Not long ago, the end seemed nigh. Humanity had never had a weapon it didn't use against itself, and the dawn of the atomic age meant civilization itself could be wiped out.
But in the 62 years since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many fingers have been on the nuclear button, and none pressed it. There's no telling what will happen if rogue regimes in North Korea or Iran get the bomb -- but if these trends hold, it seems life won't end as it began: with a big bang.
However, our advanced society could still collapse more quietly, with a mere whimper. We may, in fact, already be heading down that road. We wouldn't be the first society to simply fade away.
Across centuries, the Romans built a massive empire, stretching for thousands of miles. Rome built roads, a system to deliver water to a thirsty city, and encouraged intellectual development in its upper classes. Over time, though, the Romans forgot how to maintain the things they'd built. Their empire hollowed out and eventually collapsed, leaving humanity in the dark. It took centuries for scholars to relearn the things the Romans had known.
Now, take a look at modern-day America. We're undoubtedly more technologically advanced than ever before. But at the same time, we may well be forgetting the things that have made our advances possible.
Consider our infrastructure.
In 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge opened to much fanfare. At the time it carried pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages and trains across the East River. More than 100 years later, it remains a vital link, carrying thousands of cars every day. Think about that. When John Roebling started designing the bridge, he couldn't have imagined it would one day be used by automobiles, which hadn't been invented and are much heavier than horse carts. Yet his bridge was built solidly enough to handle this extra load, decade in and decade out.
Compare that with the 35W bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed earlier this month. That bridge was built just 40 years ago, specifically for interstate highway traffic. It should have been designed to deal with the steady pounding of thousands of cars and trucks. Yet it simply couldn't handle the load.
Our electrical grid is another example. In 2003 the northeast suffered through a massive blackout when the overloaded system failed. At the time, former energy secretary Bill Richardson observed that, "We're a superpower with a third-world electricity grid."
The blackout warned us that we need to increase supply to meet demand. But we haven't. Every year our demand for power increases -- there are ever more air conditioners to cool our homes, iPods and cell phones to charge, computers running constantly so they'll be ready at a moment's notice.
But we can't agree to build new power lines to supply these technological wonders. Even in New York, where the lights went out just a few years ago, "No one wants massive towers and power lines cutting through the Upper Delaware Scenic River Valley, or their backyard for that matter," claims Rep. Maurice Hinchey. He's a Democrat who represents an upstate district and is fighting to block a project that would build a 200-mile power line from Oneida County to Orange County, New York.
A similar battle is happening in other states. For example, Dominion Virginia Power wants to build a 165-foot high, 65-mile long electrical transmission line to deliver energy to the booming Northern Virginia area.
Not so fast, say local politicians. "I don't believe we're in a crisis situation," Prince William County Supervisor Wally Covington announced at a public hearing. But we should be building new infrastructure before we reach a crisis. Why wait until there's another blackout? And, rest assured that if the power fails in New York or Virginia next summer, politicians will be the first to howl and demand hearings to determine "why this happened."
In many ways, Americans today are, to use Newton's phrase, "standing on the shoulders of giants." Earlier generations left us great things (such as the Brooklyn Bridge and an electrical grid) that were so well made we've been able to put remarkable demands on them and still use them today. But unless we relearn how to build such things for ourselves, we could be dooming future generations to a bleak future.
Shrinking the size and influence of government would be a good start. Note that it is politicians who're blocking new power lines, and government engineers who inspected the Minneapolis bridge each year and allowed it to remain in service.
Maybe if Americans were again made to feel that we needed to do things for ourselves, we'd surprise ourselves again with what we could do.