Creating the Future
Passage to a Human World: The Dynamics of Creating Global Wealth.
by Max Singer.
Foreword by Irving Kristol. Transaction Books. 390 pp. $32.95.
If the quest for material progress has come increasingly to direct our everyday activity, it does not seem to have bestowed upon us any corresponding insight into the nature of the world we are so busily creating. This imbalance between human capability and human understanding is most apparent in the efforts of well-informed people to describe what the future is likely to resemble.
The imbalance is not new. In the 19th century, as a Nobel laureate in economics once remarked, the most accurate projections of 20th-century circumstances could be found not in the prospective assessments of eminent economists and scientists but in the fantasies of science-fiction writers. The situation has not improved since then. More recent attempts to foretell the pace of material progress seem often to have mistaken not only the magnitude of change, but its very direction.
In the 1960’s, for example, a best-selling book by a distinguished biologist announced that “In the 1970’s . . . nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” Yet in actuality the world was then, and continues now to be, in the midst of a health revolution—one that has steadily propelled global life expectancy to new highs, and has correspondingly depressed global death rates to record lows.
Subsequent studies, including the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth and the Carter administration’s Global 2000 Report to the President, deployed mathematical equations and computer simulations to make the case that the world of the future would be characterized by growing population pressure, resource scarcity, and environmental stress. Definitive though these computer-generated conclusions may have seemed at first glance, they were (as was gradually appreciated) simply elaborate reiterations of assumptions originally programmed into their respective models.
It is, indeed, curious that at a time when the material contours of daily life are being demonstrably and often dramatically transformed by various forms of applied reasoning, an unreasoning pessimism should characterize authoritative and widely-read assessments of the prospects for mankind. Not, however, that this creed of pessimism about the economic future has gone unchallenged. In recent years, a small but increasingly influential group of authors has argued that the progress experienced over the past century or two may reasonably be expected to continue during coming decades and centuries. Prominent names in this circle include Julian Simon, the economist whose critiques appear to have been instrumental in prompting the National Academy of Sciences to revise and moderate its earlier pronouncements on the consequences of rapid population growth, and the late Herman Kahn, the prolific “futurologist” whose final years were largely devoted to fleshing out his “guardedly optimistic” vision of life in the 21st and 22nd centuries.
A new addition to this literature has now been offered by Max Singer, co-founder with Kahn of the Hudson Institute, and later its president. Passage To A Human World: The Dynamics of Creating Global Wealth is a thoughtful and engaging discussion of the trend toward worldwide affluence and of the trouble educated Americans have in recognizing it.
Singer proposes that the world population two centuries hence might be ten billion, or even more. Such figures are similar to those in many of the more recent treatises expounding on the dangers of uncontrolled population growth—higher, actually, than in some. Singer’s vision, however, is anything but apocalyptic. The world he sees is richer than the one we now inhabit: indeed, per-capita income is about ten times its current level, and average income for the world as a whole is almost twice as high as in the United States today. Health conditions are so favorable that life expectancy typically approaches the biological maximum encoded in one’s genes. Despite a doubling, or more, of global population, this projected world does not seem more crowded than the one we know today: to the contrary, families enjoy more spacious and comfortable accommodations, and have greater access to parks and the recreational out-of-doors. And while consumption has enormously increased, thanks to a level of global economic activity over twenty times greater than our own, shortages of raw materials do not plague this world and pollution by most relevant measures has substantially diminished.
While the picture of the future that Singer sketches will be sure to surprise, and even startle, some readers, Singer’s own line of reasoning is hardly radical. Passage to a Human World contemplates the future cautiously. Singer does not invoke as yet undreamed of scientific breakthroughs or require specific leaps of technological faith. In clear, nontechnical terms, he guides his readers through findings from a diverse array of disciplines, slowly and deliberately building a case for the feasibility of a more populous, and at the same time vastly more prosperous, world.
The essence of Singer’s argument concerns the human mastery of nature. As he explains it, the process is well under way already. “We live today,” he writes, “just about at the middle of a period of only a few hundred years, during which mankind is changing the world as it has never been changed before into the way that it will probably be from now on.” Whereas “formerly nature dominated man (but not completely), after we finish our brief current passage man will dominate nature (but not completely).”
Singer notes especially the increased importance of education, specialized skills, and newly created technologies in the processes of production over the past century or so. The rise of the human factor within economic activity, he repeatedly emphasizes, is a trend fraught with significance, and some of its most important implications bear on the availability and use of natural resources. In brief, human ideas, in the form of technology, routinely bring economic value to matter previously considered worthless (bauxite, petroleum, uranium, sand). By Singer’s estimate, world population is five times higher today than it was 200 years ago, but average per-capita income has risen by a factor of ten. Thus, “the world is now wealthy enough to make possible fifty times as much consumption each year as there was two centuries ago. Since physical resources are the same . . . it must be intangibles that enable us to produce so much more.”
The “passage to a human world,” therefore, is a journey in which resources are, in a meaningful sense, created. While the stock of specific commodities (e.g., oil) may be diminished through human use, the routinization of research, innovation, and substitution indicates to Singer that “resources” will, practically speaking, generally and typically be less scarce—and less expensive—in the future. Thanks to man’s ingenuity, he writes, “the finiteness of the Earth does not doom man to scarcity of essential raw materials or to a polluted environment.”
If economic prospects for the future are actually so much less alarming than received wisdom would today suggest, why does a pessimistic perspective seem to have so much resonance in informed discussion? Singer holds that an “edifice of error blocks our view” of the future’s true economic potentialities. That “edifice of error,” in his judgment, is an intellectual and emotional construct to which “university-oriented Americans” (a group he places at roughly a tenth of the overall population) are today particularly susceptible. Such people, he believes, tend currently to exhibit “low national morale,” which in turn predisposes them to be pessimistic about a necessarily uncertain future.
Singer may well be right about all this, but his observations about the social geography of pessimism are unfortunately more impressionistic, and thus less persuasive, than the other portions of his book. He explicitly refuses to speculate on the reasons for the currency of the outlook he describes, and in the end leaves the reader intrigued, but unsatisfied.
If Singer sets himself against the pessimists, however, he himself is no starry-eyed believer in science and the benevolence of human nature. Far from it. “People should not kid themselves,” he warns, “that because a change is necessary it is good for everyone and harms no innocent victims.” For, he continues, “Even if there were no malice or greed, immense amounts of suffering and sacrifice would be required to achieve economic growth.” And Singer is extremely careful in judging the “human world” he envisions. “This book,” he states, “makes no claim that the future will be better than the past. We humans have amply demonstrated our power to do evil and create unhappiness. . . . In a human world the main dangers, also, are human creations.” In Singer’s view, mankind will retain its capacity to choose between good and evil—and to make mistakes.
Simple though this concession may seem, it serves to confute all mechanistic thinking about “the long run,” whether of the optimistic or pessimistic variety. Rather, Singer’s aim in Passage to a Human World is to restore to populations of the future that preeminently human dimension of moral choice which so many of today’s futuristic projections have stripped from them. It is an aim which this interesting, even exciting, book consistently realizes.