A progressive activist fresh out of college, I took my first job, a teaching position, under Stan Ward, conservative and much older. “The world’s gonna look pretty much like it does now in forty years,” he insisted. “Nothing’s gonna change.”
It was 1976 and the faculty was assigned to read Robert F. Bundy’s essay “Social Visions and Educational Futures,” asking educators if they were preparing students for a ‘post-industrial’ future (= dramatically changed) or a ‘super-industrial’ one (= status quo, embellished). I embraced the challenge of the essay. Stan knew what future world I was aiming for (big change), and he also knew I had little faith in the viability of the current trajectory. Pick the poison in it — mass starvation, nuclear oblivion, environmental ruin, stagflation. Just the same, he replied, “It’ll be much like it is today, with a few more gadgets.”
Forty years later has arrived, and I hear Stan’s avuncular chuckle. Smart phone screens have replaced cathode ray tubes (TV), but either way people are still just staring at screens. The air’s still too filthy to breathe comfortably — in Shanghai now more than LA. War clearly remains with us, though it’s a bit different. Nuclear winter never arrived. Life today is just a more and bigger and quicker and flatter and more complicated and stressful version of life forty years past. “Pretty much the same,” in other words, as predicted by my elder.
If Stan were still here, I would defend my side by pointing out that nuclear winter never arrived because I prevented it from arriving (You’re welcome, Stanchildren!). I would also throw him this one from MIT economist, Rudi Bornbusch: “In economics [and…], things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.”
The collapse of a civilization — or of civilization, as a form of social organization, itself — is more likely anyhow to appear as a slow, perhaps even imperceptible, descent rather than a sudden implosion. An unraveling, not so much a collapse, as we might imagine, punctuated nevertheless by sudden drops, like ice migrating from Greenland into the North Atlantic. A long, slow trickle with occasional, massive glacier slides.
Probably the biggest change typifies the imperceptibly slow — the dominant culture, now global in reach, is disintegrating even as it continues to spread, due to young people at its center increasingly losing faith in its values and program. Glued to their candy bar-size chunks of screen-coated plastic, they nevertheless recognize the emptiness of their entertainment and relationships. And their lives. To support this observation I am not in need of academic surveys. Each year, nearly two hundred college students sit around in my classroom circles and echo the same refrain: “This sucks.” Twenty years ago there was a more lively debate and discussion. Not now. Not much more five years ago. The conversation these days moves directly to, “what do we do about ‘this’?” An eerily sober moment of truth exposed.
The students are among the relatively privileged young people for whom the global systems have been designed to benefit. The winners of the global zero-sum game of Life™. Pathetically, the winners are toggling somewhere between chronic, low-level anxiety and acute misery. The dying culture’s defense mechanism is to normalize the pain, lower the bar, locate the pain in the individual, normalize more, medicalize and drug, offer happy-making stuff to buy, normalize.
Over the past forty years, the years since Stan and my first job out of college, the progressive in me has slipped into something more radical (= searching for the ‘root’, yes). I see the change Stan could not, and I anticipate more rapid and profound change, at the very least, coming ahead. The decline of one world, too, and the ascendance of something else. Call it a ‘post-industrial’ society, or societies, or use another label.
The essays collected in this volume, written over the past fifteen years (please excuse redundancies!), reflect neither optimism nor hope for humanity’s future. Thinking positively and making an active commitment to create a just and sustainable future requires neither of these. Likewise, making and/or relying on predictions serves very narrow and limited purposes. How the 21st century turns out, for instance, is anyone’s guess and no one’s certainty. One outcome of the century might be an improved quality of human life and a richer and healthier biosphere. Positive thinking applied to an active commitment to nurture change means, for me, aiming for a possibility of this sort. It is my belief, most certainly reflecting my values, observation and study, that the quality of human life on the planet, though it most certainly can worsen, is currently very poor, on balance. The glitter and shininess of parts of our experience reflect, at best, relatively shallow and ephemeral pleasure. They also reflect, and mask, a deep and often hidden dis-ease. Then on another level, more people, in absolute numbers, are enduring chronic destitution than at any other time in history. Human discontent and population growth, serviced by our extractive global economy, are at the same time draining the life out of the planet, as fertile and vibrant and diverse and resilient as our home (still) is and appears so beautifully in many places to be.
My intention in writing is to provide tools for transition, tools that pry open possible futures. Through these essays I continue to merge into the growing corps of midwives scattered and also networked, welcoming with encouragement what Joanna Macy is calling the ‘Great Turning’.
Our transition may be for the better, Stan, or it may be for the worse. But it’s going to be different. Very different.