Forty-plus Years of Warnings

In this post I focus on some of the readings with which I became familiar as a young man, whose messages have stayed with me for decades and that have stood the test of time. It is not my intent to conduct an historical review of warnings about anthropogenic climate change, which stretch back more than a century.

A few of these readings, such as The Limits to Growth, were well known at the time they were published. Others, such as the writings of Willis Harman at Stanford, were not.

I went to do graduate work in science education at Stanford in 1969 and soon enrolled in Willis Harman’s wonderful course called The Human Potential. Through his course I became aware of Sufism and the writings of Idries Shah. A brilliant man, Shah wrote dozens of books, including accounts of his travels, books about Sufism, a novel about the Afghan-Soviet war, a collection of fairy tales collected from around the world, compilations of jokes from the Middle Eastern jokester Mulla Nasrudin, and more. Shah was a founding member of The Club of Rome, which commissioned work by MIT that was published in 1972 as The Limits to Growth and sold more than a million copies. Based on the computer simulation capabilities of its day – which have vastly improved since then – The Limits to Growth predicted that if humanity continued along a business-as-usual path, with dramatic increases in population, economic growth, and pollution, there was a significant prospect of collapse and disaster. The broad-brush picture their report painted more than forty years ago has stood the test of time. Almost everyone is aware of the collapse of many ocean fisheries, most glaciers, and huge ice sheets.

Professor Willis Harman, originally an electrical engineer, became director of an Educational Policy Resource Center at Stanford in the late 1960s. He and his colleagues at the Center conducted a study of alternative futures that anticipated the work of the Club of Rome, but based on a different methodology. Harman used the term “world macroproblem” to describe the combination of ecological and economic problems, dysfunctional institutions, and outdated mindsets that taken together could be viewed as a single problem. Harman focused particular attention on “new” ways of thinking (some rooted in ancient traditions), and different value systems than those guiding most governments and institutions, ideally leading together to changes which he believed were essential if mankind was to survive and flourish.

A few years later, in 1974, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect by the economist Robert L. Heilbroner was published. It began: There is a question in the air, more sensed than seen, like the invisible approach of a distant storm, a question that I would hesitate to ask aloud did I not believe it existed unvoiced in the minds of many: “Is there hope for man?” Heilbroner focused special attention on the problem of allowing capitalism to continue unfettered, and he also believed, as did Harman and The Club of Rome, that people’s vision of the future, including mankind’s “very will to live,” would be of paramount importance in the choices made by individuals, institutions, and societies.

One reason to offer this brief account is to remember that it has not only been the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established in 1988, that has been warning humanity for decades about the grave dangers that we face. Another reason is to recall that the problems of climate change are not simply “environmental” but also include economics, energy, international relations, value systems, and people’s understanding of themselves and of humanity’s relationship to the world. For decades human psychology, including its current limitations, has been viewed as a central part of “the world macroproblem,” which we might now prefer to call climate change or global warming.

Changing modern historical patterns of thinking and acting is not going to be easy. However, for more than forty years we have been warned that we must change or face grave consequences.

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