Challenges of the 21st Century: Safety, Society & Environmental Concerns

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  • 0:01 21st-Century Concerns
  • 0:35 Global Safety
  • 2:09 Society
  • 3:54 Environment
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore just a few of the issues that face both the Western world and the globalized community in the 21st century - issues whose outcomes will greatly affect society and the world.

21st-Century Concern

Every period and every group of people in history has had a different set of problems that face it. For example, in Europe in the Middle Ages, avoiding death - be it from disease, warfare, or mishap - was an everyday reality for countless Europeans. Alternatively, in the Roaring 1920s in North America and elsewhere, society had to come to terms with its newfound prosperity and the changing of social norms and customs. In other words, every age has had its issues. In this lesson, we will discuss just a few of the pressing concerns that face you, me, and everyone in the 21st century.

Global Safety

Perhaps nothing signaled the beginning of a new age in global safety like the attacks on September 11th, 2001, in New York City, the Pentagon, and on Flight 93, which crashed in rural Pennsylvania. The heinous terrorist attacks that claimed nearly 3,000 civilian lives were only the beginning, as other attacks in London, Madrid, and Mumbai, India, followed within the decade. The attacks were all part of a new wave of terrorism, propelled by highly organized, anti-Western groups like al-Qaeda.

The rise of these terror groups provided a different threat to the safety of the United States and other countries than had previously been seen. Rather than a traditional opponent that follows typical rules of engagement and fires on military targets, these new groups were and are intent on striking at civilians to fight what they view as the encroachment of Western ideals and values upon their own culture. This reality has radically altered the way in which many countries around the world manage their borders, immigration, and transportation sectors.

The rise in security measures to protect against these attacks in the United States and around the world has also raised important questions about governments' access to their citizens' personal information. For example, the thousands of documents released by NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed widespread U.S. surveillance that at times broke international as well as U.S. law. These revelations helped raise important questions that will have to be answered in the following decades, such as how much surveillance is too much surveillance? Is any or all of it justified if it stops all terrorist attacks on civilians?


At the same time as governments fight to protect their citizens from terrorism, factors within society are fighting for change, as well. For example, in Western culture, gay marriage, or the marriage of two people of the same gender, is continuously gaining traction. First legalized in the Netherlands in 2001, it has since been legalized in numerous countries, like Belgium, Canada, and South Africa. In the United States, though it is not recognized federally, a growing handful of states have legalized the unions, and the Supreme Court of the United States has stated that other states must recognize the marriage licenses issued to gay people by other states.

In the United States, and in much of the world, there is significant opposition to the legalization of gay marriage, often from religious leaders and politicians who maintain marriage should be solely recognized as the union of one man and one woman. In states and countries where religion plays a larger role in society, such as in some parts of Africa and the Middle East, the blowback is even tougher: in Uganda in 2014, for instance, the country's Parliament passed a law that made homosexuality punishable by death. In other countries, like Qatar, homosexuality - specifically male homosexuality - is expressly forbidden and punishable by prison sentences.

Gay marriage, whether you are for or against it, is arguably the largest civil rights issue of our time. The growth of the globalized world - something the terrorist groups discussed in the previous section are reacting against - complicates the matter: the increased legalization of gay marriage in the Western world causes other parts of the world to see homosexuality as a Western import and not something inherent in their own communities. This reality and the particulars of gay marriage laws themselves is something that the world will continue to grapple with throughout the 21st century.

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