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Planning the lives of generations to come

Planning the lives
of generations to come

By John Silveira

March 8, 2006

I was reading the March 2006 issue of Discover Magazine and read Asteroid Watcher Worries, an interview with Clark R. Chapman, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute at Boulder, Colorado. Chapman tracks asteroids and worries about the possibility of asteroid impacts with the earth, a subject near and dear to my own heart. Chapman, like me, feels there’s not enough being done to detect asteroids that could be a menace to civilization and earth itself.

I generally agreed with what he had to say throughout the interview. But I was pulled up short by this statement: There seems to be no long-term planning in our society. It is very hard to get people to plan decades or centuries ahead. (The emphasis is mine.)

Those two sentences damaged his credibility. As a scientist (who I would hope has a sense of history) I find that statement absurd.

Imagine for just a second any of the following:

  • someone in 1980 trying to plan the future of society without knowing the PC, MS-DOS, Windows, the Internet, or the Web would exist
  • someone in 1970 trying to plan the future of society without knowing the cell phone, the word processor, or ethernet would exist
  • someone in 1960 trying to plan the future of society without knowing Random Access Memory (RAM), the ATM, or arpanet (the first Internet) would exist
  • someone in 1950 trying to plan the future of society without knowing the contraceptive pill, the internal pacemaker, the videotape recorder, or the integrated circuit would exist
  • someone in 1940 trying to plan the future of society without knowing solid state devices, the nuclear reactor, the atomic bomb, synthetic rubber, or even the credit card would exist
  • someone in 1930 trying to plan the future of society without knowing nuclear weapons would exist
  • someone in 1920 trying to plan the future of society without knowing the liquid fuel rocket, penicillin, the jet engine, or television would exist
  • someone in 1910 trying to plan the future of society without knowing stainless steel would exist
  • someone in 1900 trying to plan the future of society without knowing airplanes, the radio receiver, the air conditioner, the Theory of Relativity, or something as simple as plastic would exist
  • someone in 1880 trying to plan the future of society without knowing the automobile or the AC motor would exist
  • someone in 1870 trying to plan the future of society without knowing the telephone, the phonograph, or moving pictures would exist
  • someone in 1860 trying to plan the future of society without knowing the machine gun or dynamite would exist
  • someone in 1850 trying to plan the future of society without knowing pasteurization or the internal combustion would exist
  • someone in 1776 trying to plan the future of society without knowing any of the above would exist

Each of the things I’ve listed seems very ordinary and commonplace to us, now. Yet, each has had a profound impact on who we are and how we live. Each was unanticipated. And this is only a partial list. You can probably think of more.

How could anyone have planned how we live, today, without taking them all into account?

The problem with plans being made generations ahead is that at best they would almost certainly be useless, but at worst they would create bureaucracies that would have vested interests in maintaining what the bureaucrats had planned for and they’d become impediments to progress. In fact, I would daresay that societies that plan generations ahead would fall woefully behind those that made no such plans at all.

The more time passes, the faster technology is accelerating and it is becoming less and less likely that anyone can forecast what lies even five years down the line, never mind decades or centuries into the future.

The best we can deal with is the very foreseeable future. And the best we can do is to try to solve the problems at hand with the tools we have at hand while keeping an open mind as new (and unforeseen) tools are discovered-and not pretend we’re wise enough or omniscient enough to plan for unborn generations who will either laugh at our feeble attempts to control their destinies or resent the impediments we put in their way.

Future generations will solve their own problems with the tools they have invented and they have at hand, not the ones we have at hand. But I must admit, given the hubris of the human animal, future generations, too, will try to solve the problems of the unborn generations ahead of them.