Chapter 1: Transition: Perils and Promises
THE NEXT FEW DECADES WILL BRING TOWARD COMPLETION A UNIQUE PERIOD OF TRANSITION IN WORLD HISTORY FRAUGHT WITH UNPRECEDENTED PERILS AND PROMISES AS MANKIND MOVES TOWARD A TRULY GLOBAL SOCIETY AT A TIME WHEN INCREASING HUMAN POWERS MUST BE EXERCISED WITHIN BOUNDARIES SET BY THE EARTH’S ECOLOGICAL LIMITS.
The human race is in the midst of a great transition involving such an enormity and rapidity of change as to constitute a transformation as far-reaching in its implications as that earlier great evolutionary leap when biological man became cultural man. This process is the fundamental fact of our time, but it occurs silently and almost invisibly, lost among raucous daily headlines telling of the spectacular events immediately before us. Nevertheless, the pattern is clear in its basic outlines, once we step back and reflect upon the underlying trends that are shaping the destiny of mankind.
The grand movement of history to which I refer is exceedingly complex in all of its manifestations, but it can be suggested by a consideration of the following factors:
-- Man’s growing powers to shape his own destiny by extending his control over an enlarging range of external things and the emerging possibility of manipulating his own inner life and perhaps his genetic endowments.
-- The unifying of the world through communication, transportation, and commerce.
-- The fact that the basic processes having to do with the production of the world’s goods are international in scope and require a globally interdependent network of correlated activities.
-- An expanding common cultural milieu around the globe, the growth of international regulatory and monitoring agencies, the increase of transnational professional societies, world conferences, global projects, and the accelerating exchange of information and techniques on a worldwide scale.
-- The approaching of the earth’s capacity to support the exploding world population with the elementary physical necessities, food being the most crucial.
-- The possible exhaustion of certain basic energy and material resources in the face of growing world demands and increasing numbers.
-- The inevitable reaching of the limits within which the earth, the air, and the sea can absorb the excreted wastes and poisons of our technological civilization without producing massive ecological disasters.
-- The claim that, given proper development and employment of the world’s scientific and technological capabilities on a globally integrated basis, it is now possible to supply a greatly expanding population with all necessary physical requirements on a scale heretofore completely impossible.
What all of these factors amount to when combined can be seen by juxtaposing two contrasting statements. On the one hand, the powers of man are maximizing the alternative futures he can carve out for himself. On the other hand, the ecological realities of population, hunger, pollution, and the possible future scarcity of essential material resources are sharply limiting the boundaries within which choices must be made if the human race is to survive. These trends and processes have all been generated, or at least intensified, by the cumulative expansion of scientific knowledge and technological capabilities. Their convergence is leading to a situation unprecedented in the whole of human history. It is important to notice that the historical drama is moving toward what will be both a culmination of developments in the making for thousands of years and the commencement of a new era in the human pilgrimage.
As a result of the growth of man’s understanding of natural phenomena and his power to utilize the material resources of the world to build the vast industrial and technological societies of today, an interdependent world community, truly global in its scope, has come into being. The skeletal framework of the noösphere spoken of by Teilhard de Chardin has already started to take form.(The Phenomenon of Man (New York: Harper & Row, 1981). An inter-locking web of human activity and thought is emerging. If we are precise in our meaning, it is not only permissible but necessary to speak literally of the fact that we live more and more in one world. From now on, says Hudson Hoagland, "the unit of survival is the human race." (‘"The Unit of Survival is the Human Race," The Population Crisis and the Use of World Resources, ed. by Stuart Mudd (The Hague: W. Junk, 1964), pp. 442 ff. For the "one-world theme," see also John McHale, The Future of the Future (New York: Braziller, 1969), especially chapter VI.) John McHale urges the necessity of thinking in terms of a "worldman image." "We must face up to a world that has been made into one interdependent community, less by political or ideological ideas than by scientific and technological facts."(The Future of the Future, p.14.) The obvious practical meaning of all this is that the fundamental problems we face today -- nuclear war, population growth, pollution, the intolerable gap between the rich nations and the poor ones, the intelligent use of scarce world resources -- are global in scope.
The world society is obviously a complex interlocking network of giant systems and innumerable subsystems that diverge, intersect, conflict, and merge in countless ways. The world is still characterized by an enormous range of differences in language, culture, economic patterns religious practices, values, wealth, educational levels, and so on and on. In addition, there is not simply divergence, but conflict and armed struggle. Deep hatreds still rend the fabric of the world society. The giant nuclear powers stand at each other’s throats in a frantic and probably futile attempt to find security based on ever-more-effective means of killing people. Bertram Gross reminds us that more nation-states have come into being in the last two decades than in all previous centuries. But he adds that to concentrate on that is to miss the central fact of our time: "The painful birth pangs -- unheralded, unanticipated, and to many people unseen -- of a new world society of interdependent nations." ("The City of Man: A Social Systems Reckoning," Environment for Men, ed. by William R. Ewald, Jr. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967), p. 141.)
The pace of change taking us into a new situation in world history can be dramatized by plotting charts showing the rate of increase in population, power, knowledge, communication, medical advances, and any number of other indices of development. They will show a slowly rising curve for many centuries. Then they will begin to shoot almost straight up. Imagine an airplane that runs along a runway for thousands of miles. Then in a mile or two it takes off, turns into a rocket, and heads away from earth almost vertically.(See Arthur Koestler, The Ghost in the Machine (New York: Macmillan, 1987), pp. 313-30.) We have entered this takeoff period in many respects. Technically put, numerous indicators of change have been increasing exponentially. In the last hundred years, according to John Platt, we increased
speeds of communication by 107
speeds of travel by 102
speeds of data processing by 106
energy resources by 103
the power of weapons by 106
the ability to control diseases by about 102
The knitting together of the planetary society means that certain processes of change that have been accelerating in this fashion will themselves come to a kind of culmination. Just as a baby does not grow forever, so Platt provides us with a useful reminder that there are plateaus which occur at the end of certain processes of change that bring them to completion. Developments in some fields simply cannot, in the very nature of the case, continue indefinitely, certainly not at the same pace that has characterized them in the recent past.
I suggest that . . . we are not at the beginning of continually accelerating change, but that we are in the middle of a unique transition crisis, like adolescence, as we make the jump from an undeveloped scientific and technological society to a fully developed one. . . . The slowing down of growth and the beginnings of our adjustment to it may become one of the major phenomena of the next thirty years.(The Step to Man [New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1966], p. 187. See also John Platt, "What We Must Do," Science [November 28, 1969], p. 1115.)
A leveling-off is inevitable and in many cases is already in sight. Platt goes on to show how this is true, for example, with regard to high-energy accelerators used in modern physics, the speed and capacities of computers, or the control of bacterial diseases, among many others that could be mentioned.
The fact of reaching a culminating plateau becomes obvious in some connections:
Once a satellite system makes it possible to transmit sound and pictures around the earth at the speed of light, no further advance is possible except to extend or complete the network.
The speed at which persons or things can be transported across the globe has increased dramatically in recent decades. About 100 years ago, trains first achieved a rate of 60 to 70 miles per hour. Certain experimental planes now have traveled about 4,000 miles per hour. But we know the limits now. At 100 miles an hour vehicles (with wings) can leave the ground, but at 17,000 miles an hour they leave the earth and sail into orbit.
The inevitable reaching of limits in population growth can be shown most vividly and incredibly of all. Gerald Feinberg, a physicist, has calculated that at the current rate at which the population doubles -- about every forty years -- every atom in the estimated universe would be converted into human protoplasm in 5,600 years! (The Prometheus Project [New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1969), p. 257.) Actually we know full well that the rate of population increase will level off one way or another within the next 50 to 100 years.
Platt is certainly right in that many of the kinds of change we now marvel at simply cannot go on forever or, in some cases, for many more decades.
In short, the formation of the planetary society, the approaching of the earth’s ecological limits, and the attainment of certain built-in or intrinsic boundaries all are coming at a time when the scientific and technological capabilities of men are enlarging the range of alternative futures. These facts point vividly to the fact that world history is moving toward a completion of one stage of global evolution and human development. Granted that the various peoples of the world are being caught up into this broad sweep of history at different rates. Moreover, some aspects of life lag far behind others in their distance from the most advanced edges of the rush toward the planetary society. Nevertheless, the overall pattern seems clear enough. We stand already well into the process by which the scientific, technological, and cultural processes are weaving the interstices of the noöspheric network. The present generation stands at a crucial juncture in history. McHale writes:
Ours is possibly one of the most critical periods in human experience. Poised in the transition between one kind of world and another, we are literally on the hinge of a great transformation in the whole of the human condition.
The next fifty years may be the most crucial in all of man’s history. We have few guides to follow and almost no usable precedent.(The Future of the Future, p.15.)
Human choices in the decades just ahead will decide whether, and to what extent, the culmination of that stage of history which began with the emergence of culture-producing men will bring with it universal happiness or worldwide horror.
Those theologians and philosophers who have spoken so bravely of "man come of age" have missed the most significant fact of our time. Man is not now an adult having moved out of the innocence, ignorance, and ineptitude of childhood. From the long evolutionary perspective, it is much more to the point to see the human race in a stage of uneasy adolescence. Mankind today is like a gangly teenager who has begun to taste the joys and sorrows, the responsibilities and dangers, of maturity. Now he clutches pathetically to the fading securities of childhood, hoping with eyes closed for the best; then he rushes blithely ahead, fully confident of his inevitable triumph. Having the burgeoning powers of manhood but little experience of what it means to be a man, his behavior ranges in crazy mixed-up ways from the most irrational stupidity to brilliant sublimity. But within a few decades the outcome of this adolescent groping toward adulthood may have largely been decided.
John Platt calls this crucial period which lies quickly ahead of us as we rush toward the culmination of this phase of human development "the step to Man." Imagine, he suggests, that the two-billion-year history of life on earth is represented by the height of the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago -- a distance of 200 feet. The million years of man’s history amount to a one-inch block on top of the chapel. The 20,000 years of agriculture add the thickness of a postage stamp. The 400 years of science are equivalent to the ink on top of the stamp. Now in a period of amounting to the thickness of a film of moisture on top of the ink it is all about to come to a climax -- a matter of a few generations.
In that short time we will move, if we survive the strain, to a wealthy and powerful and coordinated world society reaching across the solar system, a society that might find out how to keep itself alive and evolving for thousands or billions of years, a time as long as all of evolution past. It is a tremendous prospect. Hardly anyone has seen the enormous sweep and restructuring and unity and future of it except perhaps dreamers like H. G. Wells or Teilhard de Chardin. It is a quantum jump. It is a new state of matter. The act of saving ourselves, if it succeeds, will make us participants in the most incredible event in evolution. It is the step to Man.(The Step to Man, p.203.)
Other authorities confirm this theory of the rapid transformation of man toward a new era in the evolution of man on earth. John Calhoun takes a long overview of the history of homo sapiens from the earliest beginnings of his cultural pilgrimage to the present.(Calhoun’s thesis is stated in three papers prepared for major conferences: "Space and the Strategy of Life," American Association for the Advancement of Science [December 30, 1968]; "The Promotion of Man," Global Systems Dynamics [University of Virginia, June 17-19, 1969]; "Creativity and Evolutionary Design," Conference on Religion and the Future [November 22, 1969].) He concludes that as early man reached the limits of the ecological carrying capacity of the land, a new doubling of the population required the invention of what he calls "conceptual space. Conceptual space refers to the total information pool -- ideas, customs, laws, theories, etc. This information, when embodied in institutions and technological improvements, facilitates the adaptation of man to his environment. Calhoun means that there came a time in the life of man when no more people could survive in a given geographical area by simply living off the natural produce of the land. In order for the population to increase, man had to put his mind to work to invent new ways of doing things to supply the physical needs of the society. This includes novel social arrangements, e.g., a division of labor, the formation of a more complex society with developed institutions, etc. It also includes more efficient ways to farm, fish, and hunt, by inventing tools, etc. A doubling of conceptual space makes possible a doubling of the number of people who can live satisfactorily in the same physical space. It also makes possible arrangements whereby each person can maintain the same number of advantageous contacts with other people. Calhoun believes that there is an optimum of encounters people need with each other. Given more or less, they are frustrated to some degree. In his view the invention of conceptual space about forty thousand years ago marked the transition of man from his biological state to a cultural state.
Each successive doubling of the population since that time has taken roughly half the time as the previous doubling. The number of people increased from four-and-one-half million to nine million in twenty thousand years, from nine million to eighteen million in ten thousand more years and so on. We have now reached a point where the population requires only about forty years to double. In the next century it could conceivably multiply itself by two in twenty years.
Against this background Calhoun sees the approach of a new crisis of transformation, equal to that which required the invention of conceptual space. The human race, he believes, is reaching the limits within which conceptual space can be further multiplied to preserve the optimum degree of social contact and to continue the maximizing of human potentiality. Human potentiality, measured in terms of the ideas and concepts available to a given individual, has doubled with every other doubling of world population. Calhoun reasons that the ideal number of human beings on earth is about nine billion. The reaching of this number of persons will coincide with the completion of world union -- the extension of a network of interacting cultural groups around the globe in which there is mutual enrichment through contact. Beyond the limit of nine billion, he argues that human potentiality, satisfying human interaction, and overall human fulfillment can only decrease. Now we can understand what Calhoun calls the two crises of man.
The first crisis terminated about 40,000 years ago with biological man becoming human; the second crisis will terminate in an equally great transformation before another century passes. Every crisis has some period of grace for its resolution. Those men facing that earlier crisis had 15,000 years to resolve it; we have only 15 years to resolve an equally great one. The first great crisis was one of biomass, of a limitation to the total protoplasm of man that Earth’s natural bounty could sustain. Our present, and second, crisis is one of ideomass, of a limitation to the total processing and utilization of ideas by man on Earth.("Creativity and Evolutionary Design," p.1.)
At this juncture, man has three basic choices with regard to population: (1) to let it increase to the limits of physical survival -- possibly a total of 145 billion, (2) to keep it stable at some manageable level -- the current ecological model, or (3) to let it decline gradually. The first option would reduce man again to an animal existence. The second would produce an encapsulated civilization, static, traditional, tribal, stagnant. Only the third would allow for increasing human potentiality and satisfaction. If we choose the first, we need only stand by while we lose our humanity. If we choose the second, we have maybe thirty-five years to develop strategies for population control. If we choose the third we must develop within fifteen years a creative strategy of evolutionary design, in which increase in human potentiality becomes the consciously chosen goal of human action. Calhoun entertains a hope of a gradually declining population which may reach unimaginable heights of potential experiencing. This movement into a new era of evolutionary advance will require the use of prostheses -- invented technological aids to procuring and processing information.
His immediate dream is of a transformation of human values and social organization which would bring into being by about 2018 what he calls a "compassionate-systems revolution." By this he means a human population of, ideally, about nine billion harmoniously integrated into a world society of mutually interdependent, mutually sustaining subgroups and individuals, who both contribute to and receive from the total good of the whole. This idea depends on developments in general systems theory, which views "all of nature and all of human activity as a hierarchically arranged structure of levels of interlocked subset systems in which the process of any particular subset system affects and is affected by other subset systems at its own level, as well as below or above it." (Calhoun, "Space and the Strategy of Life," p. 30.) The term compassionate is used advisedly for this organic, cybernetic society. The universal recognition that the well-being of all depends on the optimal functioning of each person and subgroup creates a sense of concern for the preservation of the rights, values, and performances of all members of the total system. The appearance of the compassionate systems society will be the culmination of six previous revolutions:
the traditional-sapient revolution of about 38,710 Bc.
the living-agricultural revolution of about 8,157 Bc.
the authoritarian-religious revolution of about 519 Bc
the holistic-artistic revolution of about AD. 1391.
the scientific-exploitative revolution of about AD. 1868.
the communication-electronic revolution of about 1988.
Each of these previous transformations involves an increase in social brainpower and makes a contribution to the knitting together of the Teilhardian noösphere which lies ahead.
This magnificent vision of evolutionary-cultural development represents an integration of vast masses of scientific, historical, and philosophical data. Much of it is controversial. The basic images grow out of ecological studies of the relationships of organisms to each other in physical space. They are articulated in complicated mathematical models requiring a specialist’s training to comprehend. However, the fundamental point of importance here is that his conclusion is so much akin to those which are drawn from vastly different premises and world-views by other interpreters of the global human drama. I refer to his notion of the great transition of mankind toward a culminating phase of world history during the next few decades -- a period fraught with great dangers and immense opportunities for human advance.
Also converging on the theory of the great transition is the vision of Buckminster Fuller. As a design engineer, Fuller sees the basic problem of mankind in terms of the necessity to integrate the production and distribution of the world’s material necessities of food, housing, etc. on a global scale. Given a systematically interrelated world economy employing feasible technological innovations, it would be possible to provide the whole human population with plenty of everything needed. This is the startlingly new fact of history which is as yet not recognized or being acted upon appropriately.
Quite clearly, a complete transformation of human ecology m universe is occurring. It is not surprising that man, burdened with obsolete "knowledge" -- his spontaneous reflexing conditioned only by past experience, and as yet unable to realize himself as being already a world man -- fails to comprehend and cope logically with the birth of Universe Man.(Utopia or Oblivion [New York: Bantam Books, 1969] pp. 2-3.)
Confronted with the possibility of universal plenty and heretofore unattainable mental and spiritual adventures, the world is at the same time faced with annihilation through an atomic holocaust, due to our being trapped with outmoded ideas, values, and political ideologies.
This moment of realization that it soon must be Utopia or Oblivion coincides exactly with the discovery by man that for the first time in history Utopia is, at least, physically possible of human attainment."(Ibid., p. 292.)
Within decades we will know whether man is going to be a physical success around earth, able to function in ever greater patterns of local universe, or whether he is going to frustrate his own success with his negatively conditioned reflexes of yesterday and will bring about his own extinction around the planet earth. My intuition foresees his success despite his negative inertias. This means things are going to move fast.(Ibid., pp. 362-63.)
Kenneth Boulding calls the twentieth century a period of transition, from a civilized society to the age of post-civilization. The first great transition took place some five to ten thousand years ago when men began to domesticate animals and settled down to an agricultural way of life. A surplus of goods produced by farmers made possible the beginnings of the city -- the characteristic mark of civilized society. But from the beginning of urban life, there began to rise a stream of knowledge and invention. This process is now rushing toward a climactic culmination that will in effect constitute the beginning of a new era -- what Boulding calls post-civilization. A global society is in the making, characterized by world industrialization and bound together in a communications and travel network. Such interdependence may produce a more uniform culture in the future, standing in sharp contrast to the wide diversity represented in the classical societies. About 25 percent of all the people who have ever lived are alive now. About 90 percent of all the world’s scientists who have ever lived are alive now. Only about 5 percent of the total population is now engaged in agriculture, as opposed to about 75 percent in the classical societies. These facts make it easy to see how different our period of history is from that of most civilized human history. Our scientific and technological prowess has produced as many chemical publications since 1950 and mined as many metals and materials since 1910 as before those dates (a 1964 estimate). Such concentrations of persons and of techniques produce a foundation which will quickly lead toward a different kind of human world than man has known before.
The basis for both transitions has been an increase of knowledge. The modern period has seen the rise of the natural sciences, giving us new images and powers in relation to nature. It has also produced the social sciences, with their novel ways of understanding human institutions and processes. Together they have provided the cumulative and accelerating impetus leading into a new phase of world history. As he looks ahead, Boulding sees the prospects for mankind in the following perspective:
A postcivilized society of unshakable tyranny, resting upon all the knowledge which we are going to gain in social sciences, and of unspeakable corruption resting on man’s enormous power over nature, especially biological nature, is by no means inconceivable. On the other hand, the techniques of postcivilization also offer us the possibility of a society in which the major sources of human misery have been eliminated, a society in which there will be no war, poverty, or disease, and in which a large majority of human beings will be able to live out their lives in relative freedom from most of the ills which now oppress a major part of mankind. This is a prize worthy of driving for even at the risk of tyranny and corruption.(The Meaning of the Twentieth Century [New York: Harper & Row, 1965], pp. 22-23.)
One qualification needs to be made here to avoid misunderstanding. It would be too simple to say that if only the problems of the present period of transition can be resolved, heaven can at last come on earth and endure forever. It is more likely that the next epoch in the development of world history will bring a new set of perils and promises. Ambiguity is not likely to be overcome ever in human society, although a perpetual utopia must not be ruled out as a matter of principle. I am still too much of a Niebuhrian to conceive easily of a state of affairs which transcends ambiguity within history itself. Nevertheless, the stark contrasts being made do serve to point out that for each period there is an ideal utopian state (a concrete, specific historical heaven) and the opposite of such a state (a concrete, specific, historical hell). These concrete ultimates define for a given era the possibilities and limits within which actual historical achievements will be located.
With these qualifications in mind, it can be said that the implications of the preceding analysis are fantastic beyond belief. We live at a time when a process of human expansion and cultural development thousands of years in the making is rushing within a few decades toward culmination. Before us lie literally the possibilities of either "utopia or oblivion." It is now possible, with the efficient utilization of world technological capabilities, to provide a growing population with abundant goods, services, and opportunities for expanding the full range of human potentialities in a way thought quite impossible previously. On the other hand, there are horrendous dangers of worldwide misery implicit in the threat of nuclear war, extinction by ecological disruption, the explosion of population, and the political problems of governing the world’s peoples during a period of such momentous crises.
We stand poised between these two mind-shattering prospects. The actions of the present generation during the remainder of this century -- the next thirty years -- will determine which of these outcomes will, in fact, come to pass. It would be a big mistake to conclude that there is no third alternative between these extremes, that there is no in-habitable residence between heaven and hell. But it would be a greater blunder to miss the unprecedented stage of world history which is being rapidly approached as the planetary society takes shape under the conditions of a world-crowding population, limited resources, and accelerating human capabilities. The human race has not before and will never again be at this point. Never have the stakes been so high. Never has the time of resolution been so brief.
In short, "utopia" and "oblivion" are symbols defining the absolute limits of historical possibility for this given epoch. The actualities of the historical future will doubtless not reach on a planetary scale the full range of potentialities of either pole. The total world process is far too complex and is moving toward the culminating point at far too many varying rates of speed within its innumerable subsystems. Nevertheless, the fundamental fact of the unique promises and perils of the emerging era should not be underestimated.
Given this background, the following chapters will look at the requirements of world historical salvation. How can we avoid disaster and attain a desirable future? Where shall we look for help? To science and technology? To political action? Is there a contribution that theology and the church can make? It is to these issues that the following chapters are devoted.