Where Did We Think We Were Going?
Where Did We Think We Were Going?
by Roger Conner Jr.
Sometimes, it is amusing and even educational just to throw a phrase into Google images and see what pops up.
I was doing this the other night, as a way to while away the time while the laundry spun dry, and with a question on my mind:
Where did we think we were going? The “we” refers to the modern technical cultures, and the “where” refers to the future. In the 1950’s, 60’s or 70’s, the human race must have had a vision of how our ever growing and consumption lifestyle would be sustained. While each generation thinks that it is the one that invented concern about the issue of sustainability, and the prior old geezers were simply ignorant narrow sighted old buffoons who never considered the issue, this does not seem likely.
We know that even in the days of the ancient Egyptians, people thought about how to make it last. The rituals, the pyramids, the mummies served them as at least a “workable” system, an explanation, of how “it” could go on, given that life in ancient Egypt, compared to much of the poorer and less developed world, was not seen as half bad. In the same way, the Christians of the Dark Ages yearned, as all humans do, for a continuation, even though their life on Earth was one of persecution. Thus, they said, the Kingdom was not of “this world” since, unlike the Egyptian wealthy, “this world” was not so kind to them.
But, we are going to narrow our scope a bit, and talk about “this world”. Because even though we are mortal beings, we still hope and pray for a continuation of prosperity, security, and sustainability, first for ourselves in the remaining years of our lives, but also for “posterity”, our children, grandchildren, and cultural identity here on Earth. We somehow convince ourselves, through “ritual” and/or hard effort, that we are indeed insuring our personal and cultural sustainability. We delude ourselves to some extent that unlike the great cultures of the past, this time, we “know” what we are doing.
So, what were doing, what were we thinking would sustain our culture? We had to know, in those glorious post war years, that we were drawing on a supply of “finite” resources. We had to know, that as consumption accelerated, and our taste for accelerated speed, accelerated wealth, accelerated experiences, and accelerated power increased, that our consumption would have to accelerate too. After all, it was built from the start right into the “free enterprise” market ethic, which was the very core of our cultural value. We could stand down the enemies of this ethic, but could we “feed it”? We must have thought so at some point, for who creates an obviously unsustainable ethic on purpose?
Admittedly, in the earliest days of the “ethic” of acceleration, we really did not have to examine the question too closely. The world was freakin’ BIG. We had colonized a new continent, and the power of industry was allowing us to dig deeper, drill deeper, and cover more ground. We could delay to a later time our concern about where it would keep coming from, and so we did.
After the twin World Wars, however, thinkers began to really notice something: The world was now SMALL. The atomic weapon and the long range missile put us all within minutes of each other, destruction wise. Satellites put us within eyesight of each other, and TV and radio put us within listening and viewing distance of each other. The great catch phrase, “the global village”. As we watched, we could now see that consumption, and the results of consumption anywhere in the world were factually “next door” in many ways. It did the U.S. no good to reduce consumption of fuel, if China or India simply absorbed the amount we saved, and used it as an advantage. Our virtue, should such ever occur, could be seen as our vice, enhancing the strength of our political “opponents” in the world. But if misery loves company, we could take heart that we were all in the same boat.
The “global village” was a metaphor that most of the educated and reading baby boomers grew up with. This is the way it is, or should be, with all great influential metaphors. For them to have real “ritual” power, the population must be familiar with them, and accept to at least some degree their power. A totem or taboo has no effect if no one accepts the power of the rituals surrounding them.
So, what were the totems of sustainability in the post WWII period, what did we accept as having power? If they had real ritual power, I should know them by heart, without even looking them up. And I should be somewhat held in the sway of their power, even today. Yes, the totem may now be ridiculed, it may now be scoffed at by some or many, but it was the totem of my formative years. Whether I want to admit it, it still has power, it still evokes from me awe and fear. Because, I must have felt at one time that the totem indeed held REAL power, not just superstition, I must still be very, very leery to completely abandon it, for two major reasons:
First, I do not know that the totem has lost it’s power. What if the scoffers are wrong, what if the doubters simply do not understand the totem, understand it’s real, awesome power?They have not practiced the rituals perhaps, they do not understand that it is an involved and well developed process, not something you can dismiss easily unless you have actually seen it work, paid attention. What can they do to show me that my, for lack of a better word, “faith” in following the rituals all the way through, will not pay off big? After all the totem has a long history of having been perceived to work, otherwise, it would have been abandoned years, decades, centuries ago.
Second, I really have nothing to replace it with. Having been born into a family, a culture, a nation and even a sizable share of the world with a people who accepted the totem’s power, I have no other real way to structure things, no other reality. It is a part of “me” almost as attached as an arm or a leg. Oh sure, I can try to feign doubt, and join the scoffers, but underneath, my real belief in the power of the totem will be there, my fear of it, and awe for what it can do when the correct procedure, the correct practices are followed, will be with me to the end of my days.
To return to my earlier challenge, I should be able to recite the core “chants”, the power words, of the totem from memory. This is the power of a real “sustainable”, culturally speaking, totem.
I can. Prepare yourself for the power words that inspired, that have moved men and women to action, that has caused them to willingly, voluntarily, give the hours of their lives, and at times, the very continuation of their lives, that has caused them to devote wealth and time to the rituals, that has caused them to forsake families, personal health and even riches for a reward that would be, in their understanding of the totem, the rituals and the chants, worth more than all of these, in continuing “sustainability” of them personally, their culture, and their prosperity. Here they are:
There are more words to the liturgy, of course, many more. There are even chants written in strange tongues, so widely regarded that even a child could mark them down with a pencil, even though they could not yet say them: Say “E equals MC squared” and a child can write it, and know that it has power.
But the seven words above are really all the ones that are needed. All the others hang from them like fruit from a tree.
All of the words above are born from Greek origins. This is only fitting, because it is there that the words first began to attain their totemic status. It is no accident that “we”, being the Western world, still hold the ancient priesthood of Greek science in awe, it is no coincidence that our own national founding fathers saw them as the real founding fathers of our rituals, totems and chants. We still use their words, they mathematical formulas, their very symbols. It was them, we knew, not thought, BUT KNEW, who had given us a sustainable road forward. “The great conversation” some call it, lasting for four millennia, and still well under way.
We now face crisis. Not the first, but surely one of the biggest, because it cuts to the very heart of all we believe about who we are, what we have done, and whether the “rituals” the totems of science, education, technology, energy, effort, fusion and space can pull us through. Is the “ideology” of 4000 years sustainable, as it has promised? This is the philosophical, the aesthetic, the cultural argument of the age.
Let us take for just a few minutes the time to look at the “sustainability” promise of the ritual of science and technology. How would it “feed itself” when it came to energy? We were sure we knew: Education would be provided to open up and expand the minds of a growing population. There would not simply be more mouths to feed, there would be more minds at work, communicating bits of information, data, ways of doing things. There would be many failures, of course, but the handful of truly breakthrough ideas would make up for that easily. By freeing the minds, and the ability to exchange information in almost absolute freedom, great leaps forward could happen very quickly, whole new industries and improvements to industries could be born overnight. The release of energies would be astounding. Indeed, it has been.
But the Earth, no matter how smart the people are, is still a finite place. There are only so many tons of matter to go around. As Malthus had warned us, the ability to reproduce far beyond the tons of Earth is infinite. How could this be overcome?
Of course, a contraceptive could deal with this, and one was invented. The release of reproductive energy could be controlled, and as effort, science, education, and experiences proved more varied, more and more women would be less likely to want to spend their lives as mothers. And so it has been, as the birthrate in the most developed nations has began to stall, and in many places to drop. Once more, science proved that it could live up to it’s mantra of “sustainability”. But the quest for growth, the quest for “more” by the population at whatever level, would still be there. After all, it was part of the totem, the ritual. To remove it would remove one of the core reasons for the ideology, the rituals. How could science, technology, energy and effort be used to sustain this core requirement of the whole ritual, how could “growth” in some form, be “sustained”?
At the philosophical level, this was not difficult to foresee: The Earth, which had been a somewhat “closed” system, must be made an open one. Note that I said “somewhat” because the Earth had never been exactly “closed”. It stood in a wash of energy from the Sun, and was struck by objects from faraway places, sometimes to catastrophic effect.
All that was lacking was the technology to get us out there, and in this century, with the work of one of those stray minds, the path forward was born, as Robert Goddard proved the validity of long range rocketry, and opened the space age. The word space, of Greek origin, had now, racing past even the abilities of the Greeks themselves, become an open place.
In the meantime, space research had provided more: We now knew how the Sun made power. All we had to do was duplicate this magnificent “fusion” of atoms on Earth. It should not be greatly hard, given that science had proven, again and again that if nature can do it in one place at a said scale, we can do it somewhere else, at our own scale. In the years after WWII, the “Popular Mechanics”, “Popular Science” generation was born.
Did they not realize that the oil and gas we used was finite? Of course. But they had a road forward, and by the 1970’s,humans would be in space, and nuclear fusion would be with us. Energy, per se, was a “challenge” but certainly not a “crisis”. As Robert McNamara had said about the Vietnam War, all that was required was the correct and coordinated application of technology and logistics. After that, the outcome was assured.
Now, we find ourselves in the position we can imagine of the inhabitants of Easter Island, as they stood and looked at the great statues that had consumed so much of their time, effort, wealth, and life. They gazed still with fear, still with awe, but now, with deepening concern, as they could see themselves facing decline and possible ruin, they must have began to ask: What went wrong?
It is now becoming the question of our age. Now, however, it is a question facing the world, as all but a tiny handful of humans have embraced, endorsed, and come to live by the totems of science, education, technology, energy, and dreamed of the riches that with effort space and fusion could provide. But the observers around the world of the Moon landing, the observers of Hiroshima, the observers around the world of supersonic flight and the birth control pill, now wait, now wonder, now ask: Where is the rest, the part that would sustain?
For over a half century we all waited, read, watched for nuclear fusion. It was always just around the bend, only a decade or so out there. We watched and waited for space to deliver, both by way of our vehicles, long ago predicted by now to be carrying back for use the materials that would go into fuel cells, solar cells, high efficiency turbines, fusion reactors. The “rare Earth” minerals are plentiful “out there”, on asteroids and the moons of the planets, we were told.
WHAT WENT WRONG? Has the power of SCIENCE run out? Or have “we” simply not stayed to the ritual? Has the power of EDUCATION to provide those who can conduct the ritual lost it’s power, or have we simply failed to keep it fed with those who understand how the art, the ritual of science and technology are reliant on the ritual of education?
Has SPACE, which once held so much promise, both as a place to go for the needed minerals and materials, and a place to draw energy from, through the ongoing bath of the sun, proven to be a silly, wasteful mirage, or have we simply quit the game too soon, just as it could deliver all it had promised?
FUSION. Was it a silly dream for humans to try to steal the ultimate Prometheus fire, and snatch a secret from the Sun? Or will it deliver, if we provide the EDUCATION, the EFFORT, to make the last dash to the finish line? Shouldn’t it already have delivered by now, or did we just fail to keep up the effort, the feeding of the effort?
TECHNOLOGY had promised us, that if we needed to, we could live as well as we had, enjoy even more experiences, more security, more sustainability than we had ever known.
Was it a false path, or did we simply get lazy, sloppy, and wander off the path?
In the glorious days after WWII, we thought we knew. We are now showing doubt, and asking: WHAT WENT WRONG?
It is not that the problems of energy and raw materials depletion caught us off guard. Even Disney films about oil made for children warned them, someday, it will be used up, the easily gotten energy will be gone. What caught us off guard is that none of the scientific and technical roads forward have materialized on schedule. They stayed “just around the corner”, “ a decade or two from now...”
I rummaged through a dusty box, full of dusty books tonight, as I thought about these things. These are books bought, found, or given to me, going back to my childhood. They are books that were so central to the forming of my young mind, that I still cannot bring myself to throw them out:
A small propaganda tract, a little hard cover, extolling the virtues of SPACE:
“Space: A New Direction For Mankind” by Edward B. Lindaman pub. 1969.
Lindaman was himself a technician with the NASA space program, one of the "priests"” of the scientific ritual. I turn to a page I have known since childhood:“Our species has been destroying forests and other plant life so widely that they may not maintain the age-old balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. If the current concentration of carbon dioxide in the air should double, that small change would be enough to raise the Earth’s overall tempter by three degrees. Perhaps such a change is underway. During the International Geophysical year, 1957-58, investigation seemed to show that the vast glaciers, with their millions of cubic miles of ice, were melting steadily. Some had been retreating as much as 80 feet per year.”
The book goes on to discuss the issue of water depletion, minerals depletion, pointing out the vast array of what we call “rare earth” minerals in the moon, and even more so in the asteroids close by in space. It further asserts that by the 1970’s, humankind would be harvesting those with our “man made moons”. Even if there is no oil and gas close by, the rare earth minerals now desperately needed for solar cells and fuel cells are. The industries have now arrived at the time to make use of these minerals. The “science” of renewable energy did not fail. The EFFORT and application of technology however, seems to have. Did we just get lazy?
I pull out my copy of “The Third Wave” by Alvin Toffler, pub. 1980. On page 147, Toffler lays out all the things we talk about now, Peak Oil, in all but name is exposed in print, circa 1980. But Toffler shows no fear. The changes will be fantastic. He discusses “The Sun and Beyond” , “Machines In Orbit” and “Into the Depths” examining deep ocean minerals extraction, all of which was to be underway by the late 1980’s and “90’s. Why? Because, as Toffler assured us, “the time frame for these changes are breathtakingly short, years, not decades.” At the time of the publication of Toffler’s book, crude oil prices hovered at what would now be $100 per barrel in inflation adjusted dollars. The crisis was HERE, but Toffler was optimistic, IF we stayed to the rituals and totems. He dismisses “The Techno Rebels” who would dissuade us from staying on the path toward a new exciting world, full of more experiences and promises then we could yet know, technically, socially, educationally, sexually. He perceives the “Experience Industry” with role playing, travel, sexual adventure as the coming growth industry, mixed into opportunities to “play” at science and technology. IF we stay to the game, the ritual.
By 1996, however, an edge of darkness seems to be creeping onto the horizon. Despite being in economically good times, living what even the perpetual doubter and grouch Pat Buchanan called “For most people, the best years of their lives” and enjoying the long run of a gilded age, the thinkers, the priests of the scientific/technical ritual were on the defensive.
Despite the greatest wealth in history, America and many nations had flattened and or reduced research funds. Private firms, flush with money, allowed labs and fabrication shops for prototypes to languish, as they delivered boom times to their shareholders. The effort at maintaining the rituals, the totems of science, seemed not worth the effort. Education was seen as a liberal “ailment”, it was “street smarts” and toughness that ruled, with books like “What They Don’t Teach You At Harvard Business School” on the shelf, and the college dropout founders of Apple and Microsoft the heroes of the new “Capitalistic Uber Man”.
As his philosophical and intellectual Last Will and Testament, one of the most famous and influential scientific thinkers and popularizers of the boomer generation left behind his last book in this year of 1996:
“The Demon-Haunted World” by Carl Sagan, 1996.
Allow me to quote from the book jacket:
“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces...
I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudo-science and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us-then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.”
This is a call from one of the “priests” of the scientific, technological, education, energy, effort, space and fusion religion making his bid, even as he leaves the mortal coil, to stay what he sees as the “lit path”. Sagan had been a scientist all of his life, was married to one. In his mind, the scientific path would bear the fruit, and remain sustainable, and increase humankind's power, comfort, security and sustainability, increase our humanity, if the effort, the education, the “rituals of science” were adhered to.
Was he right? Or was, is, science and technology, a false mirage?
Or will technological development of efficient design, scientific breakthroughs in materials and design, the human expansion into space, and the quest for working nuclear fusion, clean alternatives with raw materials from space prove to be the sustainable path forward, combined with an ethic of waste reduction and of preservation of what cannot be replaced (the plant and animal species of the world) and a philosophy of life appreciation and enjoyment of humane and rewarding experiences win out for the benefit of humans?
Or must we all accept that we will, for the brief flicker of the remaining years of our lives, go back to a “world lit only by fire”, and consign our children, grandchildren, and countless generations to the same?
This is the choice we now must make in our lives, for not only ourselves but for those who will follow behind us. It will decide how we spend the rest of our lives, and can help decide how our children and offspring, and yes, our very culture, will spend time into the far future.
We are now at the time. We will have to choose, and take sides, just as those at the birth of the industrial age had to. We now read Dickens, Forster and Chekov, and see a depiction of the “impoverished gentry”, those who had been wealthy and powerful in their own lives and destiny under the old system, but impoverished, losing farms, estates, and forced into marriage of convenience later as the ways of power and wealth moved away from them. They must have been certain, only years before, that this so called revolution would not touch them on their little farms, their estates. It would blow by, it was a fad, stay with what works, what had always worked. They had, sadly for them, chosen the losing side.
Which side will we choose, SHOULD we choose? The path to a rapidly impoverished future, in which lack of fuel and resources destroy, either bit by bit, or very quickly our freedom to control our own destiny, our freedom to experience what life has to offer, in which we cannot keep our sons out of the fields and our daughters out of the brothels because we have missed the mainstream of the future? Will that be the only choice left, whether we like it or not? Or is there another route?
Is it possible that the path of technology, the path of education, of science, will lead us into vistas of experience only dreamed of? Are we simply in a “lull”, a slow spot, and once we throw off our confusion and stupor, once more ready to use the tools of 4000 years to resolve what are relatively minor technical problems, but problems that require will, effort, education, and the tools of science and technology?
Will nuclear fusion work? Will space travel work? Will design and engineering harvest the sun’s power? Can garden cities be built that harvest the waste of it’s inhabitants, half underground to reduce demands on land use, able to provide enough food and energy for it’s citizens? Is it doable? A separate question: Will we train the architects, the technicians, the city planners, able to assist us in doing it?
Many now scoff at science, at technology. The idea of using space is dismissed as childish fantasy. Nuclear fusion is a dead end, say the scoffers, we were fools ever to rely on it.
They may be right, we cannot know. But the destruction of the scientific “rituals”, the abandoning of the “enterprise” of science is a dangerous business. At this time, with the exception of philosophical platitudes, we have nothing to replace them with. Many of us are reliant for our lives on what they have brought to us.
We are at the time. We must choose, now. There is always the danger that we will make the wrong choice, either choice we make. But whatever path we choose, we must get behind it, endorse it, live with it. It will be, for better or for worse, the future for ourselves, our children and our culture.I will close where I began, just having some fun putting words into Google image, and remembering how to do something that humans did, long before science and technology”
I'll be adding the reference links soon - The OC