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The Human Prospect

In a somewhat longer time frame—extending perhaps for a period of a half century—the main shaping force of the future takes on a different aspect. Assuming that the day-to-day, year-to-year crises are surmounted in relative safety, the issues of the relative resilience and adaptability of the two great socio-economic systems come to the fore as the decisive questions. Here the properties of industrial socialism and capitalism as ideal types seem likely to provide the parameters within which and by which the prospect for man will be formed. We have already indicated what general tendencies seem characteristic of each of these systems, and the advantages that may accrue to socialist—that is, planning and probably authoritarian social orders—during this era of adjustment.

In the long run, stretching a century or more ahead, still a different facet of the human prospect appears critical. This is the transformational problem, centered in the reconstruction of the material basis of civilization itself. In this period, as indefinite in its boundaries but as unmistakable in its mighty dimensions as a vast storm visible on the horizon, the challenge devolves upon those deep-lying capabilities for political change whose roots in “human nature” we have just examined.

It is the challenges of the middle and the long run that command our attention when we speculate about the human prospect, if only because those of the short run defy our prognostic grasp entirely. It seems unnecessary to add more than a few words to underline the magnitude of these still distant problems. No developing country has fully confronted the implications of becoming a “modern” nation-state whose industrial development must be severely limited, or considered the strategy for such a state in a world in which the Western nations, capitalist and socialist both, will continue for a long period to enjoy the material advantages of their early start. Within the advanced nations, in turn, the difficulties of adjustment are no less severe. No capitalist nation has as yet imagined the extent of the alterations it must undergo to attain a viable stationary socio-economic structure, and no socialist state has displayed the needed willingness to subordinate its national interests to supranational ones.

To these obstacles we must add certain elements of the political propensities in “human nature” that stand in the way of a rational, orderly adaptation of the industrial mode in the directions that will become increasingly urgent as the distant future comes closer. There seems no hope for a rapid modification of the human character to bring about a peaceful, organized reorientation of life styles. Men and women, much as they are today, will set the pace and determine the necessary means for the social changes that will eventually have to be made. The drift toward the strong exercise of political power—a movement given its initial momentum by the need to exercise a much wider and deeper administration of both production and consumption—is likely to attain added support from the psychological insecurity that will be sharpened in a period of unrest and uncertainty. The bonds of national identity are certain to exert their powerful force, mobilizing men for the collective efforts needed, but inhibiting the international sharing of burdens and wealth. The myopia that confines the present vision of men to the short-term future is not likely to disappear overnight, rendering still more difficult a planned and orderly retrenchment and redivision of output.

Therefore the outlook is for convulsive change—change forced upon us by external events rather than by conscious choice, by catastrophe rather than by calculation. As with Malthus’s much derided but all too prescient forecasts, nature will provide the checks, if foresight and “morality” do not. One such check could be the outbreak of wars arising from the explosive tensions of the coming period, which might reduce the growth rates of the surviving nation-states and thereby defer the danger of industrial asphyxiation for a period. Alternatively, nature may rescue us from ourselves by what John Platt has called a “storm of crisis problems.”23 As we breach now this, now that edge of environmental tolerance, local disasters—large-scale fatal urban temperature inversions, massive crop failures, resource limitations such as the current oil shortage—may also slow down economic growth and give a necessary impetus to the piecemeal construction of an ecologically and socially viable social system.

Such negative feedbacks are likely to exercise an all-important cushioning effect on a crisis that would otherwise in all probability overwhelm the slender human capabilities for planned adjustment to the future. However brutal these feedbacks, they are apt to prove effective in changing our attitudes as well as our actions, unlike appeals to our collective foresight, such as the exhortations of the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, or the manifesto of a group of British scientists calling for an immediate halt to growth.24 The problem is that the challenge to survival still lies sufficiently far in the future, and the inertial momentum of the present industrial order is still so great, that no substantial voluntary diminution of growth, much less a planned reorganization of society, is today even remotely imaginable. What leader of an underdeveloped nation, particularly one caught up in the exhilaration of a revolutionary restructuring of society, would call a halt to industrial activity in his impoverished land? What capitalist or socialist nation would put a ceiling on material output, limiting its citizens to the well-being obtainable from its present volume of production?

Thus, however admirable in intent, impassioned polemics against growth itself are exercises in futility today. Worse, they may even point in the wrong direction. Paradoxically, perhaps, the agenda for the moment lies in the temporary encouragement of the very process of industrial advance that is ultimately the mortal enemy. In the backward areas, the acute misery that is the potential source of so much international disruption can be remedied only to the extent that rapid improvements are introduced, including that minimal infrastructure needed to support a modern system of health services, education, transportation, fertilizer production, and the like. In the developed nations, what is required at the moment is the encouragement of technical advances that will permit the extraction of new resources to replace depleted reserves of scarce minerals, new sources of energy to stave off the collapse that would occur if present energy reservoirs were exhausted before substitutes were discovered, and above all, new techniques for the generation of energy that will minimize the associated generation of heat.

Thus there is a short period left during which we can probably continue on the present trajectory. It is possible that during this period a new direction will be struck that will greatly ease the otherwise inescapable adjustments. The underdeveloped nations, making a virtue of necessity, may redefine “development” in ways that limit technology and minimize the need for the accumulation of capital, stressing instead the education and vitality of their citizens. The possibilities of such a historic step would be much enhanced were the advanced nations to lead the way by a major effort to curtail the enormous wastefulness of industrial production as it is used today. If these changes took place, we might even look forward to a still more desirable redirection of history in a diminution of scale, a reduction in the size of the human community from the dangerous level of immense nation-states toward the “polis” that defined the appropriate reach of political power for the ancient Greeks.

All these are possibilities, but certainly not probabilities. The revitalization of the polis is hardly likely to take place during a period in which an orderly response to social and physical challenges will require an increase of centralized power and the encouragement of national rather than communal attitudes. The voluntary abandonment of the industrial mode of production would require a degree of self-abnegation on the part of its beneficiaries—managers and consumers alike—that would be without parallel in history. The redefinition of development on the part of the poorer nations would require a prodigious effort of will in the face of the envy and fear that Western industrial power and “affluence” arouse.

Thus in all likelihood we must brace ourselves for the consequences of which we have spoken—the risk of “wars of redistribution” or of “preemptive seizure,” the rise of social tensions in the industrialized nations over the division of an ever more slow-growing or even diminishing product, and the prospect of a far more coercive exercise of national power as the means by which we will attempt to bring these disruptive processes under control.

From that period of harsh adjustment, I can see no realistic escape. Rationalize as we will, stretch the figures as favorably as honesty will permit, we cannot reconcile the requirements for a lengthy continuation of the present rate of industrialization of the globe with the capacity of existing resources of the fragile biosphere to permit or to tolerate the effects of that industrialization. Nor is it easy to foresee a willing acquiescence of humankind, individually or through its existing social organizations, in alterations of life in ways that foresight would dictate. If then, by the question: “Is there hope for man?” we ask whether it is possible to meet the challenges of the future without the payment of a fearful price, the answer must be: There is no such hope.

At this final stage of our inquiry, with the full spectacle of the human prospect before us, the spirit quails and the will falters. We find ourselves pressed to the very limit of our personal capacities, not only in summoning up the courage to look squarely at the dimensions of the impending predicament, but in finding words that can offer some plausible relief in a situation so bleak.

At this late juncture I have no intention of sounding a call for moral awakening or for social action on some unrealistic scale. Yet I do not intend to condone, much less to urge, an attitude of passive resignation, or a relegation of the human prospect to the realm of things we choose not to think about. Avoidable evil remains, as it always will, an enemy that can be defeated; and the fact that the collective destiny of man portends unavoidable travail is no reason, and cannot be tolerated as an excuse, for doing nothing. This general admonition applies in particular to the intellectual elements of Western nations whose privileged role as sentries for society takes on a special importance in the face of things as we now see them. It is their task not only to prepare their fellow citizens for the sacrifices that will be required of them, but to take the lead in seeking to redefine the legitimate boundaries of power and the permissible sanctuaries of freedom for a future in which the exercise of power must inevitably increase and many present areas of freedom, especially in economic life, be curtailed.

Let me therefore put these last words somewhat more “positively,” offsetting to some degree the bleakness of our prospect, without violating the facts or spirit of our inquiry. Here I must begin by stressing for one last time an essential fact. The human prospect is not an irrevocable death sentence. It is not apocalypse or Doomsday toward which we are headed, although the risk of enormous catastrophes exists. The prospect is better viewed as a formidable array of challenges that must be overcome before human survival is assured and that can be overcome by the saving intervention of nature, if not by the wisdom and foresight of man. The death sentence is therefore better viewed as a contingent life sentence—one that will permit the continuance of human society, but only on a basis very different from that of the present, and probably only after much suffering during the period of transition.

What sort of society might eventually emerge? As I have said more than once, I believe the long-term solution requires nothing less than the gradual abandonment of the lethal techniques, the uncongenial ways of life, and the dangerous mentality of industrial civilization itself. The dimensions of such a transformation into a “post-industrial” society have already been touched upon, and cannot be greatly elaborated here: in all probability the extent and ramifications of change are apt to be as unforeseeable from our contemporary vantage point as present-day society would have been unimaginable to a speculative observer a thousand years ago.

Yet I think a few elements of the society of the post-industrial era can be discerned. Although we cannot know on what technical foundation it will rest, we can be certain that many of the accompaniments of an industrial order must be absent. To repeat once again what we have already said, the societal view of production and consumption must stress parsimonious, not prodigal, attitudes. Resource-consuming and heat-generating processes must be regarded as necessary evils, not as social triumphs, to be relegated to as small a portion of economic life as possible. This implies a sweeping reorganization of the mode of production in ways that cannot be foretold, but that would seem to imply the end of the giant factory, the huge office, perhaps of the urban complex.

What values and ways of thought would be congenial with such a radical reordering of things we also cannot know, but it is likely that the ethos of “science,” so intimately linked with industrial application, would play a much reduced role. In the same way, it seems probable that a true “post-industrial” society would witness the waning of much of the work ethic that is also intimately entwined with our industrial society. As one critic has pointed out, even Marx, despite his bitter denunciation of the alienating effects of labor in a capitalist milieu, placed his faith in the presumed “liberating” effects of labor in a socialist society, and did not consider a “terrible secret”—namely, that even the most creative work may be only “a neurotic activity that diverts the mind from the diminution of time and the approach of death.25

It is therefore possible that a post-industrial society would also turn in the direction of many pre-industrial societies—toward the exploration of inner states of experience rather than the outer world of fact and material accomplishment. Tradition and ritual, the pillars of life in virtually all societies other than those of an industrial character, would probably once again assert their ancient claims as the guide to and solace for life. The struggle for individual achievement, especially for material ends, is likely to give way to the acceptance of communally organized and ordained roles.

This is by no means an effort to portray a future utopia. On the contrary, many of these possible attributes of a post-industrial society are deeply repugnant to my twentieth-century temper, as well as incompatible with my most treasured privileges. The search for scientific knowledge, the delight in intellectual heresy, the freedom to order one’s life as one pleases are not likely to be easily contained within the tradition-oriented, static society I have depicted. To a very great degree, the public must take precedence over the private—an aim to which it is easy to give lip service in the abstract, but difficult for someone used to the pleasures of political, social, and intellectual freedom to accept in fact.

These are all necessarily prophetic speculations, offered more in the spirit of providing some vision of the future, however misty, than as a set of predictions to be “rigorously” examined. In these half-blind gropings there is, however, one element in which we can place credence, although it offers uncertainty as well as hope. This is our knowledge that some human societies have existed for millennia, and that others can probably exist for future millennia, in a continuous rhythm of birth and coming of age and death, without pressing toward those dangerous ecological limits, or engendering those dangerous social tensions, that threaten present day “advanced” societies. In our discovery of “primitive” cultures, living out their timeless histories, we may have found the single most important object lesson for future man.

What we do not know, but can only hope, is that future man can rediscover the self-renewing vitality of primitive culture without reverting to its levels of ignorance and cruel anxiety. It may be the sad lesson of the future that no civilization is without its pervasive “malaise,” each expressing in its own way the ineradicable fears of the only animal that contemplates its own death, but at least the human activities expressing that malaise need not, as is the case in our time, threaten the continuance of life itself.

All this goes, perhaps, beyond speculation to fantasy. But something more substantial than speculation or fantasy is needed to sustain men through the long trials ahead. For the driving energy of modern man has come from his Prome-thean spirit, his nervous will, his intellectual daring. It is this spirit that has enabled him to work miracles, above all to subjugate nature to his will, and to create societies designed to free man from his animal bondage.

Some of that Promethean spirit may still serve us in good stead in the years of transition. But it is not a spirit that conforms easily with the shape of future society as we have imagined it; worse, within that impatient spirit lurks one final danger for the years during which we must watch the approach of an unwanted future. This is the danger that can be glimpsed in our deep consciousness, when we take stock of things as they now are: the wish that the drama run its full tragic course, bringing man, like a Greek hero, to the fearful end that he has, however unwittingly, arranged for himself. For it is not only with dismay that Promethean man regards the future. It is also with a kind of anger. If after so much effort so little has been accomplished; if before such vast challenges so little is apt to be done—then let the drama proceed to its finale, let mankind suffer the end it deserves.

Such a view is by no means the expression of only a few perverse minds. On the contrary, it is the application to the future of the prevailing attitudes with which our age regards the present. When men can generally acquiesce in, even relish, the destruction of their living contemporaries, when they can regard with indifference or irritation the fate of those who live in slums, rot in prisons, or starve in lands that have meaning only in so far as they are vacation resorts, why should they be expected to take the painful actions needed to prevent the destruction of future generations whose faces they will never live to see? Worse yet, will they not curse those future generations whose claim to life can be honored only by sacrificing present enjoyments; and will they not, if it comes to a choice, condemn them to nonexistence by choosing the present over the future?

The question, then, is how we are to summon up the will to survive—not perhaps in the distant future, where survival will call on those deep sources of imagined human unity, but in the present and near-term future, while we still enjoy and struggle with the heritage of our personal liberties, our atomistic existences.

At this last moment of reflection another figure from Greek mythology comes to mind. It is that of Atlas, bearing with endless perseverance the weight of the heavens in his hands. If man is to rescue life, he must first rescue the future from the angry condemnation of the present. Here the spirit of conquest and aspiration will not serve. It is Atlas, resolutely bearing his burden, that gives us the example we seek. If within us the spirit of Atlas falters there perishes the determination to preserve humanity at all cost and any cost, forever.

But Atlas is, of course, no other than ourselves. Myths have their magic power because they cast on the screen of our imaginations, like the figures of the heavenly constellations, immense projections of our own hopes and capabilities. We do not know with certainty that humanity will survive, but it is a comfort to know that there exist within us the elements of fortitude and will from which the image of Atlas springs.


An Exchange on The Human Prospect April 18, 1974

  1. 23

    John Platt, “What We Must Do,” Science, May 16, 1969, p. 115.

  2. 24

    Blueprint for Survival,” The Ecologist, January, 1972.

  3. 25

    John Diggins, “Thoreau, Marx and the Riddle of Alienation,” Social Research, Winter 1973, p. 573.

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