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The Human Prospect

I: The Mood of Our Times

There is a question in the air, a question so disturbing that I would hesitate to ask it aloud did I not believe it existed unvoiced in the minds of many: “Is there hope for man?”

In another era such a question might have raised thoughts of man’s ultimate salvation or damnation. But today the brooding doubts that it arouses have to do with life on earth, now and for the relatively few generations that constitute the limit of our capacity to imagine the future. For the question asks whether we can imagine that future other than as a continuation of the darkness, cruelty, and disorder of the past; worse, whether we do not foresee in the human prospect a deterioration of things, even an impending catastrophe of fearful dimensions.

That such a question hovers in the background of our minds is a proposition that I shall not defend by citing scattered evidence. I will rest my case on the reader’s own response, gambling that my initial assertion does not generate in him or her the incredulity I should feel were I to open a book whose first statement was that the prevailing mood of our times was one of widely shared optimism. Thus I shall simply start by assuming that the reader shares with me an awareness of an oppressive anticipation of the future. The nature of the evidence on which this state of mind ultimately rests will be the subject of the next section. But the state of mind itself must be looked into before we can proceed to examine the evidence, for our initial perspective enters into and colors the assessment we make of the “objective” data. Let us therefore open our inquiry into the human prospect by taking stock of our current anxiety.

I think we can find three main sources, or perhaps three levels of explanation, for the pall that has fallen over our spirits.

The first of these I will call topical, to refer to a barrage of confidence-shaking events that has filled us with a sense of unease and foreboding during the past decade or so. No doubt foremost among these events has been the Vietnam war, an experience that has undermined every aspect of American life. But the Vietnam war was only one among many confidence-shaking events. The explosion of street crime, race riots, bombings, bizarre airplane hijackings, shocking assassinations, government intrigue at the highest levels, has made a mockery of the television image of middle-class American gentility, and brought home with terrible impact the recognition of a barbarism hidden behind the amenities of life.

Perhaps even more important has been yet another development of the recent past—the failure of the present middle-aged generation to pass its norms and values along to its children. The ubiquitous use of drugs, the extreme sexual relaxation, the defiantly unconventional modes of dress, the unprecedented phenomenon of “dropping out,” especially among the children of the most successful classes, all have added their freight of disquiet and disconcert to the mood of our times.

When I call these causes of our present mood “topical,” I do not imply that they are mere surface phenomena. Some of these manifestations may be no more than those curious societal epidemics that have often raged, and then burned themselves out; others seem to have deeper roots and to signify changes of longer duration. By topicality, I refer, rather, to the fact that these events have become part of our day-to-day existences, the conversational fare of a million breakfast tables, instilling in us a feeling of dismay, often bordering on despair.

I do not think, however, that we can explain our present mood solely by these topical blows. Hence I call attention to a second source of our present pessimism—a series of attitudinal changes that underlie and reinforce the topical events. Two of these attitudinal changes strike me as being of central importance.

The first is a loss of assurance about the course of social events. The present generation of adults has passed its formative years in a climate of extraordinary self-confidence regarding the direction of social change. For the oldest among us, this security was founded on the lingering belief in “progress” inherited from the late Victorian era. For the middle-aged, educated as I was in the 1930s, this Victorian heritage was already regarded as a period piece, battered first by World War I, then dealt its death blow by the Great Depression. But its comforting assurance had been replaced by the equally fortifying view that history was working like a vast organic machine to produce a good socialist society out of a bad capitalist one. And for the younger adults who formed their ideas in the 1940s and 1950s when this Marxian vista was itself regarded as an antique, reassurance was still provided by a pragmatic, managerial approach to social change. This was a time when one spoke of social problems as so many exercises in applied rationality: when economists seriously discussed the “fine tuning” of the economy; when the repair of the misery of a billion human beings was expected to be attained in a Decade of Development with the aid of a few billion dollars of foreign assistance, some technical advice, and a corps of youthful volunteers; when “growth” seemed to offer a setting in which many formerly recalcitrant problems were expected to lose their capacity for social mischief.

Today that sense of assurance and control has vanished, or is vanishing rapidly. We have become aware that rationality has its limits for engineering social change, and that these limits are much narrower than we had thought; that many economic and social problems lie outside the scope of our accustomed instruments of policy making; that growth does not bring about certain desired ends or arrest certain undesired trends.

Hence in place of the brave talk of the Kennedy generation of managerialists—not to mention the prophets of progress or of a benign dialectical logic of events—there is now a recrudescence of an intellectual conservatism that looks askance at the possibilities for large-scale social engineering, stressing the innumerable cases—for example, the institutionalization of poverty through the welfare system, or the exacerbation of racial friction through the efforts to promote racial equality—in which the consequences of well-intentioned acts have only given rise to other, sometimes more formidable problems than those which they had set out to cure.

Yet I do not believe that this second source of the erosion of confidence would by itself account for the present mood, were it not combined with another attitudinal change. This is our startled awareness that the quality of our surroundings, of “life,” is worsening. Of all the charges in our background awareness, perhaps none is so important as this.

One aspect of this new awareness is a fear that we will be unable to sustain the trend of economic growth for very much longer. The current oil shortage has given rise to talk of an economic “catastrophe.” The shortage is probably of limited duration, and if catastrophe comes it will only be the result of inadequate planning. Nonetheless, the energy crisis alerts us to a hitherto unimaginable prospect—a ceiling on industrial production. Such a possibility brings the troubling consideration of how we would manage the direction of events if economic expansion—the central pillar of support for the sanguine views of Victorians, traditional Marxists, and managerialists alike—were forced to come to an early end.

But this prospect, though it may be the more immediate cause of our newfound concern with growth, is fundamentally less troubling than another recently recognized state of affairs. This is the stunning discovery that economic growth carries previously unsuspected side effects whose cumulative impact may be more deleterious than the undoubted benefits that growth also brings. In the last few years we have become aware of these side effects in a visible decline of the quality of the air and water, in a series of manmade disasters of ecological imbalance, in a mounting general alarm over the environmental collapse that unrestricted growth could inflict. Thus, even more disturbing than the possibility of a serious deterioration in the quality of life if growth comes to an end is the awareness of a possibly disastrous decline in the conditions of existence if growth does not come to an end.

Perhaps the combination of these topical and attitudinal elements is enough to account for the dark mood of our time. But I shall nevertheless advance a third reason, although I suspect it only flickers, so to speak, in our consciousness. It is a civilizational malaise that enters into our current frame of mind.

For some time, observers skeptical of the panacea of growth have wondered why their contemporaries, who were three or five or ten times richer than their grandparents, or great-grandparents, or Pilgrim forebears, did not seem to be three or five or ten times happier or more content or more richly developed as human beings. This skepticism, formerly the preserve of a few “philosophically minded” critics, has now begun, I believe, to enter the consciousness of large numbers of men and women.

The skepticism had a certain ring of hypocrisy so long as most people in our society lived in a condition of low material attainment and static expectations. Only in the last century or so, as large numbers of men and women have moved “up” the scale—each generation consuming food in quantity and quality superior to that of the classes above them in the preceding generation, each generation able to enjoy a degree of mastery over death that would have appeared miraculous to its progenitors, each generation able to move about the surface of the earth or to command the powers of nature in ways that would have struck the previous generation with awe—only then could the philosophers’ warnings of the ultimate inadequacy of material possessions be tested in reality and, after an initial period of euphoria, discovered to be true.

The civilizational malaise, in brief, reflects the inability of a civilization directed to material improvement to satisfy the human spirit. To say as much is not to denigrate its achievements, which have been colossal, but to bring to the forefront of our consciousness a fact that I think must be reckoned with in searching the mood of our times. It is that the values of an industrial civilization, which has for two centuries given us not only material advance but also a sense of élan and purpose, now seem to be losing their self-evident justification. As yet, the doubts and disillusions are only faint. But they are there, and the stirrings they cause must be added to the unease that is so much a part of our age.

It must be clear from these introductory remarks that I do not pose the question—“Is there hope for man?”—as a mere rhetorical flourish, a straw figure to be dismantled as we proceed to more “serious” matters. The outlook for man, I believe, is painful, difficult, perhaps desperate, and the hope that can be held out for his future prospect seems very slim indeed. Thus to anticipate the conclusions of our inquiry, the answer to the question whether we can conceive of the future other than as a continuation of the darkness, cruelty, and disorder of the past seems to me to be no; and to the question of whether worse impends: yes.

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