Have we time to fix the planet anyhow? The experts are all grim-faced. They concede that at least the question is a legitimate question. They divide over whether or not they want to give a gloomy answer. Perhaps, more than emerged in the series, the Observer was right to hang ‘optimist’ and ‘pessimist’ labels around the necks of those they consulted. Maybe here we come upon another of those basic human divides which make up personality and corporate personality? That there always will be, as long as man survives, the two ways of interpreting any set of facts?
Yet our current predicament surely demands more? Either we really do have no time left, past prodigality has irrevocably set us on the pathway to doom; in which case what remains for us is ‘the elaborate funeral’.’ Or we get ourselves involved in a breathless, costly and always changing programme of adjustments (political, economic, educational, industrial, international) wherein all our best minds are concentrated on finding for all mankind a balance whereby our children can survive together. Either alternative looks threatening to Westerners, hence part of the heat in the experts’ debates. Hence also (on a more humble level) some of our own head-in-the-sand scramble for inflation-beating raises in earnings by everyone with the power to insist. We are back to another aspect of alienation. How can we be helped to feel that all this global thing matters to me and my work-mates? Who among the politicians is going to dare to make a guts-issue of it?
For Britain today, Europe is the test-case. We belong there, we are in. We got in during the course of an almost totally sterile, self-centred, materialistic debate which never began to involve more than a minority of us. The politicians insisted on playing it their way, a dog-fight over possible financial repercussions. Even the questions of military security, and a possible strengthening of the chances for world peace by Europe’s becoming more powerful but not a world-power, were rendered down into plain (and misleading) money terms.
Yet if time for us all is running out, and moves towards global thinking are the most urgent need of the moment, all this was largely beside the point! What mattered in fact was precisely that which became so embarrassing a political point at issue, the surrender of aspects of sovereignty and decision-making to a wider unity, for the sake of the future. This, instead of being swept under the carpet, needed to be shewn to be the human point of the whole exercise. Instead, we did the right thing for all the wrong reasons, and to nobody’s credit.
We are in, however. We are part of Europe. Can we learn a new language, and renew a commitment to life which politics have eroded in recent decades? This seems to be the point where the global questions have to be answered first by us in Britain.
It is interesting that here again, we see the inevitability of the pressures to get bigger and smaller at the same time. We have to feel European, and to plan as members of E.E.C., and work towards its speedy development for the sake of the future. Yet at the same time our expression of commitment to that future will often have to be in making effective a local community group for Action for World Development, or `Q’ or Oxfam or Christian Aid. Or in taking all our doubts in with us in membership of a political party or Trades Union locally so that in the long run public opinion is heard where it counts under our present systems.
Is The End really Nigh?
There seem to be three ways, broadly speaking, in which the Doom questions are answered today.
The first is the gloomy forecast that by 2050 A.D. (give or take a decade), we shall have silted up, run out of what it takes, or blown ourselves up. Being naturally inventive, and corporately casual, we may well succeed in doing all three virtually simultaneously, in a final assertion of racial or continental imperialism. There are inexorable processes at work, with literally no reliable rays of hope to be seen. All that remains is ‘the elaborate funeral’, and in the West a probably fascist political future.
The second alternative is the assertion of a cheerful humanistic liberalism. Peter Walker, in a sermon at Great Saint Mary’s Church, Cambridge, said recently:
The question is, do we have a generation capable of producing the practical idealism to achieve these accepted objectives? (To replace the worldwide clash of economic and political ideologies with an international unity . . . for practical objectives; to eliminate the scars of urban dereliction; to cleanse the world’s oceans and rivers; to conserve the creations of nature and the best creations of man.) I believe we have . . . A new generation is rising which does not look upon it simply as a duty to accept individual responsibility and to have a worthy objective for one’s own life. It is, I believe, a generation impatient to participate in the creation of a new and free society and equally anxious to accept more responsibility for those less privileged and unable to lead a full and purposeful life for themselves. The young, better educated than earlier generations, are living in an age of swifter transformation than ever before. I believe they are no longer going to be content with the traditional role of the younger generation, the role of the spectator … The new young will reasonably demand that they should join in … and make the decisions that will bring success.
There are echoes here of Charles Reich.: There is a revolution coming. It will not be like the revolutions of the past. It will originate with the individual and with culture, and it will change the political structure only as its final act. It will not require violence to succeed, and it cannot be successfully resisted by violence. It is now spreading with amazing rapidity, and already our laws, institutions and social structures are changing in consequence. It promises a higher reason, a more human community and a new and liberated individual. Its ultimate creation will be a new and enduring wholeness and beauty — a renewed relationship of man to himself, to other men, to society, to nature and to the land.
Such cheerful, even poetic, optimism raises deep questions. Two at least demand an answer before anyone hangs their faith on this sort of a peg.
The first is the nature of the claim implicit in Walker, and explicit in Reich, that as the new generation enter fully adult responsibility in society they will be able to preserve their spirit and unselfish concerns. This has to be proven. At least equally likely would it be that the new-consciousness would prove to be one aspect of an age-group phenomenon. The same future for youth’s concern for social, ecological, and international righteousness might unfortunately have to be assumed as is seen to happen with pop-music when, in their twenties people ‘grow up and settle down’. Only time will be able to debunk (or gloriously to justify) optimism about our attitudes to the future. It is a pity that it has to be precisely time and the future that are the issues at stake!
The second question involves a looking back in history. The few millenia we are able to review do not in general uphold a liberal, optimistic view of man’s potential for common-sense in inter-group decision-making. Indeed our history would seem to show that man under pressure, tends to show the worst that is in him rather than the best. Thus while Walker and Reich are comforting and pleasant to read, because we all want to hope, we dare not trust our future to quite so simple a faith.
The third alternative, the one we English usually resort to in almost any crisis, is a bland and blind faith that somehow or other we shall all muddle through. In more sophisticated terms in the Doom context, we believe that our leaders will manage to adapt quickly enough to avert utter disaster, even if it proves to be a pretty close thing, and even if some of us get hurt, or have to pull in our belts a notch or two on the way. Obviously most people most of the time would want this to be so, and the odds are therefore in its favour. Man is not a moron. (Christians would go further and say that even at his worst he does not finally deface the imago Del within him.) Those who lead will see, as most are already seeing, that people want above all to survive and to be helped to adjust to all that the near future holds as threat or promise. Self-interest with some altruism will ensure that something is done about the rich-world-poor-world imbalance, about the quality of the environment, about control of resources on behalf of all. Along this way politics will have to be completely realigned (in swift steps of which Britain’s entry into Europe will involve for us some of the first). The choice may well come to be between a nationally-oriented totalitarianism which leads man to his destruction, or an accelerated movement towards world-government on a level-headed humanistic basis. Either way we flirt with death, and know our time to be very short.