‘WE MUST BECOME ASCETIC — TO SAVE OUR WORLD,’ by Robert J. Donovan, March 7, 1974


“NEW YORK — Dr. Robert L. Heilbroner, a prominent economist who holds the Norman Thomas chair in the graduate faculty of political and social science at the New School for Social Research here, begins his new book thus:

‘There is a question in the air, more sensed than seen, like the invisible approach of a distant storm, a question so disturbing that I would hesitate to ask it aloud did I not believe it existed unvoiced in the minds of many: is there hope for man?’

He does not keep the reader waiting long in suspense for an answer.

‘The outlook for man, I believe, is painful, difficult, perhaps desperate, and the hope that can be held out for his future prospects seems very slim indeed… The answer to the question whether we can conceive of the future other than as a continuation of the darkness, cruelty and disorder of the past seems to me to be, ‘No’; and to the question of whether worse impends: ‘Yes.’

From there the book entitled, ‘An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect,’ which will be published next month by W. W. Norton, plunges downward into deep pessimism.

Thus, Heilbroner foresees that the underdeveloped countries of Southeast Asia, Latin America and parts of Africa may have a population of something like 40 billion a century hence. Like China, moreover, these nations will be able to construct hydrogen bombs with which to wage ‘wars of redistribution’ of food and wealth. They will not have rockets, but the warheads could be dropped from planes or smuggled into enemy harbors by ship — the enemy, of course, being an advanced nation.

The advanced nations meanwhile will be having troubles enough.

‘Ultimately,’ Heilbroner writes, ‘there is a limit to the ability of the earth to support or tolerate the process of industrial activity, and there is reason to believe that we are now moving toward that limit very rapidly.’

But may not heroic and ingenious efforts produce new kinds of resources and energy to permit continued growth? Yes, but ‘an ecological Armageddon’ awaits down the stretches of time, because the earth’s atmosphere can only absorb so much man-made heat before the temperature becomes unsuitable for human habitation.

‘Industrial growth must slacken and likely come to a halt, in all-probability, long before the climatic danger zone is reached.’

The slowdown in industrial growth in a generation or two, according to Heilbroner, will produce vast change in both capitalistic and socialistic systems, perhaps with dreadful consequences for individual freedom. Furthermore, these systems may not adopt such changes voluntarily.

Hence: ‘The outlook is for convulsive change — change forced upon us by external events rather than by conscious choice, by catastrophe rather than by calculation.’

In the end, however, Heilbroner refuses to pronounce a death sentence on humanity, but instead ‘a contingent life sentence — one that will permit the continuance of human society, but only on a basis very different from that of the present.’

To inquire as to how well we are skirting the abyss in our current difficulties, I called on this pessimistic man the other day in his large Park Ave. apartment and found him bubbling with cheerfulness, tempered somewhat by recent news that his summer home on Martha’s Vineyard had been damaged by fire.

‘I think we will get through,’ Heilbroner said in his pleasant manner, ‘but it will be a long, hard gauntlet to run. This oil thing is healthy. It has brought home for the first time the sense of wastefulness in the material life. People are recognizing that wastefulness and responding with a certain sense of relief and pleasure and are willing to undertake a more conserving way of life.’

‘Twenty or thirty years ago, most corporate leaders figured the game would continue unchanged — forever. They had no idea of profound change. Today I think a good many industrialists think there is going to be a profound change — not one brought on by Bolsheviks but by circumstances — by resource shortages and population problems, among other things.’

‘They see there is something real out there that is changing, and that they are going to have to deal with it. They are aware that the system is changing. That is healthy. One thing you see in the business community, in sharp contrast to a generation ago, is recognition that we are going to have to have national planning.’

Heilbroner is the first holder of the Norman Thomas chair, named for the late perennial and much respected Socialist Party candidate for President. He characterizes himself as a Norman Thomas democrat-socialist. He has written a number of books including, ‘The Worldly Philosophers,’ ‘The Limits of American Capitalism,’ ‘The Future as History,’ and, ‘Between Capitalism and Socialism.’

‘In the danger of overheating the atmosphere,’ he said, ‘we have less than 50 absolutely safe years, then 50 unsafe years and after that, very unsafe years. We have a generation to play around with, and in that generation we have to do a lot of work developing solar and wind and tide and geothermal energy and all those things.’

‘We should work like mad to develop energy that does not give off a dangerous amount of heat or deliberately take measures to curb growth. But you can’t possibly persuade people in a democracy to do that. It’s hard to take measures now to ward off something that may affect your grandchildren. It’s easier to say, ‘To hell with it.’ I put my faith on reactions to limited disasters.’

‘The only way we are going to get a real all-out effort to forestall the threat of thermal pollution is to get a local problem. One of these days we are going to get a real temperature inversion, during which people will drop like flies. Then we’ll get real control on heat and pollution. I don’t think you can get it beforehand.’

‘We have lived In a golden age in some ways — an easy age. I am not sure it is a good thing or that this kind of free-wheeling production and consumption brings out the best in people. Children would be much better off in a more stringent society with a need to conserve.’

‘One of the evils of the kind of affluent life we have is that it makes people tremendously self-centered and shortsighted. Enjoy today. Consumption-oriented. That is a point of view that isn’t compatible with long-term survival. Maybe we have to find a way of life in which we will feel more like trustees of the planet.’

He talked as if we would have to become ascetics to avoid the death sentence.

‘Yes,’ he concluded, ‘in a modified sense I think that is what we are going to have to come to. Not tomorrow, maybe, but over the long pull. There has to be a really profound change in life-style.'”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of The Los Angeles Times, “‘We Must Become Ascetic — To Save Our World,'” by Robert J. Donovan, March 7, 1974

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s