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An Exchange on The Human Prospect

In response to:

The Human Prospect from the January 24, 1974 issue

To the Editors:

Heilbroner’s premonition of a new Dark Age [NYR, January 24] is credible in the sense of a disintegration of traditional values, institutions, and ways of life. But there is at least the possibility, and I believe the probability (barring a nuclear holocaust), that the coming Dark Age, like the medieval original, will be a time of regeneration as well as disintegration. Historians now are generally agreed that the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire were centuries of extraordinary creativity during which the essentials of modern civilization emerged. It was a time of shrinkage of commerce and cities, disappearances of bureaucracies and armies, and crumbling of roads and aqueducts and palaces. But it was also a time of fateful social mutation—of evolving new relationships between man and man and between man and nature. “All in all,” concludes the historian Robert Lopez, “the [barbarian] invasions gave the coup de grâce to a culture which had come to a standstill after reaching its apogee and seemed doomed to wither away. We are reminded of the cruel bombings in our own day which destroyed ramshackle old buildings and so made possible the reconstruction of towns on more modern lines.” The analogy is relevant for our age, which is undergoing a disintegration-reintegration experience similar to that precipitated by the barbarian invasions and the World War II bombings.

My quarrel with Heilbroner is that in this appraisal, in contrast to his earlier writings, he has focused on the current counterpart of invasions and bombings, and slighted the green shoots which are sprouting amidst the ugly wreckage of contemporary civilization as assuredly as they sprouted amidst the imperial ruins of Rome. Depending on local conditions and traditions, these green shoots are assuming myriad forms: the awakening of hitherto dormant nationalities, the protest of women against their traditional subservience, the unrest of workers seeking more control of shops and offices, the reaction of youth against war and injustice, the assertiveness of hitherto quiescent or suppressed subcultures such as those of homosexuals, gypsies, priests and nuns, and the demand of frustrated citizens that the familiar representative democracy be transformed into participatory democracy and extended from the political to the economic and social aspects of life.

The People’s Republic of China is perhaps the most glaring example of Heilbroner’s slighting of green shoots. He refers to the “cesspool of Calcutta” as “the image of urban depredation toward which the dynamics of population growth are pushing the poorest lands.” But why must Calcutta be the model? Why not Shanghai, which a few decades ago was as much a cesspool as Calcutta, but which today is a city whose cleanliness, health standards, and freedom from crime some New Yorkers might envy. Many of the most basic problems that so depress Heilbroner and lead him to such melancholy conclusions have been tackled directly by the Chinese with significant institutional innovations and equally significant results. Malnutrition has been eliminated, the population explosion has been effectively curbed, the traditional dichotomy between urban centers and rural countryside is being reduced, as is also the dichotomy between manual and mental work, and the nation’s organizational structure is being transformed into a vast federation of self-sufficient communes, with important positive repercussions regarding ecological stability. The Chinese even have produced their own nuclear arsenal, and have not used it, as Heilbroner fears, as “an instrument of blackmail to force the developed world to transfer large amounts of wealth to the poverty stricken world.” Instead China is transferring her own wealth for foreign aid purposes, and to a relatively larger degree than the affluent West.

The end result for one quarter of the human race is not only healthy bodies but also positive attitudinal changes which contrast markedly with the negative trends which Heilbroner elaborates at length as being typical of mankind today. Barry Richman, who is by no means favorably disposes toward the Maoist experiment, has compiled a revealing list of terms commonly used to describe the characteristics of the Chinese people before the revolution and today. Before the revolution the typical words were “suspicion, nepotism, despotism, favoritism, corruption, the dominance of conservative ruling elites, avoidance of responsibility, venality, face-saving at any cost, sloth, a lust for money, emphasis on family loyalty.” Typical adjectives today are quite different: “hard-working, dedicated, self-sacrificing, nationalistic, proud, pragmatic, flexible, well-disciplined, clear, resourceful, energetic, entrepreneurial, inventive, productive, well-motivated, honest, puritanical, sincere, cooperative with each other, thrifty, frugal, respectful of the virtues and dignity of labor….”

Nor is Richman alone in this appraisal. Even Western visitors with backgrounds such as Joseph Alsop’s and David Rockefeller’s, have been impressed not only by the full bellies but also by the spirit of communal service and the vision of what is possible tomorrow. James Reston reported “the tremendous effort to bring out what is best in men, what makes them good, what makes them cooperate with one another and be considerate and not beastly to one another. They are trying that.”

Such evaluations stand out in stark contrast to the “civilizational malaise” and “oppressive anticipation of the future” which Heilbroner finds in his survey of “The Human Prospect.” His conclusions might have been different if he had paid as much attention to what is going on in Chinese communes and factories and May 7 schools as he did to “resource-consuming and heat-generating processes.” Which raises the question of why Heilbroner and other distinguished American intellectuals have virtually ignored the Chinese quarter of the human race in their current appraisal of the total race.

Perhaps the explanation is that they are intellectuals and Americans. Heilbroner candidly describes his “most treasured privileges” as an intellectual—“the freedom to order one’s life as one pleases” and to indulge in “the most extravagant and heretical thoughts.” Certainly the Chinese intellectual enjoys no such privileges. He is required to labor with workers and peasants and even to be “reeducated” by them. Both his intellectual autonomy and style of life are subverted. It is not surprising that Theodore White, after visiting the History Department of Peking University, should report sadly that a student would learn more about China’s past history at Harvard than at Peking. This is quite true, and yet not very revealing of the unique innovations in Chinese education which are contributing to the elan and communal spirit and unbeastliness that has so affected Western observers of all backgrounds and persuasions.

Finally, Heilbroner is an American, and this also influences profoundly one’s view of world trends. Does the marked difference in tone and outlook of Heilbroner’s Future as History (1960) and his present Human Prospect reflect the receding future of man or the receding future of America as presently constituted? This is the question raised by David Truong in his letter to the editor of American Report protesting a pessimistic article on Vietnamese women. His observation deserves the careful reflection of American interpreters of the contemporary world.

After reading Gloria Emerson’s piece on Vietnamese women, I realize a little more the depth of Americans’ problems and depression which usually overwhelm them in their dealing with themselves and other people.

Emerson’s article reflects better the American scene than the Vietnamese woman in struggle for the independence of her country….

To many Vietnamese, it is understandable that Americans would feel depressed over the state of affairs in their own country given all the things Nixon has done. I have yet to meet an American in the peace movement who doesn’t feel the same, and who would not try to transpose his gloom onto the Vietnamese for some obscure reason. Perhaps this is a remnant of America’s messianic zeal of the past when “what was best for America must also be best for everybody else.”…

As a Vietnamese, it is sad for me to see that Americans continue to refuse what is theirs—the current depression due to crises and Nixon himself—and to visualize their problems being with the Vietnamese. As far as we are concerned, this unrequested attention is often more than we can bear. This is in a way a lesson to be drawn from the Viet Nam war.

L.S. Stavrianos

Menlo Park, California

To the Editors:

Robert Heilbroner’s “What is the Human Prospect?” is the most important article to appear in the Review since S.R. Eyre’s “Man the Pest: The Dim Chance of Survival” (November 18, 1971). I think that anyone who reflects deeply about the human prospect will realize that Heilbroner has identified the make-or-break issues of our age: war, population and food, resources and energy, environment, development and the redistribution of wealth, the socio-economic ideology of growth, the proper uses of science and technology, and the requirements of political regulation. His scope and clarity are remarkable.

Yet I believe that he underestimates both the dangers and the potentialities before us. For example, nuclear peacekeeping is still precarious, dependent on the personal relationships of a few harassed world leaders, the quality of failsafe hardware, and similar intangibles. The danger of large-scale nuclear war may still be our most immediate survival problem, critical on a scale of months and years, not generations. Environmental dangers may be even more imminent than we understand—by no means does Heilbroner present a “worst case” ecological scenario.

Above all, I think Heilbroner is too sanguine about the workability of political control based on Hyperbolic National Identification and public loyalty to Parent-Surrogate Leader Figures. He expects criticism on this point, but he wants us to face the drastic nature of the human situation and the iron discipline that may be necessary for survival. He is courageous to offer up even the intellectual freedom he so treasures in sacrifice to necessary discipline, but his courage is misplaced.

Hypertrophied nationalism has clearly been a successful strategy for social discipline in the past, but it is exactly the wrong strategy for the future. All our critical problems are now global problems, and they can only be dealt with through unprededented international cooperation and identification with the whole evolutionary adventure of humanity and life on earth. Authoritarian Parent-Leader-Deities have been able to bend peasant and proletarian masses to their wills throughout history, but this situation is changing quickly. Solving our critical problems will require an unprecedented mobilization of human intelligence through education and research and diverse movements for change and more adaptive planning than we have ever had before. Well-educated people resist being manipulated by authoritarian elites and leader figures—this is the message of much of today’s unrest. Intellectual innovation does not flourish in an authoritarian climate. It is important to see that the ecology movement, ZPG, the consumer movement, the women’s movement, the research and warnings on growth limits—all the really adaptive responses so far—have come out of climates of relatively high intellectual freedom. The planning we need to do must be extraordinarily experimental; it must acknowledge uncertainties, fostering a diversity of problem-solving approaches, embracing the lessons of error, continuously modifying with every increase in knowledge and moral awareness. Authoritarian approaches, focused on the infallible ideas of The Leader, are incapable of this kind of responsiveness and openness to learning and corrective feedbacks.

I see the political process standards required for our survival as very high—Heilbroner might call them utopian, impossible. Yet who knows what is possible in this unique situation of world transformation? More has been learned and achieved since World War II than in the entire previous experience of the human race. The one-generation jump to “planetary” levels of power and rapid interaction now seem to be forcing a restructuring of human society that—if we survive—will come faster than we dared to dream.

We need warnings like The Limits to Growth (and like Heilbroner’s excellent article!). Just as much, we need inspiring visions. The levelling of growth should not be seen as “the end of progress,” for it is really “the beginning of planetary adulthood.” Just as an adolescent is ready to direct his mature powers to mature pursuits when his physical growth stops, so as we reach “planetary maturity” we can turn our full attention to the mature pursuits of fostering a quality of life and a flowering of human potentials undreamed of in the childhood of the race.

Disasters do loom ahead. But if we have done our homework, spread responsible warnings, elaborated positive alternative futures, worked out designs for change, and mobilized enough people, then disasters can be converted to moments of opportunity for catalytic change that can make all the difference for humanity’s prospects.

Robert L. Olson

University of Illinois

Urbana, Illinois

Robert L Heilbroner replies:

The editors of the Review have been kind enough to suggest that I use this opportunity not only to reply to the letters printed above, but to numerous others that limitations of space make it impossible to print.

This gives me a welcome opportunity to emphasize that my essay attempts to appraise the nature and difficulties of the human prospect over a period I have described as the next “two or three” generations. In a curious fashion, events have made the book “relevant” in ways that perhaps strengthen its impact but that dilute its intended purport. The essay was begun in the summer of 1972 and finished in August, 1973. There was then no hint of an impending energy crisis of the magnitude we have since experienced, and when this crisis—wholly unforeseen by me—materialized, it was as if a script that I had written for the future were suddenly flashed on a thousand screens in a sneak preview.

It is important to recognize that the troubles through which we are now passing are not the troubles depicted in The Human Prospect. The stringencies of resource availability, or the global struggle for wealth, or the still more distant constraints of heat pollution remain some distance ahead. The current oil shortage is likely to be short-lived, and it may be that things will revert to “normal” in the near future. The lesson of the present crisis is therefore a warning that the trend of industrial growth is much more subject to adverse influences than we had previously realized, and that the long-term prospects described in my book cannot be dismissed as mere groundless fancies. (I might also add that the struggle to get gasoline prefigures in miniature my concern about the Hobbesian consequences of a goods-hungry world.)

Were I to recast the book in the light of what I have learned since its completion, I would modify it only in two ways. First, I would add the possibility of economic blackmail to that of nuclear blackmail, stressing above all that the balance of power between the rich and poor nations was inexorably shifting in favor of the poor (at least in favor of those who possess raw materials). Here again the present situation is a harbinger of the future. Second, I would pay heed to the possibilities of impending climatic changes that may seriously lessen the food producing capabilities of the world. The current dreadful famines in Africa seem to be the consequence of such changing weather patterns. If these patterns continue to change, as some meteorologists fear, the problem of heat pollution would be deferred, but that of food production would be enormously worsened. In any event, the outlook for a decline in industrial capabilities remains unaltered.

This brings me to the letters above. I would agree with Professor Stavrianos that seeds of a new culture may sprout while an older culture decays, and that the new attitudes of youth, women, and minorities perhaps presage the cultural shifts to which I allude at the end of my essay. What remains uncertain is the extent or staying power of these new movements and the depth and obduracy of resistances to them. The “counterculture” has so far only touched the fundamental processes of our industrial structure and we cannot foretell if it will succeed in bringing about major alterations in that structure.

I must say that I cannot see the basis for Professor Stavrianos’s contention that I have slighted the example of China. On the contrary, the Chinese example runs through my book like a red thread, and is singled out as precisely the form of government that can stop the population flood, generate a high sense of morale, and bring about “dramatic transformations in social organization.” This red thread is, however, accompanied by a blue one: my insistence that these changes will exact a price in political and intellectual freedom. I have tried to make it clear that this price would be very high to myself as a Western intellectual, but much lower for a people who had never known the douceurs so important to myself and who enjoyed the morale and material security of a restructured society.

Professor Olson’s letter raises a different set of questions. Essentially he asks whether the advent of successive limited disasters may not provide the stimulus for an “unprecedented mobilization of human intelligence” and for “adaptive responses” of an experimental, open, and nonauthoritarian kind. To this possibility I can add nothing but my devout hopes and my stubborn skepticism. Nothing would please me more than the chance to write a recantation in the year 2000, when I will be eighty-one, acknowledging that the human prospect was far brighter than I once thought, precisely because I had misjudged the human capacity for foresighted and humane response. Today, however, the outlook can hardly be called propitious for the formation of a national consensus anywhere in the industrial world, and the chances for an equitable international sharing of wealth seem hopeless. I wish it were not necessary to write this judgment, but honesty permits me no other.

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