THE FUTURIST PROGRAM
In an address last June at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Glenn Seaborg suggested that if the democratic idea is to prevail, everyone must to some extent become “a philosopher and futurist” before he becomes an activist. Following is an excerpt from Seaborg’s remarks:
What kind of future do we want? One of our greatest problems now is that many do not know, some who think they know have not really thought as deeply nor as far as they should, and still others who may have considered the matter more thoroughly have not shared their thoughts widely enough, if at all. In short, we have a desperate need today for dialogue, discussion and debate on the most fundamental issues of life. And these should not take place only in the class room or the conference room. There must be the broadest public examinations and airings of these issues on the highest level.
In a number of my speeches over the past several years I have repeated the thought that our scientific-technological age, with all its rapid change and social implications, is forcing us into a new philosophical age, an era when we must think more deeply than ever before, gain and share more human insights and wisdom than the wisest sages of the past, in order to survive, no less to improve and grow creatively. The events of recent weeks and months convinced me more than ever we must enter such an age. We must think through where we are, where we would like to go and how we should get there.
This does not imply that the “there” is a final goal, a future Utopia to be achieved, or a past paradise lost to be retrieved. But it does mean that we need some vision of the world as we believe it should or might be. And the idea of that vision as only “visionary” or of its planning being the domain of a chosen few must not prevail. If we believe at all in the democratic ideal, and particularly in the “participatory democracy” we hear so much of today, every man must to some extent be both philosopher and futurist before he becomes an activist. If he is not, he may find too late that the “different drummer” to whose beat he is marching is leading him and the thoughtless legions who might join him not to Utopia but to oblivion.
I realized there are many who see in what I am saying the ultimate “cop- out.” “Enough talk, enough thinking,” they say. “Seize the day, and the power.” But have we had enough of either thought or communication in the real sense? Haven’t we been talking at rather than with each other? Hasn’t our thinking been more the reinforcement of comfortable, time-worn beliefs—often outdated, irrelevant ideas—rather than the mind-probing and soul- searching we need? And haven’t we been seizing the day—and the power (and even each other’s buildings and lands)—for centuries, often with disastrous results and today in the face of what some consider impending doom? What we must seize now is something which is far greater than anything we have ever known before. It is the opportunity given to us through centuries of work and growth and knowledge, all culminating in today’s science and technology, and in our instruments of government and education, all of which give us the only real power that counts—that with which we can build physically and spiritually a world and a mankind that could exist only in men’s minds in the past.
Mr. Seaborg believes that the complexity of man’s social and physical system necessitates development of people educated to deal with such complexity. In another address before the Manufacturing Chemists Association at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, he said:
We are faced with a staggering task in education and public communication in the days ahead. For to share more fully and effectively in the work and planning of the extremely complex social and physical system we must create today a “participating citizen” who will have to become something of a “super-citizen,” one who has been educated, in the fullest sense of the word, to understand and evaluate today’s facts of life and the web of complexities in which they are woven. This is a far cry from what industry thinks of today as merely “the consumer.”
It seems to me that one of the greatest tests that we face today is the making of such a citizen as the mainstay of our society. Participation will either start to become meaningful and productive in our society or it will degenerate into senseless noise and destruction. We must do everything possible to prevent the latter, as history has shown repeatedly that the resulting chaos always leads to a repressive society.
Another lesson we have been learning, and its impact is falling on us very harshly in many ways, is the need for more and better planning, for a greater degree of constructive foresight. And in a sense we may find that the computer is our new crystal bait, helping us to project alternative futures and choose the best to strive for.
We are seeing today in an increasing number of areas—our natural environment and resources, our cities, our transportation systems, our social and governmental institutions—how we are becoming the victims of our own shortsightedness and self-centeredness. The laws of the marketplace can no longer be the principal guide of the affairs of man. Many natural limitations and manifestations of human stress are already indicating that we are going to have to take a larger, longer look at human affairs on this planet and try to determine more rationally where we want to go and how we want to get there. Thinking and planning on such a cosmic scale, as this implies, are naturally frightening to most of us. We have learned well the lesson of human fallibility in planning. Planning has always implied restrictions on individual freedom and the need to forego some immediate gratification to achieve a future gain. Often such a sacrifice did not seem necessary.
We had other reasons for not taking the longer view. We have always had new physical frontiers to move on to and substantial margins for error to fall back on when our gambles on short-term gains didn’t pay off. But as our earthly frontiers—our space and resources—are diminished, and as our activities—social and physical—increase in scope and power, we must grow both wiser and more confident in our dealings with the future. If we cannot conceive, agree on and work towards many long-range goals in this country and this world we may he in dire trouble as a nation and as a species. We have come face to face with this realization of what we broadly call our environmental problem
I believe that this problem—more accurately, a whole series of complex interrelated problems—may be the one that starts us thinking and acting more as a comprehensive society in this nation, and, hopefully, as a single mankind on this planet.
January 8, 1971 Hollywood, California