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by Larry

April, 2006

The Long View

On 4/18/1906, a quite powerful earthquake shook San Francisco, then a jewel of the Pacific with a 400,000-plus population. Through both bad luck and poor judgment, this major tragedy was made far more severe due to a resulting fire that, between 4/18 and 4/21, consumed almost the entire city. Among other missteps, a plan to create a firebreak, by setting off a series of explosions in the path of the spreading fire, destroying many buildings, instead of halting the conflagration, greatly assisted its advance. Just as the combination of natural phenomena and human decisions and involvement made of Hurricane Katrina a far greater debacle than it might have been, when such conditions come together, horrendous devastation may result.

But this short essay is not intended to be an historical review of the famous San Francisco earthquake and fire. That has already been accomplished much better than I could do, the marvelous results available online at such sites as:

The Fire on Market Street, Library of Congress Photo Collection
American Experience -The Great San Francisco Earthquake, The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco - The Great 1906 Earthquake and Fire, and Presidio of San Francisco - The 1906 Earthquake and Fire.

Rather, it is to point out how even highly traumatic circumstances, when seen with the perspective of significant later distance from the events, can present a quite different impression than for those who first endured them or for others viewing the events from their own time. A remarkable thing about the future Golden Gate city is that, for all its 1906 losses, and they were horrific, in less than 10 years it was not merely restored but burgeoning and ready to take on hosting the next World's Fair. Today, 100 years after its spectacular crises, San Francisco is again a beautiful gem in the American crown of favorite metropolises, and so prized a place of residence that the average house there goes for about a million dollars or more, at a time when the median 3-bedroom home in the nation as a whole sells for between $200,000-250,000.

So too, no doubt, it could be for New Orleans, which, though with major aches, pains, and false starts, is now slowly coming back, and in time may be transformed into a welcome destination and a coveted place of abode once more.

So too as well, perhaps, for our country. Arrayed before us, in spite of recent decades' relative prosperity and complacence, are a host of apparently insoluble difficulties, from wars on poverty, drugs, and terrorism (especially the deployment and use of weapons of mass destruction), to immigration issues, vast debts as far as the accountant's or economist's eyes may see, an energy supply/demand dilemma that has us using much of our military resources to assure and protect the means to foreign oil and natural gas, political scapegoating, corruption, partisanship, and extremism, a Crusades-like attitude of conflict and misunderstanding between the Judeo-Christian and Islamic worlds, increasing fresh water scarcity, substantial educational, labor, and health care problems, under funded mandates (catastrophic risk insurance, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, mortgage insurance, and corporate pension liabilities), a much neglected national infrastructure, threats of pandemics, the reality of global warming, a specter of serious competition from China and India, nuclear proliferation, and so on. Yet, just as San Francisco after the 1906 disasters came back strong, so too we shall likely as not slog on through all such conundrums. By a century from now, while much will be far different than today, yet the generations of that period may look back and marvel at how (just as we and our forebears after 1906 got through the First and Second World Wars, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the Cold War, numerous small hot wars, influenzas, AIDS, overpopulation, malnutrition, hazards to democracy from racism, fascism, and international Communism, and so forth), in spite of their ordeals, on the whole people endured all the way into the new century and 2106.

Looking back, they might note too that, even as those alive in the period from 1906 to 2006 saw amazing progress and innovations by the end of the 20th or early part of the 21st Centuries, similarly, the folks around in another hundred years will surely have much of which to be proud, and not merely the successful resolution of most of today's apparent quagmires. No doubt there will be yet new challenges. It could be in fact that for many, then as now, existence feels like just getting along "by the skin of our teeth." Yet those obstacles also may be bested in time.

The folks of 1906 simply could not have imagined the fantastic positive alterations another century would bring, in average lifespan, aircraft and auto transportation, household income after inflation, nuclear energy and medicine, the digital revolution, antibiotics, space travel and exploration, communication, scientific research, personal computing, microwaves, multiple other conveniences, or even the modern US toilet (that uses only about a third as much water as old models, though still much more than the typical outhouse employed by many in 1906), to name a few.

Corner of Bush and Market Streets, Library of Congress Photo Collection

In like manner, it is almost certain the next century will bring changes virtually beyond our current comprehension, perhaps in biotechnology, pharmacology, general medicine, wind, solar, tide, geothermal, and other environmentally friendly sources of energy, genetic engineering, such antigravity devices as my brother, George, has envisioned, truly sophisticated laser technologies, weather prediction, astronomy, cold fusion, contact with extraterrestrial life, agricultural or species preservation cloning, nanotechnology, physics, holography, advanced "intelligent" robotization, safe cures for most cancers, small-scale time travel, practical means to combat both the pollution and warming of our planet, superconductivity, manned colonization of the moon and Mars, treatments for Alzheimer's and other debilitating nervous system disorders, and so forth. While some of these examples might seem on a par with science fiction or sheer fantasy, changes at least as bizarre must be anticipated in the next 100 years, when one considers those which have indeed occurred in the last hundred, compared with what was known and could be realistically anticipated for those alive in 1906. My list may turn out to have been too tame (or innocent). (We may hope that many of the new developments, unlike in the last hundred years, will not find their ways into either warfare or "Big Brother" applications.)

For better or worse, we Homo sapiens are resourceful and resilient. With the benefit of the long view, it is possible to be at least a bit optimistic, though surely not euphoric. There is a good chance our generations' offspring, and theirs and theirs and theirs, will overcome any huge hardships, even ones which may test them as much as the 20th Century seemed terribly daunting to those who survived through most of it. In spite of everything, in another hundred years people will likely be doing just fine, thank you! Certainly, I would not want to bet against them.

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