Words of Wisdom

Quotations from half a century of global future studies

Now, in the new millennium, we are seeing a faint flicker of public interest in the global problems that could lead to catastrophe in the first half of this new century.  Driven by the juggernaut of unbridled population growth they include severe shortages of energy and water, widespread pollution, massive climatic change due to pollution of the atmosphere and all the political, social and military consequences of these and other global problems.  Why has it taken half a century or more for the message to get through, even though that delay may well be fatal?  Read the exerpts below, note the dates and consider whether a study of the reasons for our inability to communicate the magnitude of the global predicament might not help us act more effectively in future.

"......we are now living in a phase of history which is destined never to be repeated. For the fifth of the world population that lives in regions of machine culture it is a period of unprecedented abundance. And most of us who are a part of that fortunate one-fifth are so enamoured with the achievements of the last century and with the abundance which has been created that we believe the pace of achievement will continue uninterrupted in the future. However, only a cursory investigation of the present position of machine civilizations needed to uncover the fact that it is indeed in a precarious position.  A cosmic gambler, looking at us from afar, would, in all likelihood give substantial odds in favour of the probability that it will soon disappear, never again to come into existence.".

"The Challenge of Man's Future" by  Harrison Brown; Viking 1954.

"The fact is that the onrush of change has become so drastic that people are utterly confused as to what the situation actually is, what may eventuate from it, what they want instead and what needs to be done. And while the very essence of human society is being transformed, the economic and technical glamour of its achievements conceals from our sight that these unceasing waves of change attack the very roots of our individual and collective life. We thus fail to see the danger element inherent in uncontrolled growth. Phenomenal increases, rapidly approaching critical maxima, are happening in population, pollution, energy release, speed, automation and other areas revolutionized by technology.  In the changed dynamics of these interacting factors lie the reasons why mankind is confronted with such an unprecedented complex of explosive problems. But we do not yet seem ready to realize that the time has come to plan and act on a scale and in ways capable of matching the new thrust and threat of events. Considering the situation in these broad and essential terms, We must recognize that very little is being done to redress it and set human fortunes on a sound and reasonable course very bleak situations will undoubtedly meet us during the next decades, unless a supreme effort is made now to get out of the present global impasse."

"The Chasm Ahead" by Aurelio Peccei; Macmillan, 1968

"Taking no action to solve these (global) problems, is equivalent to taking strong action. Every day of continued exponential growth brings the world system closer to the limits of that growth. A decision to do nothing is a decision to increase the risk of collapse. We cannot say with certainty how much longer mankind can postpone initiating deliberate control of his growth before he will have lost the chance for control.  We suspect, on the basis of present knowledge of the physical constraints of the planet that the growth phase cannot continue...... Again, because of the delays in the system, if the global society waits until those constraints are unmistakably apparent, it will have waited too long".

"The Limits to Growth" by Dennis and Donella Meadows; Potomac Associates, 1972.

"......the deep crisis faced by humanity - a crisis which we feel is different in kind from those of the past and which societies of today are ill equipped to face with their bureaucratization, uncontrolled urban spread, insecurity of employment and loss of satisfaction in work, the alienation of youth, questioning of the values of society, violence and disregard of law and order, educational irrelevance, inflation and monetary disruption in the face of material prosperity, the unbridged gap between rich and poor within and between nations - to mention only a few."

"The Club of Rome - The New Threshold" by Alexander King. U.S. Congressional Record, March 20th, 1973

"Suddenly - virtually overnight when measured on a historical scale - mankind finds itself confronted by a multitude of unprecedented crises: the population crisis, the world food crisis, the environmental crisis,  the energy crisis, the raw material crisis, to name just a few. New crises appear while the old ones linger on with the effects spreading to every corner of the Earth until they appear, in fact, as global, worldwide crises. Attempts at solving any one of these in isolation has proven to be temporary and at the expense of others; to ease the shortage of energy or raw materials by measures which worsen the condition of the environment means, actually, to solve nothing at all.  The intensity of the crisis in global world development and the elusiveness of effective measures to bring about a solution challenge premises that have long been most fundamental in guiding the evolution of human society.  Although these premises have paved the way for human progress in the past, they hovels, finally, led to the present conditions. Mankind, therefore, appears to be at a turning point: to continue along the old road - that is to follow the traditional route, unchallenged into the future - or to start on a new path. In the search for such a new direction, the old premises must be re-evaluated."  

"Mankind at the Turning Point" by Pestel and Mesarovic; Dutton, 1974.

"The material revolutions are becoming ever more difficult to tame. They have given us unprecedented power and a taste for hitherto undreamed of standards of life., but not the power to control both our power and our demands. It behoves then our generation to realize that it depends on us to eliminate this mismatch and that, for the first time in history, the outcome, which may range between the extremes of self-fulfilment and self-destruction, will affect the fortunes not of a few people or regions only, but all of them.  The could fact is that amidst so many dangers and challenges, nobody knows which of these elements, or others, will trigger off a chain reaction capable of bringing mankind to its knees. Nor does anyone know when this will happen, but it is very likely the next few years will be , and should indeed be considered as, an ultimate "period of grace" during which mankind must come to its senses again and change course before it actually goes over the brink."

"The Human Quality" by Aurelio Peccei; Pergamon, 1977.

"The social changes that must be compressed into the next two decades promise to be profound as measured by any historical yardstick. Each of us will be affected. Arresting the deteriorating relationship between ourselves, now numbering (x) billion, and the earth's natural systems and resources will affect what we eat, how much we pay for housing, and how many children we have. Some will view the changes in prospect with alarm, even in doomsday terms. Others, including the author, believe that the problems outlined in this book are manageable, but that managing them satisfactorily will require an exceptional exercise of political will and human ingenuity"

"The Twenty-Ninth Day" by Lester R. Brown; Norton, 1978

"A species that is unable to control its own numbers, as is our case, is doomed - or it will be brought back to size by forces outside its control........ The stronger man has felt that he was the more he has attacked nature and isolated himself from it ,with the result that he has over-exploited it and trampled it underfoot, thus wounding and weakening his own environment......... Modern man has rapidly and radically transformed his small corner of the universe, but has failed to make a parallel adjustment in himself; he has kept his old concepts of the world - of himself and his place in it - that he inherited from past centuries. He has not updated his values, his taboos, his  totems, his ways of thinking or his modes of action.   So he has gotten out of step with the realities of his own doings. All of the world species adjust to mutations in their environment by genetic evolution, failing which they disappear. However, in our species, genetic evolution would be too slow.  Man must either learn to evolve culturally or he risks disappearing."

"Facing Unprecedented Challenges" by Aurelio Peccei; IIASA, 1980

"Depletion of fossil fuel resources presents the most serious challenge of this technological age. The right answer must be found, or extremely grave problems affecting world peace and stability will engulf us all at the turn of the century".

Sir Samuel Curran (1980).

"If the situation of the industrial countries is destined to become particularly difficult, the outlook for the overall global situation is truly dramatic. While population problems are growing tremendously, preparations to cope with them are still practically nil - even for so close a deadline as the year 2000. We have not even begun to recognize the unprecedented nature and the colossal dimensions of the inescapable task of housing, educating and feeding the supplementary population that will be added to that so badly served today. In general we are mesmerized by the immediate and thus most striking problems, some of which are indeed very serious....... But we are not confronting the long-term global problems on which humanity's very fate depends.""

"100 Pages for the Future" by Aurelio Peccei: Pergamon, 1981.

"The scale and complexity of our requirements for natural resources have increased greatly with the rising levels of population and production. Nature is bountiful, but it is also fragile and finely balanced. There are thresholds that cannot be crossed without endangering the basic integrity of the system. Today we are close to many of these thresholds; we must be ever mindful of the risk of endangering the survival of life on Earth. Moreover, the speed with which changes are taking place gives little time in which to anticipate and prevent unexpected effects".

"Our Common Future" Bruntland Commission; Oxford, 1987.

"We are now faced with a task that is more difficult than anything we have ever contemplated: to decide how we may continue to live on this small planet. Any departure from ecological balance that destroys most of the remaining life on earth - and the big killing is under way - will mean that we are doomed to a similar fate.  In other words, it is imperative that we learn to live in balance with all the world's complexities.  Humankind has never before been faced so urgently with such a challenge -but face it we must, or life on this planet, for human beings, may become insupportable."

"Planet Under Stress: The Challenge of Global Change" edited by Constance Mungall and Digby J. McLaren; Oxford, 1990.

The tragedy of the human condition is that we have not yet reached a position to realize our potential.  We see the world and its resources being grossly mismanaged, yet we are lulled by the complacency of our leaders and our own inertia and resistance to change. Time is running out. Some problems have already reached a magnitude which is beyond the point of successful attack and the costs of delay are monstrously high. Unless we wake up and act quickly, it will be too late.

"The First Global Revolution" by Alexander King and Bernard Schneider; Pantheon, Sept., 1991.

If we look ahead a few decades, we note that our civilization has enormous potential, not only to flourish happily but also to deteriorate appallingly. In fact, humanity literally has the capacity to exterminate itself, thus joining the many creatures that have become extinct. However, humanity also has the capacity to avoid the worst dangers and to flourish peacefully for thousands of years. At this peculiar moment in human history, our two extreme potentials (for destroying everything or for achieving a highly positive future) may both be vaster than at anytime during the past 10,000 years. The actual outcome will result from human choices and actions over the next few months, years and decades. Consequently, it cannot be predicted with any certainty. Humanity's future is not predetermined, preordained, nor carved in granite. On the grand scale of some ancient cosmic myth, our worldwide civilization today is engaged in a titanic struggle."

"Crucial Questions About the Future" by Alan Tough;  University Press of America, 1991.

I am trying to understand why we have difficulty thinking about the environment as something that surrounds us and of which we area part and why, instead of seeing it this way, we have been tending to think of it as a separate factor, one more issue that confronts us and complicates our politics.

Gail Stewart, CACOR Proceedings 1.9., March, 1994.

We find we are now faced with a task that is more difficult than anything we have ever contemplated: to decide how we may continue to live on this small planet. For if we depart from ecological balance to the extent that we destroy most of the remaining life on earth, then, surely we are dooming ourselves to a similar fate.

Digby McLaren, CACOR Proceedings, 1.10, June, 1994.

It is important to create the conditions for a major comeback of nuclear power. This, together with efforts to promote and diffuse high energy efficient technologies and to develop and diffuse renewable energy sources would be a pillar of an energy policy worldwide that would allow sustainable development.

Umberto Colombo, CACOR Proceedings, September, 1995.

Based on energy usage data in national energy archives, calculations indicate global carrying capacity to be about 500 million.  Skyrockets have no renewable energy, so everyone knows the carcass will crash to Earth when the stored sunshine has been spent. For the past 200 years our societal rocket ride has been fueled primarily with non renewable fossil energy. Visions of continued growth beyond the next few decades are fueled with false hope. Technology has brought us many wondrous things but it has failed to bring a clean and endless supply of energy. We approach the apogee.

Don Chisholm, CACOR Proceedings, December, 1995.

To primitive humans, nature was all-powerful, overwhelming, life-giving yet threatening at the same time. For all practical purposes it was, as a whole, abundant and limitless. One of the major intellectual developments of the 20th Century is the realization that nature, or more precisely, the Earth System is finite, that it is not limitless. From now on, we will always have to be mindful of this fact.

Jerzy A. Wojciechowski, CACOR Proceedings, 1.17, March, 1996.

Energy is only one of many problems which threaten the global future, although it ranks with population growth as one of the most serious. In both instances, to be effective in time, action should have been taken twenty or thirty years ago.  The world is due to meet the greatest energy crisis ever within the next half century  -  the progressive decline of fossil fuels. But not before their excessive use has irreversibly damaged the eco-system.

Peccei realized that there was not much time left when he injected a sense of urgency into   The Chasm Ahead, in 1968. Now, more than a thirty years later we are still faced with all the problems Peccei described, plus a few more, and everyone of them has been aggravated by the passage of time, the growth of population and the inaction of governments.

Pollution of land, water and the atmosphere is now reaching a truly menacing level and many aspects may be irreversible in a declining world economy. Special interest groups will continue to exacerbate the problem. Because of the tragic deterioration of the educational system, huge numbers of young people emerge ill-equipped, lacking the knowledge, the dedication and the discipline the future will require of them. The pressure of population growth will increase the unrest in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the dozens of other unsettled regions and it will take a great deal of pride swallowing and leadership to achieve any vestige of world peace. The combination of man-made climate change, population growth and conflict will cause mass migrations, faced with countries determined to protect their own people from the competition from unwanted immigrants. Terrorists will thrive on these unsettled conditions and will find it easy to cause further disruption. The burgeoning trade in drugs will feed the confusion.  Conditions will increasingly favour the spread of epidemics such as AIDS and TB.

As if these are not problems enough, countries will find it increasingly difficult to find the capital and the energy to replace the crumbling infrastructure of roads, bridges, city services etc. It stands to reason that if more people are admitted to this finite planet, individual expectations must fall. Yet it is often political suicide for a leader to say so. Consequently, political action will be too late, as usual.

The question arises as to whether it will ever be possible to address all these problems before they get completely out of hand. Reason says that it will not; that there will be global chaos within the lifetime of people already on Earth. However I like to think that events can transcend rational prediction. If we have no faith in the future, why do we live? It is impossible for me to imagine the loss of all the results of man's genius, from the great works of art and music to the astounding complexity of the chips in the state-of-the-art computer on which this book has been prepared. Intellectual, artistic and technological achievements represent an indispensable record of the continuity of intelligent life on Earth. I cannot envisage that continuity being broken.

Perhaps the 21st. Century will be the age of miracles. If it is not, the human race as we know it is unlikely to see the 22nd.

J.R. Whitehead, “Memoirs of a Boffin” (2005): Epilogue

and a final comment by Omar Khayyam:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by that same door as in I went.


Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire
Would not we shatter it to bits - and then
Remould it nearer to the Heart's desire?

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Fitzgerald Translation)
Leopold B. Hill, London, 1930.