IS THERE HOPE FOR THE FUTURE?
Delivered at the Texas Bioneers 2005 Conference, October 15, 2005
The title of my talk this morning is a question I’m asked almost every time I appear in public or have a telephone conference: “Do you think there’s hope for the future?” The answer to that one is easy: “Yes, I do.” The obvious next question is: “Why?”
I suppose I might respond by asking a question of my own: “Why do you have to ask?”
I think I know the answer to that. People need to ask because they themselves have a hard time seeing anything anywhere that will give them hope for the future. They’re like people who step off the side of a cliff onto a shaky rope bridge and look down into a gorge that’s three hundred yards deep. Of course they were told not to do it, but looking down is an almost irresistible impulse, and what they see is a very scary future: the bridge disintegrating under their feet and themselves plunging into the chasm.
When I was growing up in the fifties, the future looked like a coming paradise, where everything was just going to get better and better and better. We were all going to scoot around in our private helicopters and sit around the pool while robots did all the work. The future began to look a bit iffy when the Cold War started in earnest and every year you scanned maps in the newspaper showing your chances of surviving a direct nuclear strike on your city.
Then in 1962 Rachel Carson dropped a mind-boggling bomb of her own, in Silent Spring . The earth doesn’t just placidly swallow any quantity of any poison and give it back as fresh water. There’s a price to be paid for dumping poison into the land and the sea–and, believe it or not, this was staggering news at the time. We’d thought for thousands of years that we could do any damn thing we wanted.
Then just six years later Paul Ehrlich dropped another bomb on us–The Population Bomb. Wow, the future was beginning to look downright GRIM.
But there were things we could DO–at least about some of this. We could, by God, see to it that the government tightened up controls on polluting industries. We could join environmental organizations and vote for environmental candidates. It came as a surprise–to those of us who cared–to see that some very popular politicians cared a whole lot more about polluting industries than they did about us. It took us a while to see that environmentalists were being perceived as people who were in favor of IT–the environment–and AGAINST us humans. Political candidates soon began to shut up about protecting the environment.
A hole opened up in the ozone layer, and people got excited about that for a while. Global warming became something even Rush Limbaugh couldn’t pooh-pooh any longer. But look–no one’s died from global warming. The hole in the ozone layer hasn’t killed anyone you can point at. Pollution–well, that’s a fact of life, something we’ve learned to live with, and if we could put George Bush in office for a third term, we sure would, wouldn’t we? You bet.
But even the direst doomsayers of the seventies, eighties, and nineties couldn’t have forecast the realities that we’re facing now. I came close when I pointed out that we’re systematically and persistently attacking the diversity of the living community on which we depend for our lives, but even I couldn’t imagine that we were already entering a period of mass extinctions that rivals any such period of the past. There’s no argument about this among biologists, but it doesn’t seem to make a very exciting news story. People in general are pretty cool about it. So something like 200 species become extinct every day. We’re not one of them, so who cares? A few years ago I heard a talk-show host say, “Well, I don’t know about you, but I can live without songbirds.” As if the function of birds in the scheme of things on this planet is merely to entertain US.
This period of mass extinctions isn’t being caused by the impact of a huge meteorite. It’s being caused by US. We have a population of more than six billion, and we’re annually increasing it by about 77 million every year. The earth doesn’t have enough biomass to support both us AND the rest of the living community. So something’s got to give, and it ain’t us. We need the biomass that’s locked up in some 200 other species–every day. We’re turning that biomass into HUMAN mass. Every year we produce enough new human mass to populate Canada, Australia, Denmark, Austria, and Greece. Every year.
And the number of these extinctions isn’t going to diminish. As our population continues to increase, this number will also increase–probably geometrically.
We’re like people living at the top of the world’s tallest skyscraper who every day go down to the lower floors and knock 200 bricks out the walls at random. We use these bricks to extend our living space, to build upward. Hey–200 bricks, that’s nothing. There are millions in those walls down there. But every day the structural integrity of the building is being compromised–and there’ll come a day when all these compromises connect up, and the whole thing will come down–not in a week or a day or even an hour. It’ll come down all at once, in minutes.
What most people don’t realize is that being the smartest and most powerful species on earth doesn’t make us invulnerable. If we go on this way, systematically subverting the viability of the living community that’s keeping us alive, the system’s going to crash just like that skyscraper. If that happens, fundamental food chains are going to be disrupted, and our population’s not just going to decline, it’s going to vanish. During the end Permian extinction, all the big guys were doomed, right down to the last member. The centipedes, on the other hand, probably didn’t even notice a difference.
Most recently we’ve been put on notice that oil production has peaked and is on its way down–while the consumption of it continues to increase. The most serious threat in this is related to the fact that our agricultural systems are completely dependent on fossil fuel–at every stage, from raw land to the supermarket shelf. If we don’t remodel those systems to make them function without fossil fuels–and it apparently CAN be done–we’re going to face a global panic and famine that I for one wouldn’t care to be around to see.
Of course, if the worst happened, this would certainly solve the problem of our overpopulation right quick–but that possibility certainly doesn’t make me rejoice.
When people look into the future and give up hope, it’s because they don’t know what to DO about the bad things they see. I’ve heard it so often that I’m sure the very first letter I got when Ishmael came out said something like, “I loved your book, and I get what you’re saying–but what are we supposed to DO?”
Of course he didn’t really get what I was saying or he wouldn’t have asked that question. This wasn’t his fault. If people don’t get what I’m saying and they’re reasonably well-educated, reasonably intelligent, and older than, say fourteen, then it’s my fault. I should have quoted something Thorstein Veblen said in The Theory of the Leisure Class a century ago. Here goes: “Social structure changes, develops, adapts itself to an altered situation ONLY through a change in the habits of thought of the individuals who make up the community.”
Let’s look at it more closely. He’s talking about social transformation, and he says this happens ONLY through a change in the habits of thought of the individuals who make up the community.” It’s important to note that he’s not talking about the leaders of the community. He’s saying that a society is transformed only when people in general start thinking a new way.
He goes on as follows: “The evolution of society is substantially a process of mental adaptation on the part of individuals under stress of circumstances that will no longer tolerate habits of thought formed under and conforming to a different set of circumstances in the past.” [1899, Slightly adapted.] What kind of circumstances put people under stress? Veblen says they’re circumstances that will no longer tolerate old habits of thought–habits of thought that were formed under and appropriate to a different set of circumstances that prevailed in the past.
Near the end of the book Ishmael’s pupil asked him the same question that so many of my readers have asked: Yes, but what am I supposed to DO?”
Ishmael’s answer was: “Teach a hundred people what you’ve learned here and urge each of them to teach a hundred.” I put these words in Ishmael’s mouth because I know that nothing changes unless people’s minds change first. You can’t change a society by passing new laws–unless people see the necessity for new laws. You can’t put enlightened presidents in office–until the electorate is enlightened. Until the electorate is enlightened, we’re going to continue to elect presidents whose habits of thought are rooted in the nineteenth century. Given a little time to think, I could probably even come up with a name or two.
One of the reasons I accept invitations to speak on occasions like this is that, when I’m lucky, I manage to make a discovery, to come up with something new, something I hadn’t thought of before. I was lucky this time, as I tried to find a way to explain why I have hope for the future. What I saw was an arc–a change in the tenor of relevant thought over the past forty years.
I saw that the year 1990 marked the beginning of a new era. It was, of course, the founding year of the Bioneers. It was the year Ted Turner put out a call heard round the world for novels that offered “creative and positive solu¬tions to global problems.” This was a rather odd move, but then Ted’s an odd guy. Anyway, it certainly got me moving in a new direction. I’d been struggling with a certain book for a decade, and Rennie, my wife, had been telling me for years that I should try writing it as a novel. Now I had to, if I wanted to enter the Turner Tomorrow competition.
This was, of course, the birth of Ishmael, which won the competition. When it came out at the beginning of 1992, no one really knew what would happen to it, and in fact it didn’t set the world on fire in its hardcover edition. For a time, there was even talk of not issuing a paperback edition.
But when it did come out in paperback, it became known in the publishing business as a phenomenon. Suddenly it was being used in highschool and college classrooms all over America in subjects more diverse than any single book in history–in courses like biology, sociology, psychology, world history, anthropology, philosophy, religion, political science, and economics, not to mention literature.
It would be false modesty for me to deny that it’s been a very influential work, one that has changed millions of minds and inspired many other authors, but it wasn’t the only mind-changing book being worked on in 1990. Paul Hawken was amassing the vast base of data that The Ecology of Commerce would be built on. The impact of those two books alone very specifically transformed one global industry–and had repercussion on companies as influential as Dupont.
But my real point is this: The 1990s brought forth a flood of mind-changing books that absolutely couldn’t have come in the seventies or eighties. That couldn’t even have been predicted in the seventies or eighties. I’m not talking through my hat here.
In 1984 I finished the sixth version of the book that would eventually become Ishmael. It was called Another Story To Be In –and it said everything you’ll read in Ishmael. I sent it with high hopes to the most powerful literary agent in America at that time, Scott Meredith. After it was read at every level of the agency and discussed interminably, a seven-page letter was sent to me explaining why it couldn’t possibly be published.
I’ll just summarize it for you: This is the eighties, they said–not the sixties or the seventies–and in the eighties nobody gives a damn about saving the world. “There’s just no way this book could possibly slip through the prejudices and interstices of the marketplace,” they said.
When it came to what was and wasn’t publishable, these people knew what they were talking about. I didn’t doubt that. But they also said it was their “sad duty” to inform me that no amount of revision could possibly turn this into a salable manuscript. What they called my “central underlying conceptualizations” made this material “totally and completely unrevisable.” I knew they were wrong about this–and proved it in 1990 when I turned it into a book that went on to win the largest prize ever awarded a single work of literature.
I’ve said that the close of the eighties brought forth a flood of mind-changing books. I started to make a list but eventually realized I wouldn’t have time to read it all here. I’m sure each of you could make a list of your own. I’ll just mention a few: Paul Hawken’s Natural Capitalism, Janine Benyus’s Biomimicry, Lester Brown’s Eco Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth, Sim Van Der Ryn’s Ecological Design, Gaviotas, Going Local, The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, Insatiable Is Not Sustainable, Consilience, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train, The End of Nature.
What is just as important as the books themselves–and perhaps even more important–is the fact there was a vast readership READY for these books. I estimate the readership of my books alone to be around five million, and I know my readers well enough to feel sure that only a few of them are reading all those other books. Each of them has its own readership, numbering tens of thousands to millions.
So how many people have been reached by this flood of mind-changing books–so far? Let’s be conservative and say twenty million. Now I know that very, very few of those twenty million are going to change a hundred minds. At the same time, I know that these twenty million people aren’t inert. They talk, they recommend books to their friends, they lend books to their friends. The people around them can’t remain entirely untouched–that’s just not the way human society works. I don’t doubt for a moment that each of you can testify to this fact from your own experience.
I said twenty million so far. I know that my books add a hundred thousand to that number every year all by themselves. And the other books I’ve mentioned haven’t gone away–they’re adding hundreds of thousands to that number every year as well.
So what am I reaching for with all this arithmetic? I’m reaching for a tipping point.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.
I looked at one famous tipping point in Ishmael: the crumbling of the Soviet Union, which took the world by complete surprise in the late 1980s. That’s exactly what occurs when a tipping point is reached. No one realizes anything’s going on but something has been building, building, building–beneath the surface. In the case of the Soviet Union what had been building was a mind-change that had been gaining momentum since the 1960s. And suddenly and unexpectedly, in 1989, what had started as a tiny minority had become a majority–not an overwhelming majority, but one big enough to allow Mikhail Gorbachev to make sweeping changes that ultimately concluded with the dissolution of the Soviet empire.
We too are in a minority right now–there’s no doubt about that. But we’re a growing minority, and there’s no doubt about that either.
There IS a tipping point out there for us–and that’s why I have hope for the future. There IS a tipping point out there–and the only way to reach it is by changing the minds of the people around us. And that gives me another reason for hope, because changing minds is something anyone can do, at any age, in any walk of life. I’ll bet everyone in this room makes a habit of it!