The 20th Century: What's Worth Saving?

Things from the past 100 years we think are worth taking into the 21st century


| May-June 1999


Let's face it: The 20th century has been rough going. Auschwitz. Hiroshima. The Gulag. Chernobyl. AIDS. We've endured unprecedented levels of environmental despoliation, personal alienation, and human bloodshed. As The New Internationalist magazine notes, "Only the most blinkered, privileged observer could retain an unalloyed faith in the notion of human progress at the end of the 20th century." Yet at the same time great strides have been made in many fields, from social justice to medicine to pop music, largely through the vision of dedicated groups of people. Perhaps that is the century's most important lesson: No technology, no ideology, no social trend can dictate the future; it's the outcome of the choices we make, both personally and as a society. Only when everyone has a voice will we be able to decide which choices are the best ones.

To start the discussion, we've drafted a list of things from the past 100 years we think are worth taking into the 21st century.

—Research: Andrea Martin, David Alm, Mae Anderson, Megan Kaplan, Sara Rubinstein

Aikido
Devoid of offensive moves, devoted to cooperation rather than competition, and dedicated to peaceful cultivation of the spirit, aikido was the fruit of a midlife mystical experience. Morihei Ueshiba, a Japanese martial artist since his youth, had finished a sword duel in 1925 when he suddenly saw the world turn golden and heard the words "I am the universe." Ueshiba infused the peace and joy of the experience into an amalgam of jujitsu and sword techniques that became the most life-affirming (and fastest-growing) of all martial arts.

Alcoholics Anonymous
In 1935 a New York stockbroker named Bill Wilson, sober a year but craving a drink, stood by the bed of a desperate alcoholic named Dr. Bob Smith, talking about their mutual disease. Wilson's certainty that he could stay sober if he helped another drunk was the founding insight of Alcoholics Anonymous. The worldwide fellowship that resulted has saved innumerable lives. More than 1.2 million North Americans are involved in this vast network of mutual healing, with 600,000 more members overseas.

Antibiotics
When Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming went on vacation in 1928 and left his staphylococci sample uncovered, he returned to find a mold attacking it. That mold—penicillin—launched the first of several families of antibiotics, so named in 1943 by Selman Waksman, the Russian-Jewish immigrant who discovered streptomycin. The least complex and least expensive of life-sustaining technologies, antibiotics have their dark side—resistant bacteria and weakened immune systems—but continue to save lives and restore health to millions.