I turned 50 this year but that’s of little interest to anyone but me. What may be of interest to others are the ways in which the world has changed over this last half century since the planet welcomed yet another soul to try its luck at life on February 26, 1971 in Albany, Georgia. As one ages, the ways in which the world changes are naturally of interest and I thought this would be a good marker in the sand for me to reflect on some of what the world in general has experienced in my time here.

               This obviously won’t be a comprehensive list but we’ll take a look at a few points of reference. I’ll let you gauge whether you think these changes make the world better or worse. Its not my place to say so. We’ll start with those responsible for most of these changes—you and me. I was born into a world of 3.7 billion people. Since that time we have made a nuisance of ourselves and swollen earth’s human population to 7.9 billion people and counting. If that doesn’t give you pause, I’m not sure what will. The sheer mass of humanity on the planet makes the world quite a different place than it was 50 years ago.

               The median household income in the United States in 1971 was $10,600. It was the first time the nation’s families crept to that level of wealth in its 195 year history. Today that number is $68,700, though a more telling number would be the average debt under which people live. I am not sure what that number was in 1971 but I am sure it was considerably less than the current median household debt of $59,800.

               A new home cost about $25,000 in 1971. Today the median home price is around $280,000. You could purchase a gallon of gas on the day I was born for 40 cents. Fifty years later, its around $2 more. A brand new 1971 Ford pickup with a tank full of 40 cent leaded gas would have set you back a little over $2000. A brand new F-150 today costs $50,000-$70,000.

               Since 1971, we’ve sent unmanned space-crafts beyond Pluto (which you may have heard lost its status as a planet a few years ago), headed to the outer edges of the universe. Others of its kind have landed on Mars and sent back remarkably clear images of the landscape there in the continuing search for evidence of life beyond earth.

The first test tube baby has been born, we’ve cloned sheep, sequenced the human genome, spliced the DNA of an extinct wooly mammoth into an elephant and then sequenced the extinct mammoth’s complete genome as well. We’ve placed genes from bacteria into the crops we grow to help them resist insect pests and herbicides. Despite a reduction in pesticide use and countless studies assuring of its safety, this technology still generates controversy.

               Since 1971. The world has seen vaccines developed for chicken pox, pneumonia, meningitis, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, lyme disease, and yes, in record time, even a new disease that popped up about a year ago called COVID-19. More on that later. Smallpox has been eradicated. Artificial hearts and kidneys have been developed. Yet many people here in the developed world still refuse to believe in science. Perhaps that’s because science still hasn’t come up with a better way to check for an enlarged prostate.

               Over the last 50 years we’ve seen world corn production rise from 12 billion bushels in 1971 to 44.6 billion in 2020. Rice production has soared from about 300 million metric tons (MT) to over 750 million. Global wheat production now stands at 772 million MT, up from just over 300 million MT in 1971. Soybean production has increased in this same time from 50 million MT to over 350 million MT. Similar results are observed for a host of crops, yet still people starve.

               Its not the ability to grow crops that is currently limiting. We are incredibly efficient at producing  food. So much so that the global volume of food waste is currently estimated at about 1.6 billion MT. Yet, because developed countries have not devised an equally efficient method of distributing that food to those who need it, we continue to face this age-old problem of hunger. It is no easy problem to solve and we will likely live with it for much longer.

               This efficiency with which we produce food comes with other costs as well. We still struggle with Aldo Leopold’s question of how to live on a piece of land without spoiling it. As our knowledge increases about how to grow food, so does our knowledge of the effects of how we grow food. There have been some improvements along the way to be sure. But, we continue to face issues of water supply, water quality, soil loss, carbon emissions, and biodiversity loss related to agriculture. Yet, agriculture remains our most basic and necessary link to the world that supports us. Agriculture is the most fundamental way in which we know we are a part of the world and we have no choice but to address these problems. We have much work left to do.

               And my, how popular culture has changed since 1971. Fifty years ago people were walking around in polyester, bell bottoms, big collars, and plaid pants. Today people walk around in fleece, skinny jeans and yoga pants. In 1971, the only three television networks existing in the United States were airing All in the Family, Marcus Welby, Gunsmoke, Sanford & Son, Mary Tyler Moore, Hawaii Five-O, the Partridge Family, Bonanza, Carol Burnett, Sonny & Cher, and the Wonderful World of Disney. What a lineup. Today we have thousands of channels and yet are offered shows like the Kardashians, Duck Dynasty, Mountain Men, the Bachelor, and the Walking Dead. I’ll go ahead and answer this one. TV shows were better in 1971.

You could go to great, old theaters, even in small towns in 1971 and see movies like “The Last Picture Show”, “Big Jake”, “Shaft”, “Harold & Maude”, “Dirty Harry”, “The French Connection”, and “Planet of the Apes” for $1.50. Don’t even ask about the popcorn and Coke. Today, if you want to see a movie in a theater, you’ll have to spend $10-$15 per person to see movies like “Monster Hunter”, “The Sponge Bob Movie”, “Wonder Woman ‘84”, The Crood’s: A New Age”, “Wrong Turn”, “Borat”, and “The War With Grandpa”. Not only that. You’ll risk catching COVID to do it. Alternatively, you can spend all night scrolling through the thousands of movie options on your home TV screen and nod off to sleep in your chair before finding a single thing worth watching that you haven’t seen before.

               The Pittsburgh Pirates won the 1971 World Series with the help of a 36 year old outfielder named Roberto Clemente, known as much for his humanitarianism as for his play on the field. The Pirates defeated Brooks Robinson and the Baltimore Orioles four games to three. Clemente was named the Series MVP and was killed in a plane crash fourteen months later delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.

               Since then, my Atlanta Braves, who many of us came to love on WTBS as one of the worst teams in baseball through the late 1970s and 80s, won 14 straight division championships from 1991-2005. They won 5 National League pennants and the 1995 World Series. I never thought I’d live to see it. But I did.

               1971 saw the release of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, John Lennon’s “Imagine”, “Tapestry” by Carole King, “Pearl” by Janis Joplin, “Who’s Next” by the Who, John Prine’s debut album, The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers”, The Allman Brothers “Live at Fillmore East”, and the incomparable Led Zeppelin “IV”. I’ll just leave that there.

               In the world of books, such works as “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”, “In the Shadow of Man”, “Encounters with the Archdruid”, “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas”, “Angle of Repose”, and “The Lorax”, hit the shelves.

               But, who needs books you say? After all, the digital age began in 1971 when the microprocessor—the little electronic component that does a computer’s work—was invented. This little piece of ceramic and circuitry the size of a fingernail held the same computing power as the first electronic computers built in 1946, which took up an entire room. Little did we know that this unimpressive-looking little chip would come to shape and control nearly every facet of our lives. Our society now depends on them. They’re found in refrigerators, cars, tractors, televisions, thermostats, boats, coffee machines, elevators, medical devices, doors, video games, and of course, that ubiquitous device we cannot free ourselves from, the cell phone.

Thanks to microprocessors you can sit at home and shop for clothes, groceries, medicine, and Christmas gifts. We can have video conversations, meetings, and classes with people on the other side of the world. You can wear pajama pants to a Zoom meeting and no one will ever know. I was able to gather up the arcane information for this essay, all while sitting in a chair on the front porch at the farm. We take it all for granted but it really is nothing short of miraculous.

               As convenient and useful as they are, life before cell phones was lived with a freedom unknown to those born after the mid to late 1990’s. Though countless people now argue constantly of the ways in which they are losing their freedoms, they rarely stop to consider that they give up their freedom the moment they voluntarily put that cell phone in their pocket each morning. These little machines record our every movement, our thoughts, personality, and interests. We are all accessible and trackable 24 hours a day. Just imagine the freedom we knew, without ever considering it, when we stepped out the door into the waiting world each morning dependent upon nothing but our own thoughts, faith, abilities, pleasures, labors, burdens, our fellow man, and our own sense of personal responsibility.

               My generation was the first to immerse itself in the digital age. We were enamored by everything from Pong to Pac-Man, Atari to X-Box. We grew up with Frogger, Pitfall, and Donkey Kong. We went from vinyl records to 8-track tapes, cassettes, CD’s, MP3’s and back to vinyl again.

               I kept up with digital entertainment technology pretty well through the heyday of DVD’s. I use digital streaming services but rely on my children to set it up the way I set up my grandparents’ VCR. When it comes to music, like books, I prefer an actual physical object that I have full control over to reliance on a service to archive these necessities for me. After all, what if I forget my password again?

               Generation X, of which I am a proud member, was the bridge between riding bicycles down the road to play baseball with a group of friends on a summer day and sitting in your room playing video games or chatting with friends over group texts, chats, and social media. We built forts in the woods and drank Dr. Pepper and Nehi Orange Cola from cold, glass bottles. We waited for hours by the stereo for the DJ to play our favorite songs so we could dub them onto cassette tapes. We watched cartoons like Bugs Bunny and Hong Kong Phooey on Saturday mornings. We witnessed the miracle of caller ID. We played video games, enjoyed cable and satellite television.  And we will have to spend our late years, channel surfing through subscription services for something bearable to watch.

               But enough curmudgeonly talk. We’ve seen quite a lot over the last 50 years. My generation saw the deaths of Elvis, John Wayne, and John Lennon. We saw President Reagan get shot. We witnessed the Challenger Space Shuttle disappear against the blue Florida sky, billowing plumes of smoke trailing off from the explosion. Like most kids of that time, I watched the event on a television atop one of those rolling carts in a classroom because there was a teacher aboard that shuttle.

               We saw the Berlin Wall come down, the end of the Cold War and the USSR. We’ve seen two U.S. wars in the Middle East, the formation of the EU, the retail takeovers by the unlikely titans Wal-Mart and We saw the opening of the International Space Station and the horrors of 9-11.

               Perhaps the most collectively life-changing event all of us alive today have experienced has been the one we are still going through—COVID. Its been a long year. And while there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel, we still have a ways to go. This nightmare is not yet over but the vaccines are here. To date, over 500,000 Americans and 2.65 million human beings the world over have succumbed to the disease. All of us know someone who has had COVID if we did not have it ourselves. Most of us know someone who perished from it.

               The disease has changed us in many ways. We’ve learned how to have Zoom meetings. We’ve learned how to wear masks, or not. We social distance, or not. We listen to science, or not. The disease, or more accurately, the politics around the disease have subsumed the science of how to manage it and have pitted us against one another all too often.

               We’ve had a year without the normal large communal gatherings like Christmas and Thanksgiving. A year without concerts, crowded movie theaters and sporting events as we’ve always known or experienced them. But, we’re still here. Still trying to get through this thing.

               For a while the world itself felt the slowing down of our pace—our anthropause as it has been called. Air pollution and water pollution dropped considerably in many areas when our activity slowed. Wild animals returned to areas in which they had not been seen for years. And people disconnected from the land for a long time had the chance to stop and take a look around. There was renewed interest in birding and fishing and walks alone in the woods. A lot of people seemed to find a place, any place, they could experience the world outside.  This always seems to make the world a better place.

               My place was the same one it has always been—the farm. Work there went on as it pretty much always had. What better way to spend a pandemic than in the isolated work of farming? At least for a little while I could take my mind off COVID.  I mowed. I sprayed. I repaired irrigation. I scouted the trees looking for pests and disease and monitored the crop development. I mowed some more.

About 35 years ago, the road that carries one out to our farm was paved. I can still remember the washboard ruts, which would rattle our teeth loose. The paving was a harbinger of more changes to come to the farm. A large bluff overlooking Lake Blackshear on the West side of the farm was developed by my grandfather and his siblings to create a subdivision of lake homes from a 30 acre cow pasture in the mid 1990s. But, most of the farm is still in-tact. Center pivot irrigation went up in most of the fields in the late 90s/early 2000s. Pine trees were planted on most of the sloped land about the same time and the pecan acreage has been increasing since I started planting in 2005. All these changes are echoes of similar changes to the landscape throughout our region.  

Its not all the big events of the last 50 years that I remember most. What I remember is listening to old records from the 50s and 60s with my Mom in our green-carpeted living room. Riding fast downhill on the bluff at the farm in my Dad’s 1979 F-100 and his laugh as we skidded to a stop at the edge of Lake Blackshear. I remember countless nights fishing for white perch at the dock on Limestone Creek with my Grandfather and the way he said “Uuuuunh-huh” every time he had a bite. I remember my grandmother’s biscuits. Her lemon pie. Riding horses with my aunt Kate. Following bird dogs with my uncle Bill. The itch of my first polyester Little League uniform. Another grandfather’s pipe smoke. Another grandmother’s heart as warm as her food was bad. My wife having her wedding portrait taken in a cow pasture with one curious cow nosing her way into the shot. Tumbling and wrestling in the floor with my daughters. My wife would tell us to “stop playing rough”. So, that’s what we called it. Playing “rough”.

It’s been a great fifty years. Time is relentless. It has threaded my head with grey at the temples and it has offered up many gifts along the way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s