We knew the Industrial Revolution was a cause of massive pollution within 25 years of it starting. Environment and Workers Health were low on the priority list at the time. The quality of life for the Gentry was high on the list. The earnings from the Revolution were deployed to provide many resources, some good, some not so good. Their objectives were rather one-sided.
We knew about solar and wind energy a century ago. We also knew that the world was getting polluted by gas emissions, even if we didn’t realise how quickly it would become the cause of planet climate imbalance and destruction. When we started using plastic widely in the 1960s we knew it was indestructible. We are now surprised to discover that the oceans are massively polluted as the dustbins of plastic waste. As one example of this, it is estimated that 400 million pieces of plastic debris litter the Cocos Islands coastline in the Indian Ocean.
Either we are very poor forecasters or so selfishly shortsighted that we don’t really care about those who come after us. I suspect a little of each. “Forecasting”, as Herman Khan once taught me, “is very difficult”. He added “Especially about the future” – a salutary warning that hindsight wasn’t forecasting, just something we all indulged in much of the time. Mind you, forecasting Computers, the Internet, travelling to the Moon (and back), Artificial Intelligence and a whole lot of things yet to come is not easy. When I forecast a ‘strap-on helicopter’ in 1956 I didn’t think it would take so long to get here. Almost here now, I think.
It’s not the new inventions that I’m worried about. They will happen like it or not. It’s the obvious consequences that seem to be widely ignored that cause us all anxiety. Look at it this way. Artificial Intelligence is to thinking what hydraulics is to heavy lifting. AI will be an enormous help towards a thinking-free society. We’re halfway there already with Google. A checklist for every problem, a remedy for every ill, correct spelling (if you are interested) for every word. Huge amount of good is offset by massive mental laziness. Listen to the jargon if you doubt that.
What will a human be if we cannot think except by Google?
The loss of lifting, desirable as it seemed to be, left us overweight. Was ‘not lifting’ really that desirable anyway? When young and working on farms there were no hydraulics, only simple machines for sowing and reaping. Work was often back-breaking. But I recall coming in from the fields one evening after a long day’s harvesting. It was daylight from 5am to 10pm. I had been toiling since 6am with a twenty minute lunch break. I was worn out. But the joy of having accomplished so much, the pleasure of exhaustion – yes, it is really exhilarating – and the sense of achievement is something I still remember seventy years later.
More recently, I have found Google et al very helpful. But I still want to think through my own solutions, amateur as they may be. The professional solution is often not as good as it claims, anyway. Where does it tell you that ‘sunset is a promise of tomorrow’? Nowhere because it isn’t literally true. But we need to be making it true. If everyone was examined at the end of their first formal education on ‘what is their vision for the world?’ we would improve our creativity exponentially in one generation.
And also our interest in who we are and what we are capable of. Philosophers have always been something of a breed apart. Originally that was because education was poorly distributed and hard physical work was needed all the time. Now we have a chance to enable (not ‘empower’, please) everyone to think about their reason for existing, their responsibilities in the process of doing so and their contribution to the welfare of society, not just their little bit of it.
‘I taught a man to fish and so helped him to earn a living’ is an old story.
Today’s version should be ‘I taught someone to think and so helped them enjoy life to the full’.
Thinking is just as much fun as eating – do it, preferably, after you’ve eaten.