Commentary Magazine


The Foreseeable Future, by Sir George Thomson; Utopia 1976, by Morris L. Ernst; Time for Living, by George Soule

Looking Ahead
by Theodore Norman
The Foreseeable Future. By Sir George Thomson. Cambridge University Press. 166 pp. $2.50.
Utopia 1976. By Morris L. Ernst. Rinehart. 305 pp. $3.50.
Time for Living. By George Soule. Viking. 184 pp. $3.00.

Many human activities are marked by periodic fashion changes—the manufacture of women’s dresses being the most obvious example. Still, it comes as a surprise to discover that books about the future of mankind are also subject to fashion’s whims.

In the years following the end of the Second World War, the reigning attitude in this “science of the future” was one of foreboding and alarm. In 1948, Vogt in The Road to Survival and Osborn in The Plundered Planet expressed grave concern at the rate of depletion of the earth’s resources, and observed with Malthusian grimness that the world’s population was increasing faster than food production. In 1953, Osborn in The Limits of the Earth again took a rather dim view of future things, though one detected here and there in his work a cheerfuller note. Vogt and Osborn were looking gloomily ahead only a few generations at most, but Sir Charles Darwin, whose The Next Million Years likewise appeared in 1953, saw no hope for escape even in the most distant future from Malthus’s dictum that the growth of population would inevitably exceed the increase in the means of sustaining it.

By the next year, however, the style in prophecy had begun to change. Nineteen fifty-four saw the publication of M. K. Bennett’s the World’s Food and Sir John Russell’s World Population and World Food Supplies, both of which took a moderately hopeful view, and of Harrison Brown’s The Challenge of Man’s Future, a completely optimistic statement. It may well be that the gloom of the earlier books was partly due to the slow revival of European production immediately after the war, while the more sanguine tone of the 1954 volumes was due to the fact, apparent by that time, that the economy of Western Europe had more than recovered lost ground. A better appreciation of the potentialities of the atom also helped to calm fears about the future. That the new look was here to stay was confirmed by the publication early in 1955 of P. H. Killefer’s unabashedly hopeful Two Ears of Corn, Two Blades of Grass, which was followed by the appearance in the last few months of the three books here under review.

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Sir George Thomson was Nobel Prize-winner in physics in 1937. Like other eminent English scientists—Jeans, Eddington, Huxley, and Sherrington—he is a lucid but uncondescending writer, imaginative, witty, and, on occasion, elegant. He is confident he knows what the future will look like “because as major discoveries are likely to be based on scientific principles rather than mechanical ingenuity . . . it is reasonable to predict . . . the trend.” The chief guideposts Thomson uses are negative; we understand enough of physics to know what cannot be done. For example, the speed of light is the universal speed limit. No atom can go faster than that.

However, the limits set by the fundamental physical laws are very broad, affording mankind ample room within which to work. We shall have plenty of power, derived largely from the fusion or fission of the atom; and plenty of materials, for new sources of useful minerals will be discovered by the geophysical methods now used to find oil. We shall utilize these new supplies many times more efficiently than is done now by rearranging their internal atomic structures to make them stronger; buildings will become lighter and, as it were, filmier; they will be built on the same pattern as insect skeletons. There are animalcules in the sea that concentrate certain metals like copper and vanadium in their bodies. This useful characteristic, intensified by a breeding program, can afford plentiful supplies of these elements. It is possible to direct a narrow beam of electrons at a target; as we learn more about the micro-anatomy of the chromosome, such beams could be used to control genetic mutations. Thus monkeys able to perform simple tasks, like harvesting fruit, could be bred. A monkey operates on a pound of nuts a day, while a machine “capable of picking an orange from a tree without wrecking it” would be expensive, cumbersome, and complicated. Breeding animals for simple kinds of work might, by the way, lead to a “demand for greater intelligence, and the possibilities here are intriguing.”

Sir George regards space travel as quite possible, not only to the planets of our own solar system, but to stars far outside. He is also hopeful of controlling the weather, and of increasing food production through the development of quick-growing crops suitable for cultivation in the Arctic, and by irrigation of what are now deserts.

On the side of political and social organization, Sir George has very little to say because “sociology has still to find its Newton, let alone its Planck, and prediction is guesswork.” He does try his hand at solving the problem of rush-hour traffic, which he regards as “the most serious in modern transport.” The best solution he can come up with is to spread big cities all over the landscape—which, to anyone who has seen Los Angeles and its environs, seems a cure worse than the disease. But Sir George’s real hope in solving this and all other social and economic dilemmas lies in increasing the power of the human brain. “Even with the present brains of intelligent people man may expect a glorious future. Who will dare to set limits to what he may reach as his brain improves?”

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Doubts as to the predictability of social trends don’t bother Morris Ernst. He is perfectly willing to tell us what forms our laws and mores will take twenty years from now. He begins by saying that his “dream is based . . . on nothing more than an extension of present trends.” And he goes on to foresee the breakup of large corporations through a revised and rationalized anti-trust procedure; a time when the “last of our skyscrapers has been built”; the growth of “thousands of new, specialized magazines carrying no advertisements at all”; and a “political party leadership [which] will develop such stature that the parties will have clear positions on each current issue.” Desirable as such developments may be, it is hard to discern any present trends of which they would be the extensions. Rather, they are projections of the writer’s wishes, not the fruit of his observation of the world outside.

But not only will everybody be healthy, wealthy, and wise, and fully enjoy every civil right twenty years from now, Mr. Ernst also believes that a particular feature of our future society will be the smallness of all organizations and institutions, public and private. Like Sir George Thomson, Mr. Ernst foresees the break-up of large cities and their dispersal over the landscape—and fails, apparently, to realize how much of the landscape would thereby be effaced. He expects, to take two examples, the trend toward concentration in newspaper publishing to be reversed; and an increase in the importance of municipal as against state and national governments. It is hard to account for the intensity of this animus towards any and all large organizations which Mr. Ernst shares with so many liberal people, especially as it runs counter to a good deal of evidence in favor of bigness. The case of national versus local governments, or large cities against small ones as centers of culture, might be cited as examples.

He is on firmer ground in his forecasts of economic and technological trends. He sees everyone enjoying an income of $4,000 a year by 1976, and having a lot more leisure in which to spend it; the atom, the sun, and the tides taking care of our needs for power; automation freeing men and women from routine tasks; the farmer protected from the vagaries of the weather; and all of us freed from the fear of bodily or mental ills.

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George Soule’s economic projections are much like Ernst’s. He, too, foresees a shorter work week, an income of $25,000 per family—in eighty years—ampler power, automation taking over all routine tasks, etc., etc. Such conclusions about our material future, however, could be reached by anyone acquainted with the subject. What cannot be easily foreseen, and is therefore more interesting to discuss, is the effect material changes will have on character and personality.

Mr. Ernst, in his own words “an incurable glandular optimist,” is inclined to see the man of the future as a good deal “happier.” He will enjoy mental health because of the ministrations of more numerous and better-trained psychiatrists than we now have; social conflicts will be diminished because of greater equality of wealth and the application of a more advanced social science; and the greater leisure and incomes to be enjoyed in 1976 will afford everyone ample opportunity for living a full life. Mr. Soule, indeed, devotes most of his space to describing the euphoric state of mind of those who will enjoy the fruits of material progress. He points out that for many millions of Americans the future is already here, seeing that they have enough income to satisfy all their necessities as well as buy most of the luxuries they want—golf clubs, records, motor-boats, trips abroad, etc., etc.—and have the time, too, to enjoy these things. As Mr. Soule puts it, mankind is already on the threshold of a new “instar”—a biological term meaning “stage of life.”

The characteristic of this coming stage is that man’s main efforts will no longer have to be devoted to work, or to thinking about how to get ahead materially. The personality, the mental set, the values appropriate to the two hundred years that have elapsed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution will no longer be relevant to the new age of wealth and leisure. In trying to visualize these new values, Mr. Soule starts from the fact that for many years now workers have shown a tendency to renounce the additional income earned by longer hours of labor; he expects this trend to continue. In other words, once their basic needs are satisfied, men prefer free time to what might be called surplus material goods.

The only serpent likely to enter this new Garden of Eden is bad taste, as spread by low-quality books, plays, movies, and TV programs. In Mr. Soule’s opinion, it is the steadily mounting costs of production that make publishers, for example, reluctant to print adventurous books, and cause impresarios not to put on plays of doubtful box-office appeal. This tendency, he hopes, will be reversed by the greater opportunities people will have to practice the arts themselves and thereby develop a valid sense of discrimination.

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All three authors agree that our descendants will enjoy every material comfort we can conceive of and doubtless many more we can’t. As far as the psyche is concerned, they see the man of the future as relaxed and secure, spending most of his time doing what he wants to do—in research, the arts, in handicrafts, in helping his fellowman (though it would seem unnecessary to spend much time at that), or just plain loafing.

But the ghost of Malthus disturbs this dream. Assuming the bomb does not explode and we have descendants, will we have too many for this bliss to go around? Mr. Soule points out that the experience of all industrialized societies would indicate that they ultimately limit their birth rate. Mr. Ernst believes that the birth rate will be held down by the use of contraceptive pills or some such simple preventive measure likely to be developed in the near future. Right now, however, the world’s population is increasing so fast that it will have doubled in seventy years. If this rate is maintained for another two hundred years, the earth will have twenty billion people; it is hard to believe that such a multitude could live in comfort, no matter how fast new sources of power and raw material are developed. In any case, seventy years after that there would be forty billions of us, which would be far too many under almost any circumstances. Presumably, as Ernst and Soule believe, men will be intelligent enough to limit their numbers in time. But it must be remembered that even at very much slower rates of increase than prevail at present, there will ultimately be overwhelming numbers of people on the earth. The pessimism of Sir Charles Darwin in The Next Million Years derived from his belief that no measures to restrict population can be effective for long. It is not quite so easy to lay the ghost of Malthus as our authors seem to imply.

Lastly, even if our descendants are kept down to numbers that will make Utopia possible, will they be really happy? Our three authors are troubled by doubts.

To have all our wishes satisfied, to have nothing to strive for, what could give rise to greater discontent? Sir George suggests that space travel may afford an outlet for man’s restless spirit. Morris Ernst implicitly, and George Soule explicitly, see men expressing this spirit in less physical ways. Men will advance into the unknown along the paths of aesthetic creation, or by the invention of new and improved means of organizing society. They will devote themselves to thinking, which Mr. Soule calls the hardest kind of work. It is hoped, then, that the man of the future will spend most of his time and energy in intellectual or artistic pursuits. But whoever counted artists and intellectuals happy?

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