The recent (10-14 June, 1984) meeting of the World Future Society at the Washington Hilton was supposed to furnish numerous solutions to the world's pressing problems. It is not surprising that, although there were many pressing problems clearly delineated, there were far fewer clear solutions. After the opening session Sunday evening there were 15 concurrent one and one-half hour sessions four times a day, with a few additional sessions meeting in the evenings, and a well known
speaker at each of the four luncheons - a total of something more than 250 widely different sessions treating nearly every aspect of human endeavor, including one final session at 4 PM on Thursday on "Intelligent Life in Space" which featured one NASA scientist who gave a reasoned account of current SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) programs and two UFO enthusiasts, the last with some really beautiful color shots of a UFO driven by an attractive blonde, on the lawn of a Swiss house. The previous speaker was full of misinformation about spaceship landing sites which are well documented meteorite falls - I did not waste my breath correcting him.
In isolated compounds man would soon shrivel to apehood.
The opening of the Assembly featured memorial tributes to three of the greatest minds in our generation: Herman Kahn (1922-1983), founder of the Hudson Institute; Aurello Peccei (1908-1984), founder of the Club of Rome; and Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), whose fertile imagination gave us Dymaxion maps, globes, cars, houses, etc. All received splendid tributes from associates - in the case of Fuller, his daughter spoke.
For me the most important session of the five days was the 4 PM Wednesday session: "What is Most Important of ALL." Moderating was Allen Tough, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto. The other speakers: Warren Wagar, Professor of History, State University of New York, Binghampton, and Robert Mellert, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Brookdaie Community College, Lincroft, NJ.
First speaker was Professor Wagar, author of Terminal Visions - a book examining all literature which has the end of the world as its main subject. Remarking that he took the subject assigned to him quite literally, and hence had no list, he continued:
What one thing is most important of all? In this George Orwell year of 1984 I am tempted to say the physical survival of the species - genes, chromosomes, and all - and that is not an Orwellian answer! It is an anti-Orwellian answer - the canonization of Orwell was premature. Orwell never attached much importance to the existence of homo sapiens. He would have said, in reply to today's question, "The most important thing is the opportunity to live in freedom and dignity without being bossed by some all-engulfing state" - some holopolis. "Life in a holopolis," said Orwell, "is not worth living - it is worse than death;" but the 'better dead than Red' philosophy is not mine, and we have to adjust our priorities in an age of total weapons to something far more fundamental than anyone's vision of the good life, or anyone's Utopia. The existence of life itself has to come first - not even the worst tyranny threatens mankind so viscerally as it is threatened today by a world-ending nuclear war. In the words of the old Latin saying, "Where there is life there is hope."
...What, then, deserves the highest priority? What comes first? I am not entirely comfortable with such words as existence, or survival. They are simply biological concepts, and homo sapiens is the one species known to science that is not reducible to genes and chromosomes, or cells and tissue, or organs and organisms; a purely natural man or woman, stripped of the millenia of cultural evolution we all inherit would be a speechless, mindless, amoral animal - not really a human being. In any event, the purely biological survival is probably not at risk - the worst case scenario ... allows bands of hunters and food gatherers to cling to life in the highest latitudes of the southern hemisphere.
So we must ask the question again, and answer more fully: What is most important of all? It is the survival of civilization, of human culture, at a level high enough to permit the resumption of the business of history - the business of being human - no matter what else may happen .... World War III would employ the fullest resources of our culture - it would be an event in history, and it would be a human event; other animals could not possibly manage it .... the self-destruction of the human race would be just that: self-destruction. It would be no good blaming the computer, or missiles, or demons from Hell who invaded the cerebral cortex of Chairman So-and-So or President Such-and-Such; it would be a colossally, stupendously, marvelously human venture, which suggests that perhaps we have to define the word; which brings us back to Orwell. For Orwell, being human meant civil and personal liberty, the rule of law, and Democratic Socialism - as he understood that phrase. For other equally great minds, such as Jesus of Nazareth, Friedrich Hegel, Mahatma Gandhi, Khomeini, Mao Zedong, the shopping list for Utopia would be quite a bit different from Orwell's list. So how can we define the survival of civilization in a value-neutral sense without requiring the imposition of this or that Utopian vision, and at the same time requiring that all of civilization survive, lock, stock, and barrel, just as it is, including total weapons. Is there an essence, is there a working part in the cultures of mankind that must survive, answering the description of that which is most important of all? I think there is; I refer to something quite concrete - nothing nebulous, like the human spirit, or faith, or common decency. What must survive, along with our genes and chromosomes and flesh, is our technology - enough know-how, and enough hardware, to get back on our feet and carry forward the human adventure, no matter what may happen. If the human race ever sinks below that level, which is very hard to define - if it does, it is probably finished; If it is reduced to clans and roving bands in the southern hemisphere, as in Carl Sagan's worst case, or in Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz there would not be enough available, naturally occurring and naturally renewable resources to reconstruct civilization from scratch; all the easy resources - the shallow oil, the high grade ore for metals, the outcroppings of coal, and so on would be gone, already found and used by the first round of civilization. And of course there is one other fatal flaw in the theory that an ignorant and inept humanity, reduced to tribalism, could ever start history over again, and that is the very fact of isolation. Thanks to the absence of a world-spanning technology of communication and transport - because homo sapiens is primarily a product of culture, rather than nature - men and women need other men and women to be human; they need parents, comrades, mentors, teachers, followers, and they need the stimuli of millions of other human beings, alive and dead - stimuli that come from the records and artifacts and values that those millions left behind. The way the world is going today we must agree with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Karl Marx and H.G. Wells that mankind is well on its way to planetization, or, as Chardin put it, that earth is well on its way to Homonization, a racial synthesis, a species synthesis, that is the diametrical opposite of tribalism, and makes all towns and villages everywhere wards and precincts in the city of man and woman.
...All that matters is that civilization cannot thrive, cannot live at all, without a technology of communication and transport to link mind to mind across hundreds and thousands of miles. In isolated compounds man would soon shrivel to apehood .... This leaves unanswered the question of how -- how on earth can we preserve enough of our technology and enough of our flesh in a world hell bent on self-destruction?
If we can hang on to enough life and enough know-how, enough technology - which obviously doesn't mean all the technology extant – a great deal of it is wasteful and dangerous and stupid - but if we can hang onto enough, a critical level capable of reproducing itself, then I have enough confidence in the versatility and resourcefulness of the human type to believe that everything else important will survive too. In every new generation, when the torch of knowledge is handed down, there is intelligence, love, strength, energy, and imagination aplenty, reborn into each human being who is born into this world to carry on the adventure of history..., but it will not be handed down if we fail to put survival first!
The moderator, Dr. Allen Tough, then continued with his assessment of what was most important of all. For him the most important thing was that mankind continue to develop and flourish in the future - the long term future. He broke the concept into three components:
- The survival of our life and culture
- The avoidance of massive deterioration
- The achievement of a positive future.
His estimate of the probability of non-survival for the next two decades was .15; which, as he said, was much too high - no deep sea diver, no mountain climber, no racing driver would take a chance of that kind. We should get the odds down to 1% per century - but even those odds would be a high risk over a long period.* He listed three main threats to human survival:
He next considered the second threat - massive deterioration. We may make such a mess of things that life will become brutish and go irretrievably downhill; so we should at least strive to keep life of a quality as good as we now possess - and we aren't doing that! At our present rate we aren't leaving much for future generations. Possibly the human gene pool will deteriorate so that most of those born would not be recognized as human by us.
- The Nuclear Arms race
- Changes in the atmosphere
- Reversal of the earth's magnetic field (this happened last some tens of thousands of years ago, but there is some evidence it may be about to occur again.)
For the last component, achieving a positive future, he set out four needs:
The last member of the panel, Dr. Robert Mellert, took a quite different approach. He began by describing one of Jacques Cousteau's TV series; the divers had watched the mating, and then the deaths following, of a group of giant squid. The male died immediately, and the female as soon as she had laid her eggs.
- We need a better goal-setting system.
- We need to develop the desire to cooperate and contribute - not be so concerned with our own personal benefits.
- We need to understand the universe - how it developed, where it is heading, and our place in it. d) We must pay more attention to comparing our actions with other intelligent species' - with interacting and communicating with them, since there are data to indicate we may do so in the next 20-30 years.
Dr. Mellert felt that in many ways we're like the squid - and also different in many ways. Like the squid we pass through a cycle of birth, life, and death, and make way for a new generation; if we didn't, what would the Social Security system do then? But we are different: while the squid leaves its offspring only its genes, we leave our knowledge and what we contribute to that knowledge. Alone on our planet we reason at a higher level than other animals; we can think about our thoughts, and prioritize our plans. We are caring beings - we care for each other (a better term than love, which has lost much of the intensity it used to have).
Unlike the squid, we can take the "eagle eye" approach - look down on the world from space, and see a wider perspective of what is most important. We see the squid as just one part of the pattern of nature of which we are also a part.
We are like the knots in a fisherman's net - we see that they are connected, and each knot is important - some, at stress points, more so than others - but the net itself is the reality - the connectedness of everything is what is really important.
But we tend to see things from our own egocentric predicament - for each of us is the center of his world - if we move, the center moves with us - and we cannot escape from this center. But can we not see ourselves as a part of the whole, and then add another dimension - the future -- to the spatial whole -- a view that extends to future generations?
Who speaks for future generations? We have the TV screen to remind us of world hunger, wars, etc. for today - but what reminds us of our responsibility to future generations; we don't talk much about that.
"If," said Dr. Mellert, "I take that responsibility seriously, then our life style is not conducive to making sense out of that responsibility. Realistically, I cannot expect, or even wish, for other people to achieve the standard of living I have. It is not sustainable now, and it won't be attainable in the future for them, either. Am I, then, a privileged person? I grew up with the slogan, 'If you can pay for it, you can have it.' But maybe we need a new slogan: 'I need to justify it before I can have it.' And the need for justification is not to a bureaucracy, but to ourselves!"
So, Dr. Mellert said, one should take as his goal how to live simply, with as little reliance as possible on our elaborate technology. He knew he could not live as simply as he would like - but he can produce some of his food, some energy, and so on.
"What we bequeath to future generations is the bottom line of our responsibility to ourselves. The past and future - it is there, in us; nothing else is so important."
* After 70 centuries the probability of survival would be less than 50%
(Continued next month)