in manufacturing skill, in the values that bring a better, more satisfying life, at General Electric, progress is our most important product.” So went GE’s famous advertisement from the 1950s and 60s, as read by none other than Ronald Reagan. Then the economy plummeted. We started to realize that the technologies in which our belief in progress was rooted brought with them widespread environmental destruction. It has reached the point today where championing progress is little more than an act of naivete. To wit: Of the six languages that Prof. Sperber put to the test in Google N-gram, which measures the frequency with which words appear in the corpus of texts digitized by the search engine, usage of ‘progress’ declined in every one except Chinese.

International Relations

One story of the Cold War, which defined international relations for the vast majority of the period being examined, goes like this: The U.S. and Western Europe boasted military superiority and possessed an array of advanced weaponry; they produced not only the most durable goods but also the best movies. Fear, panic, and doubt—stoked repeatedly in the 1950s, 60s, and 80s—were entirely the fabricated product of domestic politics, used by the out-party to win elections. The outcome of the Cold War, with all this in mind, was never in doubt. Unless, of course, that’s not the story.

As Prof. Sperber argued, another version goes like this: By the 1950s, Communism had taken over most of the Asian land mass (and a third of the globe’s population), a disquieting state of affairs for the West, hence McCarthyism. By the 1980s, it had extended into South Asia and Africa. For the non-aligned nations of the world, the Soviet Union, Cuba proclaimed, was their natural ally. If you looked at the world stage at this time, you could have very reasonably argued that the Soviet Union was advancing and that the West was—and should have been—on the defensive. As national independence movements sprung up, however, and as many second-wave Communist countries descended into economic catastrophe, the tides shifted. Only the likes of Vladimir Putin continue to see the world as one might have in 1980.

There are two conclusions we can take away from these statistics, Prof. Sperber noted in wrapping up his talk. First, y = ex. Whether we look at international trade, greenhouse gas emissions, or the percentage of the world with Internet access, the theme of his new book might be boiled down to “an age of exponentials.” Second, in periodizing the era which followed total war, a tripartite chronological pattern emerges: a second industrial revolution came to pass from 1945 to the early 1960s, which was followed by a period of upheaval in the 60s and 70s, which brought us to what he deemed the late millennial era of 1980-2001 in which we can identify the origins of our current condition.