Excerpted from C.H. Patterson's Leona Tyler Award Address (The Counseling Psychologist, Vol. 24 (2), April 1996, pp. 335-347)
THE CURRENT STATE AND THE FUTURE OF CIVILIZATION
[p. 341] ...We are clearly not living in the best of all possible worlds. There are a number of indications of the decline of our civilization. It has been said that each society contains within itself the seeds of its demise. I can do little more here than to enumerate some of these.
Overpopulation. There is no question that without control, sooner or later we will reach a condition where the world's resources will no longer be able to support its people. The debate can only concern the time when this occurs. The planet's resources are limited, and science cannot make something out of nothing. In the past, disease, wars, famines, and pestilence have controlled population. Henry Kendall (1994), a Nobel Laureate in physics, has said that if population was not controlled in a humanitarian way nature would do so in its inhumane way. It appears that nature is being aided by genocide in some areas of the world.
Pollution. We are polluting our environment at an increasing rate. Providing clean air and water will become a growing problem. And again, the question is not whether or not this is a major problem but when the earth will become uninhabitable if we do not now begin to control pollution.
Global warming. The greenhouse effect, leading to global warming, is real. The industrialized nations, using fossil fuel, are filling the atmosphere with an increasing layer of carbon dioxide, but efforts at reducing the emissions are blocked by the energy and automotive lobbies. Again, it is only a matter of time before climatic changes will disastrously affect millions of people.
Extreme diversity. In addition to environmental problems, we are beset by increasing social problems. Diversity is the theme of the day and is being praised and encouraged. But there can be too much of a good thing. Our society is splintering and polarizing into innumerable racial, ethnic, tribal, national, social, religious, political, and other groups, many of them extreme and in opposition to each other. Extreme diversity leads to divisiveness; we are experiencing this in many areas, leading to legislative gridlock, ethnic cleansing, and other violence between groups. Extreme multiculturalism focuses on, and magnifies, differences, polarizing and pitting one group against another. Yet we are all of the same species, fundamentally like one another, and we live in one world. With instant communication and world trade we could become one community, a global village, if the common good replaced efforts of separate groups to monopolize our resources.
Increasing violence. The increase of violent crime and personal and group violence in our society is well documented. Terrorism is widespread in the world. Violence of group against group, including genocide, is almost of epidemic proportions. There is no single world war, but a series of wars throughout the world. Ethnic, racial, and national hatreds appear to be deep-seated, ready to break out with minimal provocation. And violence of individual against individual is widespread.
Our criminal justice system is overloaded and ineffective, costing billions of dollars a year. Our adversarial legal system was devised to discover the truth and provide justice. In practice, it has evolved into an elaborate game, with the goal of each side to win at all costs, including the suppression of truth. A juror dismissed from the O.J. Simpson case is reported to have said, "I see a situation where truth is not the issue." One of the prosecution lawyers, Christopher Darden, disgusted and shamed of the spectacle, referred to "this supposed truth-seeking process." The selection of jurors is manipulated to seat those who might be easily influenced. Our juries are hardly composed of peers. The most competent persons are exempt from, or are able to avoid, jury duty (Adler, 1994). Issues are settled by technicalities. Criminal lawyers build their reputations by winning jury verdicts for clients whom they know are guilty.
Our system of representative democracy has deteriorated to a struggle for legislation favorable to particular interest groups. Virtually all legislation is compromised to benefit particular groups. government is corrupted by the money of special interest groups. It might be said that we have a government of the political action committees (PACs), by the PACs, and for the PACs. It is often said that we have the best government money can buy. Local, state, and regional groups are benefited rather than the country as a whole.
Our vaunted economic system of capitalism fails us in many ways. It can only continue to exist with increasing consumption and greater use and destruction of our resources. We are urged to buy more, use more, and discard more, so that industry can show increasing production, sales, and profits. We fluctuate between feast and famine - prosperity and depression. The gap between the rich and the poor increases. Business and industry do not provide enough jobs paying living wages, above the poverty line. The result is that society must take on the support of the jobless through welfare. One out of every three people on the planet lives in abject poverty.
Adam Smith declared that the engine of capitalism is self-interest. He used the wrong term - the correct one is greed. The government spends billions of dollars a year regulating business and industry to protect consumers from dishonesty and fraud, and to preserve competition. With the advent of capitalism in Russia and China, greed is becoming endemic in those countries. Fraud and corruption are rampant in business, industry, and government throughout the world.
This is only a sketch of the problems facing our society and our civilization. It is a disturbing picture. The barbarians are not at the gate - they are here among us. Economic considerations- money - take precedence over preservation of the environment and health, and of human survival. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are here: War (or violence), famine, pestilence, and disease. Add to them three more - poverty, pollution, and greed.
The future looks bleak indeed. There are two scenarios for the end of the world, in addition to the second coming of Christ that some believe in. The first involves the destruction of our environment, of the planet on which we depend for our lives. We are well on the way to killing our world. Carl Sagan (1994) has said that "due to our own action and inactions and the misuse of technology, we live in an extraordinary moment- the first time that a species on Earth has become able to wipe itself out." His suggestion that we colonize other planets is a fantasy. We would have to export everything necessary for life from the earth- even our air and water.
Nor can we depend on science to save us. Science cannot provide air, water, and food when the natural sources of these are exhausted. Pollution and global warming can be solved, but only if action is taken in time. But science is conservative. It is bound to the 5% or 1% solution. That is, it will reject the null hypothesis only at the 99% or 95% level of certainty. There is great danger in accepting the null hypothesis when it is false. More research, more evidence, is required, it is said. So we procrastinate. But by the time enough evidence is available, it could well be too late to reverse the processes of pollution and global warming. We have the intelligence but not the will to act when we are immediately threatened.
This scenario appears to be moving toward its conclusion. We are rapidly depleting the earth's resources. Its flora and fauna are being decimated. As my daughter's gorilla T-shirt puts it, "Extinction is forever."
The second scenario for the end of the world involves humanity's self-destruction. We seem to be on the way to this, with racial and ethnic hatreds leading to undeclared wars and genocide. Add to this the acts of terrorism by religious and political fanatics. Violence is endemic in our society. Is there any hope for a future in which all beings can live together? "Can't we," as Rodney King asked, "all just get along?"
The seventh horseman of the apocalypse, greed, runs rife among us. One columnist (Terrell, 1994) wrote that "greed is the thing that will destroy the world, not the bomb." Human inhumanity suggests that the human race has not evolved far enough for us to live together peaceably. Are violence and greed inherent in human nature, as it has evolved in the struggle or existence?
Certainly the potential is there. But the expressions of violence and greed are fostered by certain environmental conditions. Early primitive societies were characterized by cooperation when struggling against the environment to obtain sufficient food in both hunting and fishing and agricultural societies. Violence, aggression, and greed occur under conditions of deprivation, frustration, and threat, when there are those who have and those who have not. It appears that violence and greed could be minimized in a society in which the necessities of life are distributed equitably, when the needs of all of its members for food, clothing, shelter, and health care are met.
However, besides the potentially negative elements in human nature there are positive elements. Evidence for such elements surfaces in times of natural and human-caused disasters. Barbara Streisand, in the final concert of her 1994 tour, introduced the song "People Who Need People" as follows: "This has been a year filled with natural disasters. And it has been amazing how in times of catastrophe people come together and forget their differences and help one another." Then she ended by saying: "Do we always need a catastrophe to remind us that we are all just people?" Will we end up huddled together facing the extinction of the human race by a natural or human-made catastrophe to reach the tie that binds?
Adler, S.J. (1994). The jury. New York: Times Books.
Kendall, H. (1994, September 5). In Time, p. 53.
Sagan, C. (1994). Pale blue dot: A vision of the human future in space. New York: Random House.
Terrell, B. (1994, October 18). Asheville Citizen-Times, p. 1C.
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