The World in the Twenty-First Century

Global Culture, Global Economy

In many ways the world has become a much smaller place since World War II. High-speed trains, superhighways, and jet planes have made travel much faster. As a result of fax machines, e-mail, cell phones, video conferencing, and the Internet, communication happens instantly. The world-once rich in clearly distinct cultures is increasingly becoming one global culture, or a common worldwide culture. People around the world eat similar fast foods, play the same computer games, and use the same business technologies.

Global culture arose from the growing global market. Western Europeans saw how free trade between states benefited the United States. In the past, a businessperson in France could not trade with someone just a few miles away in Belgium or Spain without facing trade barriers, taxes, and currency (money) exchange. People in Western Europe wanted a market similar to the one between states in the United States.

In 1957, six nations formed the European Common Market. The goal of the Common Market was to reduce the barriers to trade and boost economic growth. Later other nations joined, and the Common Market was replaced by the European Union (EU). The EU also expanded its goals. It pledged to aid its weaker members and promote peace, equality, and a greener environment. In 2013, the EU had 27 member nations, all with democratic governments. It represented more than 500 million people. Other countries have applied for membership.

Europeans also adopted a single currency, the euro, to replace various national currencies such as the French franc and the German mark. Before that time, separate currencies had to be exchanged when merchandise moved across borders. To adopt the euro, EU member nations must meet a set of conditions. About two-thirds of member nations have done so. Denmark and Britain have not adopted the euro.

In North America, the United States, Canada, and Mexico eliminated trade barriers when they signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. A second trade agreement, the Dominican Republic Central America - US Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), took effect in 2006. Under CAFTA-DR, all tariffs are to be removed within 20 years. Tariffs increase the price of imported goods because the tax is passed on to the consumer.

While the world is more united in many ways, in other ways it remains divided. Ethnic conflicts continue to affect many regions of the world. During the 1990s, for example, Yugoslavia broke into several smaller nations based on ethnicity, culture, and religion. In the process, certain groups practiced ethnic cleansing, killing members of other ethnic groups. An estimated 200,000 people perished. Similar conflicts have happened in recent years in Rwanda, Somalia, Indonesia, Myanmar, and other places. Internal conflicts have also troubled many of the nations in Central and South America.

Concerns in the Twenty-First Century

One major concern is global population growth. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the world’s population was about 1.6 billion. By the end of the century, more than 6 billion people lived on the planet. Medical and technological advances have made it possible for people to live longer. However, those advances meant there were almost four times as many people to feed in 2000 as there had been in 1900. Technology has made it possible to feed most of these people. However, there is uncertainty about how long technology can keep up with population growth.

Another problem is damage to the environment. Human activity has polluted much of the land, water, and air. Oxygen-producing rain forests are cut down to make way for farms. Global warming and melting polar ice caps also trouble scientists. A warmer environment will affect our ability to grow food, and it may cause mass plant and animal extinctions. In 2006, an island off the coast of India disappeared because of rising sea levels. The 10,000 people who had lived there had to relocate. Other island nations and cities built near coasts may also be in danger.

The use of fossil fuels, such as oil, coal, and natural gas, is another key issue. Because fossil fuels are a limited resource, interest in renewable energy sources and “green” technology is growing. In 2008, investment in clean technology exceeded investment in fossil fuels for the first time. Solar, water, and wind energy are renewable energy sources. They do not have negative effects on the environment.

Alternative energy sources such as biofuels are attracting more interest. Biofuels are created by converting plant matter into liquid fuels. Corn and soybeans can be used to create biofuels, but using food crops in this way can increase food prices. Vegetable oils and animal fats can be used to create biodiesel or added to regular diesel fuel to make it cleaner.

The United States is the world’s largest consumer of energy. However, countries such as India and China are rapidly developing. The growing populations and economies in these countries have increasing demand for energy. This will further strain the world’s limited resources.

The HIV/ AIDS crisis is another major problem in the twenty-first century. The first known cases of AIDS were reported in 1981. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that about 34 million people w~re living with HIV in 2011. About 1.7 million people around the world died from AIDS that year. Caribbean nations and the sub-Saharan nations of Africa are most critically affected. Although only about 10 percent of the world’s people live in sub-Saharan Africa, about 70 percent of those infected with HIV live there. No place on the globe is immune. New drugs make it possible for people with the disease to live, but efforts to prevent the spread of the disease have not been effective so far.

Adults Living with HIV, 2011


On September 11, 2001, a group of religious fundamentalists and terrorists coordinated a series of attacks against the United States. More than 3,000 people died.

This was not the first attack against the United States. A car bomb exploded in 1993 at the World Trade Center. In 2000, a boat carrying explosives deliberately rammed the USS Cole, an American military ship, while it was in port in Yemen.

Some political groups use terrorism (violence and fear) to advance their causes. Some of these groups are supported by foreign governments. Others are independent. Terrorist attacks have occurred all over the world. Israel, the Philippines, Ireland, Spain, India, Pakistan, and Greece are some of the countries that have recently experienced attacks.