The stressful consequences of divergence

The Norman Transcript June 10, 2006 12:30 am — For The Transcript Certainly our world is "complex." Perhaps a better word to describe it is "labyrinthine" -- involved, varied, entwined, diverse and tied together by a maze of technology, ill-examined loyalties and poorly understood values. Characterizing all this on the one hand is a public that works to survive, while on the other hand that same public lives almost unconsciously in the midst of dramatic, even revolutionary and potentially lethal, changes. This means we are living in a split culture which we scarcely understand and over which we have inadequate control. So our thoughts and behaviors tend in one direction while cultural realities diverge from them. Note several. In a number of ways growth of knowledge outruns public understanding. Generally Americans are an enlightened and literate people. Secondary school graduation is relatively high; our percentage of students in college is steadily rising. And the quality of education at all levels is improving even if not as fast as we might wish. The problem is that knowledge in all fields -- sciences, social sciences, humanities and particularly engineering, computers and electronics -- is growing at an astonishing rate. The following elementary diagram illustrates the tendencies and the inevitability of tension. This tells us that our available knowledge is rapidly exceeding general public understanding. The result is frustration, tension and the intensification of problems. Growth in engineering, physics and technology generally is increasing exponentially and inevitability leaves most of us behind. There are other critical divergencies between public understanding and what is happening in life. Population growth is notable. Actually the word "growth" is a fumbling inadequacy, for "explosion" explains what really is going on. The first major analysis of this problem came with the publication of T.R. Malthus's "An Essay on the Principles of Population" in 1798. Only philosophers, economists and social "cranks" paid much attention to him, but he focused on a problem we have been ignoring, hiding behind a theological facade and neglecting to our detriment. The explanation for population enlargement is simple -- sex. The passion between the sexes being what it is control of population is difficult. Still, it can be directed with the use of reason and knowledge. The media and education can guide but only if we are willing to face facts and follow the dictates of reflection. Population statistics should be a powerful motivation. Numbers are startling. From the "beginning of history" to the "scientific-industrial revolution" population increase was slow, sometimes retrogressive. At the time of Jefferson's presidency, demographic experts (specialists in vital statistics) estimate the population of the world was less than a billion; by the time of Herbert Hoover's administration it was over two billion. By the time of Eisenhower's election it had passed the three billion mark. As we reached the 21st century world population doubled; now it is close to the six and a half billion mark. And it is expected to double again in the next half century. The struggle for space and resources confounds us. Population pressure and waste are the principal causes. The critical and often overlooked crisis is a psychological one -- crowding. This has been a problem in various parts of the world for thousands of years. Many of the wars in the ancient world were fought over space. Much Roman history revolves around this struggle. The Vokerwanderung -- the "wandering," that is the migration of the Teutonic tribes -- finally overran the Roman Empire and in time crystallized into the state system prevailing today. Later Hitler's muddled psyche led him not only to indescribable brutality but also to the vision of an expanded Germany made possible at the expense of Poland and much of the Ukraine. That madness cost some forty million lives in World War II and disrupted the entire world. We should never forget

that one of its major causes was over-population. Asia, Latin America and Africa are entwined with this problem. Many of Africa's tribal wars are caused by it. South Asian population is frightfully congested. The flow of Moslems into Europe and Latins into the U.S. should focus our attention on the causes and consequences of too many people with too little opportunity and support. Governments seem to flounder. The modem "minute men" with field glasses and cell phones will not stop the flow of Mexicans across the border. Reflect on the implications of urbanized Mexico City alone. Its population is considerably larger than that of the entire State of Texas. With amusing and bitter irony the Mexicans are taking back what they lost by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The follow diagram illustrates how dramatically the increase in population is outrunning our attention to its social and psychological consequences. What can we make of these grave problems? The consequences of excessive population are many and they can be monumental. Malthus clearly understood the tragedy of food shortage, but the results have tended to be regional rather than worldwide. Agronomists have revolutionalized agriculture, but this does not mean that poisons and nuclear bombs cannot bring us to the Malthusian crisis point -- the juncture where famine overrides population needs. These divergencies splitting reality and understanding are serious cultural deficiencies. And there are others. Pollution continues to grow while our inclination to contain it lags. Machines keep increasing in number, complication and speed (although we seem disinclined to control the negative impact they have on society and individuals). One of the most subtle divergencies to which we pay little attention is that between our affirmations of the virtues of freedom and democracy and the understanding necessary to make them functional. Reiterating platitudes such as "compassion" contribute nothing to human well being unless they are backed by economic, political, social and psychological conditions implementing them. The "oratory of concern," so typical of politicians that has little or no life beyond elections, is injecting cynicism into American politics and eroding confidence in democracy. We do so many things we should not, and do not do so many things we should. The result is we live in confusion and our culture is shot through with contradictions. Inevitably we stumble from one to the next. This absurdity leads to an ultimate contradiction: The human race has the power to destroy itself just as it possesses the power and knowledge to build an authentically great society. But it seems to lack the maturity to forestall the former and the will to implement the latter. Inaction on the part of those who suffer deprivation or mal-education is understandable and excusable. This is not so with the privileged. Those who are wealthy and who have attended distinguished educational institutions should know better. It is their moral duty to acknowledge and to work against the tragic consequences of cultural conflict and divergence. If they do not use their influence to promote justice and to ease the suffering of the world's needy, they are committing treason against humanity. Lloyd Williams is a retired educator. His column struggles with evil, rectitude and beauty every other Saturday. Copyright © 1999-2008 cnhi, inc.

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