Tag Archives: future

Beyond Civilisation

A fable to start with…

 

Once upon a time life evolved on a certain planet, bringing forth many different social organizations—packs, pods, flocks, troops, herds, and so on. One species whose members were unusually intelligent developed a unique social organization called a tribe. Tribalism worked well for them for millions of years, but there came a time when they decided to experiment with a new social organization (called civilization) that was hierarchal rather than tribal. Before long, those at the top of the hierarchy were living in great luxury, enjoying perfect leisure and having the best of everything. A larger class of people below them lived very well and had nothing to complain about. But the masses living at the bottom of the hierarchy didn’t like it at all. They worked and lived like pack animals, struggling just to stay alive.

“This isn’t working,” the masses said. “The tribal way was better. We should return to that way.” But the ruler of the hierarchy told them, “We’ve put that primitive life behind us forever. We can’t go back to it.” “If we can’t go back,”

the masses said, “then let’s go forward—on to something different.”

“That can’t be done,” the ruler said, “because nothing different is possible. Nothing can bebeyond civilization. Civilization is a final, unsurpassable invention.”

“But no invention is ever unsurpassable. The steam engine was surpassed by the gas engine. The radio was surpassed by television. The calculator was surpassed by the computer. Why should civilization be different?”

“I don’t know why it’s different,” the ruler said, “It just is .”

But the masses didn’t believe this—and neither do I.

The Human Future: A Problem in Design

People who invite me to speak on occasions like this one are usually in for a surprise, because instead of delivering whatever happens to be my current lecture (or some modification thereof), they get an altogether new creation. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they don’t get the kind of highly finished product that has been refined though a hundred repetitions.

The first thing one is asked to supply is of course a title. The speech hasn’t been written–hasn’t even been pondered–but the organizers of the event have announcements to make, brochures to put together, and so on. So the title comes first. The title in this case is a grand one: The Human Future: A Problem in Design. Having THAT all taken care of, one must then begin to wonder what one is actually going to say–and hope that, in the end, the result will sounds like it has something to do with the title. Sometimes one succeeds in this, sometimes not. You’ll be the judge.

Among the preoccupations of my work are anthropology, history, archeology, evolutionary biology, and sociology. This is of interest because, although I’m not a professional in any of these fields, I nonetheless seem to have succeeded in saying something useful to professionals in these fields. Design is also a preoccupation of my work, and we’ll see if I have anything useful to say to YOU about it.

Everyone nowadays is more or less aware that what we see around us in the world of nature is the result of a design process called evolution. This was not always the case of course. For thousands of years in our culture, it was imagined that what we see around us was the work of a divine designer who delivered the finished product in its eternally final form in a single stroke. God not only got everything right the first time, he got it so right that it couldn’t possibly be improved on by any means.

Since the nineteenth century, this antiquated perception of the world has largely disappeared. Most people now realize that the marvelous designs we see around us in the living community came about through an exacting process called natural selection. Human design–and by this I mean design BY humans, not design OF humans–is similar to evolutionary design in some ways and different in other ways.

Human design is always directed toward IMPROVEMENT. Evolutionary design, on the other hand, only APPEARS to be directed toward improvement, and this confuses a lot of people. It leads them to imagine that evolution is HEADING somewhere, presumably toward the eternally final forms that God created in a single stroke. Evolutionary design in fact merely tends to eliminate the less workable and perpetuate the more workable. When we look at a seagull or a giraffe or a cheetah or a spider, we see a version of the product that’s working beautifully–because all the dysfunctional versions have been eliminated from the gene pool of that species through natural selection. If conditions change, however–and we had the leisure to watch– we’d see these apparently perfect forms begin to change in subtle ways or dramatic ways as natural selection eliminates the less workable adaptations to the new conditions and perpetuates the more workable.

Design change is a reaction to pressure–and this is true of both evolutionary design and human design.

In a completely stable system, there is no pressure to make design changes. Evolutionary design has nothing to do. But of course in reality there is no such thing as a completely stable system.

The same is true of human design. If I were to show you a paleolithic handaxe and a mesolithic handaxe, you’d be hard put to know one from the other. In a million years, there was virtually no pressure on people to improve their stone tools–and they didn’t, at least not intentionally. During the period between the paleolithic and the mesolithic, minute, unnoticed improvements were being made, imitated, and unconsciously handed down in every generation, accumulating over the millennia to produce tools that an expert would immediately recognize as mesolithic.

Click on the image to see a larger version Here we see three products of evolutionary design–three beetles, in fact. One useful way to see these three products is as answering three distinct but related market demands. The beetles at the right and left are both longhorns–so called, of course, because of their long antennae. Although they’re very close genetic relatives, the longhorn at the left has been shaped by natural selection to meet slightly different demands than the one at the right. The beetle in the middle (called, for obvious reasons, Plusiotis resplendens), has been shaped to meet very different needs than its relatives to right and left. The longhorn at the right would not do badly in the niche of the longhorn at the left, and vice versa, but they would probably fail in the niche of the P. resplendens.

Here we see four more products of evolutionary design–four different beaks. It hardly needs to be pointed out that these beaks answer to very different market needs. The macaw doesn’t need (and couldn’t use) the beak of the waterbird at the bottom right. Nor could the vulture or the parrot. There is no one right way to shape a beak for birds. One beak for all is a concept that literally will not fly.

Click on the image to see a larger version Here we see three products of human design–three different types of paper clip. Clearly these also answer distinct but related market needs. People need the clips at left for small jobs, two to ten sheets of paper. The clip at right can also be used for small jobs, but it wouldn’t be one’s first choice. It’s designed for medium size jobs, ten to thirty pages. The clip in the middle, of course, is for large jobs.

Here are three more products of human design, again answering very different, though related, market needs. As we all know by now, there is no one right way to save data. One disk for all purposes is not a viable idea. . . . The response time to pressure for design change differs very significantly between evolutionary design and human design. Click on the image to see a larger version

Click on the image to see a larger version For obvious reasons, I’m not able to show you photos of these beaks at various stages of evolution.

Nor am I able to show you photos of these beetles at various stages of evolution. The period of time over which they developed their distinctive shapes is just too long. But because human design is capable of responding to pressure much more quickly, I can show you . . . Click on the image to see a larger version

Click on the image to see a larger version Two stages in the evolution of the clothespin. The wooden clothespin at the bottom has been around for a long time, and is not extinct even today–because, in fact, it’s cheap, it’s simple, and it works as well as it ever did. Where, then, did the clothespin at the top come from? It isn’t notably cheaper, and it’s notably more complex. It does possibly WORK a bit better, at least for certain jobs. If you’re hanging something out to dry that’s very thick, the pin at the bottom is likely to pop off–or break, if you try to push it down too far. But of course the pin at the top didn’t come into being because the public was screaming for a better clothespin. It came into being because it enabled some business to increase its market share.

The pressure to increase market share is the driving force of human design at this time. The question for anyone who wants to enter a new market or to increase share of market is going to be, “What can I come up with that is more attractive, cheaper, more interesting, or more efficient than what’s currently available?”

Click on the image to see a larger version This slide shows how four makers of cigarette lighters tried to answer that question.

Here are four more. A very early model can be seen at the right. It’s not entirely clear to me how it was supposed to work. Presumably the flint is presented to the wheel through the shaft beneath it. Thumbing the wheel would produce sparks, but most of those sparks would be directed to an area well below the wick. The lighter at the left, the Ronson, represents a clear improvement, and deserved the success it enjoyed in the nineteen thirties and forties. Then a much superior design emerged, the Zippo, to the right of the Ronson. It carried more fuel, provided a wind-guard for the flame, and had a simpler and more reliable mechanism. It drove the Ronson out of the mass market–but was ultimately driven out of the mass market itself by the familiar disposable of today. Click on the image to see a larger version

When I was a boy, you could buy a ruler like this at any hardware store. It’s a fairly laughable relic when compared to what is available in any hardware store today. The spring-retracted tape measure represented such an enormous design improvement that it drove the folding ruler into extinction, so that if you should want one today, you’d have to visit an antique store.

When I was boy, chairs of this design could be found in almost every yard in middle America.

Today you can find them only in antique stores, because they’ve been driven into extinction by a far superior design.

The molded plastic chair is more comfortable, lighter, cheaper, maintenance free–and stackable. It’s no surprise that it’s supplanted every other all-purpose chair in the mass market.

In Ishmael I made the statement that we have a civilizational system that is COMPELLING us to destroy the world. This is something people understand very quickly. It seems almost self-evident. I make an additional point, that our civilizational system works very well for PRODUCTS but very poorly for PEOPLE, but I don’t really go into this very deeply in Ishmael. I’d like to use this opportunity to do so here.

We’ve just had a look at why our system works well for products. In fact, it works superbly well. In just a hundred years we’ve gone from Kitty Hawk to the Moon, from the telegraph to satellite television, from clunky calculators to computers capable of billions of operations a second.

Our system for products works well because it’s well understood and accepted by all that there is no one right way to make a cigarette lighter, no one right way to make a camera, no one right way to make a chair, no one right way to make ANYTHING. Products are EXPECTED to evolve and ALLOWED to evolve in much the same way that beetles and butterflies and bananas evolved, by a form of natural selection in the marketplace.

The social organizations we see around us in the community of life. . .


The school . . .
The troop . . . Click on the image to see a larger version
The flock . . .
The tribe . . .

are also products of evolution. They’ve each survived millions of years of testing by natural selection. It’s no wonder they work well for their members. They work as well as eyes work, as well as beaks work, as well as nests work, as well as hands work.

But our social organization isn’t the product of natural selection. It’s a product of the Rube Goldberg school of design, a contraption cobbled together out of spare parts. In Ishmael I compared it to an early flying machine–of the type that could GET into the air (if you pushed them off a cliff) but that couldn’t STAY in the air, because they were not built in accordance with the laws of aerodynamics.

The school, the troop, the flock, the tribe (to mention just a few of the social organizations that have emerged through natural selection) are stable organizations because they work well for their members.

Our organizations are fairly stable, not because they work well but because we FORBID them to change. They’re stable . . .

By decree. The Constitution is the rock upon which our society is built in the United States. As we all know, that which is built on a rock is stable, because rocks are stable–unchanging, not subject to natural selection. Of course our Constitution can be changed, but you know how difficult THAT is. It’s difficult BY DESIGN. There’s that word again.
Because we desire stability, we cobble together an organization DESIGNED to resist change.
Law . . .
Justice . . .

Order, maintained by a standing army of police. People like these English workers in the General Strike of 1925 were perceived to be the enemies of order and stability–and are still so perceived today. As designers, however, we should see the matter differently. The very fact that these workers are striking should tell us that there’s something wrong with the design of their organizational system. But IN that organizational system, we don’t change the DESIGN.
Click on the image to see a larger version

Click on the image to see a larger version
We hire more troops.

We enlist and train right-thinking civilians to combat the malcontents. When I say “we,” I don’t mean to suggest that this is a 20th century phenomenon. Every age had people who threatened the stability of the organization. As today, these trouble-makers weren’t examined as signs of a design problem.
They were burned at the stake.
Or put in the stocks.
Or hanged. Nowadays, of course, there are far too many trouble-makers to be handled in these relatively primitive ways.
We have to build vast warehouses to hold all the malcontents, misfits, and criminals that are produced in our system. But we don’t perceive this to be signaling profound design flaws in the system. In general, we don’t ask ourselves, “What’s wrong with the design here?” We ask ourselves . . . Click on the image to see a larger version

“What’s wrong with these boys? What’s wrong with these boys who, enjoying the highest standard of living the world has ever known, go to school one day ready to murder. Having gunned down as many as their schoolmates as possible, they then hoped to steal a plane and crash it into New York City. What kind of FIENDS are they?

When our children start becoming murderers, we typically don’t wonder what’s wrong with the system that’s turning them INTO murderers, we wonder what’s wrong with THEM. Imagine an assembly line that out of every hundred vehicles turns out one that is horribly defective. Then imagine–instead of examining the assembly line–taking the defective vehicle out and shooting it. Then, when the next one comes along–instead of examining the assembly line–taking THAT one and shooting it. And when the next one comes along–instead of examining the assembly line–taking THAT one out and shooting it.

I was amused last year when, after the Jonesboro massacre, the prosecutor of THOSE boys vowed to go after them so fiercely that he was going to SEND A MESSAGE to the youth of America. And what was the message? WE’RE NOT GOING TO PUT UP WITH THIS SORT OF THING. Understand that? We’re not just going to put up with it!

We’re not going to CHANGE anything–no no, everything’s perfect the way it is. We’re just going to punish the hell out of you. And that’ll send a message. So the NEXT bunch of boys who think of massacring their schoolmates will stop and say, “Wait a second! Hey! What was that message about massacring your schoolmates? Oh, I remember now. If you massacre your schoolmates, they’re going to send you to jail for a thousand years. Or is it two thousand years? Well, I guess if it’s going to be a thousand years, we’d better not massacre our schoolmates. If it were only twenty years or fifty years, then we could go ahead. But a thousand years, wow. I can’t do a thousand years.”

Was that the problem in Columbine–that these boys just had failed to get this message? Were they under the impression that they were just going to get slapped on the wrist for gunning down their classmates and blowing up a school and crashing an airplane into a city block? Did they do all that–or plan to do all that–because they had the mistaken idea that no one would mind?

No, it’s perfectly clear that they were not under any illusion about the consequences of their actions. They expected NOT to survive their adventure.

The question I want to leave with you as designers is this. How have we gone about nurturing children who have so little to live for and so much to hate that they’ll happily throw their lives away if they can murder 500 classmates, blow up a school, and crash an airplane into a city block? Please don’t tell me about violent video games and violent music. Instead, tell me how we’ve gone about nurturing children who WANT violent video games and violent music, who THRIVE on violent video games and violent music.

In general (it can be said with reasonable justification) natural selection works on this principle, “If it doesn’t work, do it LESS.” Any gene that works against reproductive success tends to be eliminated from the gene pool–is found less and less in the gene pool until it finally disappears. Doing less of what doesn’t work is a principle that is practically instinctive to the human designer. But when it comes to our social organizations, the people of our culture follow a very different principle: If it doesn’t work, do it MORE.

I almost always get a laugh with this statement. I’m not sure whether it’s the shock of recognition or if people just think I’m kidding. I’m certainly not kidding. The principle is best seen at work in the institutions dedicated to maintaining the stability of our structures and systems. It’s an anti-evolutionary principle, a principle that keeps anything new from happening. Here are some examples.

If spending a billion dollars doesn’t win the war on drugs, spend two billion. If spending two billion doesn’t work, spend four. Sound familiar?

If hiring a thousand cops doesn’t stop crime in your city, hire 2000. If hiring 2000 doesn’t work, hire 4000.

If sentencing criminals to 10 years doesn’t work, sentence them to 20 years. If 20 years doesn’t work, sentence them to 50–to 500, a thousand!

If building a thousand prisons doesn’t work, build 2000. If building 2000 doesn’t work, build 4000.

If assigning two hours of homework doesn’t work, assign three. If assigning three doesn’t work, assign four.

I became aware of this principle when I was the head of the mathematics department at the Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation. Someone gave me a white paper that had been put together by the National Association of Teachers of English examining the state of teaching and objectives for the future. In spite of all the themes we give them to write, they said, kids aren’t learning to how to write. So what we have to do is–guess what?–give them MORE THEMES to write. Writing 20 themes a year doesn’t work, so give them 30. And if 30 doesn’t work, give them 40.

If you’re taxpayers, you’ve seen your tax bills for education escalate steadily, year after year, decade after decade, as every year the schools struggle to do more of what doesn’t work. Everyone connected to the system is completely convinced that if spending nine trillion doesn’t work, then you just need to spend ten.

Naturally there were counselors at Columbine High School. But after the massacre, Janet Reno stood up and said, guess what, that we need to push for MORE COUNSELORS. Having counselors didn’t work, so NATURALLY we should have MORE of them, and if one for every hundred kids doesn’t work, then we should have two, and if two doesn’t work, then we should have three.

We have an organizational system that works wonderfully well for products. But we don’t have a system that works wonderfully well for people. That’s the lesson to be learned at Jonesboro and Columbine–and at the places that are going to follow, because these two aren’t the last two, they’re just the first two.

We have a system that works fabulously well for products. But the one we have for people stinks. This is the lesson we’ve got to learn–or the human future on this planet is going to be a very bleak one indeed.

So this is the message I’d like to leave with you. For the sake of the human future, don’t take your designer’s hat off when you leave the office. Don’t limit your work or your thinking to the objects and physical structures that people need and want. Look at everything that’s going on here with designer’s eyes. For the sake of the human future, go after it all like designers.

A Path of Hope for the Future

 Hope for the Future

Keynote address delivered at the 2000 Houston Youth Environmental Leadership Conference, 1/26/00

Yesterday a teenager sent me an email letter in which he said, “I feel cheated that it’s all UP TO ME. By being in the younger generation, I have to save the world before I can even begin to think of building a life for myself, or there will be nothing to build my life on.”

I think this is a profound statement and a statement of profound importance to this particular audience. I’ve known several generations of kids your age, and I can tell you that feeling cheated is something NEW, and something new is always worth paying attention to.

The kids of my own generation didn’t feel cheated, we felt terrified. We grew up in the coldest part of the Cold War, cowering in the shadow of the H-bomb, expecting at any moment to see the world come to an end in a nuclear holocaust. All we knew was that we had to get down to the business of getting as much of the good life as we could before the end came. We were the Silent Generation, and all we wanted was to get out there and get a job, a career, a marriage, a family, a house in the suburbs, squeezing in as much as we could before it all went up in smoke.

The kids of the sixties and seventies didn’t feel cheated. They were just fed up with their parents’ idea that the best life was the one the Silent Generation was struggling to get–the job, the career, the marriage, the family, the house in the suburbs. They wanted to LIVE, to have a little fun, and to hell with the goddamned H-bomb. Who could blame them?

Michael feels cheated, he says, because it’s all up to him. If you haven’t yet been told that it’s “all up to you,” believe me, you will be. Of course, this business of it all being up to you is pretty standard commencement day rhetoric. Every commencement day speaker worth his or her salt has got to say, one way or another, “The future is in your hands. Today the torch passes from one generation to the next,” blah, blah, blah. This in itself is not new. I heard the same thing when I was your age.

But it meant something different when I heard it. It really was just commencement day rhetoric back then. Nowadays it means something different.

Nowadays it means something like this. My generation and my parents’ generation and their parents’ have really screwed things up here, and that’s no joke. I can’t even bring myself to look at the latest WorldWatch Institute estimate of how much time we have left to turn this around before we head down a slide from which no recovery is possible. It was 40 years the last time I DID have the nerve to look, and that was about ten years ago.

What does this figure mean? It doesn’t mean human extinction in forty years. It means we have 40 years to find a new path for ourselves, and if we let those 40 years go to waste and just go on the way we are, the momentum that is carrying us forward to extinction will be too great to overcome. So that date is not the end of it all, it’s just the point of no return. Irreversible.

So when people tell you now that it’s all up to you, they really mean “If you can’t find what we were unable to find and our parents were unable to find and their parents were unable to find (which is another way for us to go), then you may very well live to see the extinction of the human race.”
I’m sure you haven’t failed to notice what a monstrous copout this is.

 

Oh yes, we–your parents and their parents and their parents–have screwed up the world royally, and we admit it!! But if YOU don’t find a way to FIX what WE’VE done, then it will be YOUR fault! Not OUR fault, because we have an excuse. We were just dumb and greedy. And because WE’VE been dumb and greedy, YOU’RE going to have to be smart and self-sacrificing. Got that?

Michael puts it in a nutshell: “By being in the younger generation, I have to save the world before I can even begin to think of building a life for myself, or there will be nothing to build my life on.”

Your parents didn’t have to save the world before building a life for themselves. Maybe it would’ve have been a good idea–but they didn’t HAVE to. So they didn’t.
You HAVE to, because if you don’t, as Michael says, there will be nothing LEFT to build your life ON.

So that’s the deal. Forget about having fun. Forget about taking up some career just because it happens to appeal to you. Forget about getting the good things in life that your parents have. Forget about the six-figure salary. Forget about the BMW. Forget about the 8000 square foot house. Those things are okay for people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Donald Trump and Steve Case, because they belong to the same old, unregenerate generation as your parents. They can AFFORD to be dumb and greedy. They don’t HAVE to save the world first. YOU DO.

Is it any wonder that Michael feels cheated?

When he speaks of being cheated, Michael unconsciously brings into play the language of games. I mean that Michael dimly recognizes that a game IS being played with him, and I’d like to take a few minutes to examine the game that’s being played with him–and with you when people tell you that “It’s all up to you.”

In his book, The Book: or, The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts examines the notion of the “double-bind.” “A person,” he writes, “is put in a double-bind by a command or request that contains a concealed contradiction. ‘Stop being self-conscious!’ ‘Try to relax.’ . . . Society, as we now have it, pulls this trick on every child from earliest infancy. In the first place, the child is taught that he is responsible, that he is a free agent, an independent origin of thoughts and actions. He accepts this make-believe for the very reason that it is not true. He can’t help accepting it, just as he can’t help accepting membership in the community where he was born. He has no way of resisting this kind of social indoctrination. It is constantly reinforced with reward and punishments. It is built into the basic structure of the language he is learning. . . . we befuddle our children hopelessly because we–as adults–were once so befuddled, and, remaining so, do not understand the game we are playing.”

I hope you’ll leave here today with a better understanding of the game that is being played with you. “The child,” Watts says, “is taught that he is responsible, that he is a free agent, an independent origin of thoughts and actions.” This is what you’re hearing when people of an older generation say, “It’s all up to you.” You might say that this is HALF of the game. They themselves were told, “It’s all up to you,” when they were your age. But if you watch them in action, you’ll see very clearly that they don’t act as if it were all up to them. They act as if it were all up to SOMEONE ELSE. They were taught, just as you were, that they are responsible, that they are free agents, but they know perfectly well that this is make-believe. SOMEONE ELSE is responsible for saving the world. SOMEONE ELSE is a free agent CAPABLE of saving the world. It may not come to mind immediately who this SOMEONE ELSE is, but you’ll certainly recognize it when you hear it.

Who is everyone WAITING for to save the world? Who is EVERYONE waiting for to save the world?

They are waiting for our LEADERS, of course. This is the other half of the game. The first half of the game is: It’s all up to you. The second half of the game is: they don’t have to do anything because they’re waiting for the President to save the world. They’re waiting for the Secretary General of the United Nations to save the world. They’re waiting for some unthinkable industrial giant to save the world. They’re waiting for some great thinker to save the world. They’re waiting for Mikhail Gorbachev to save the world. They’re even waiting for Daniel Quinn to save the world!

Someone UP THERE, someone in AUTHORITY!

Well, guess what, folks. There is NO ONE “up there” who is remotely CAPABLE of saving the world. Most of the people I’ve just mentioned aren’t even THINKING about saving the world. Trust me, you will never hear Al Gore or Bill Bradley or George Bush utter one word about saving the world*. And whichever one of them is elected our next President, he will not spend a single minute of his administration thinking about saving the world. This is not something they should be blamed for, in all honesty. We don’t ELECT presidents to save the world, and any candidate that campaigned on that basis would be laughed off the stage. We elect ALL our political leaders to address SHORT-TERM goals.

The kids of your grandparents’ generation were told, “It’s all up to you”–and they waited for SOMEONE ELSE to save the world.

The kids of your parents’ generation were told, “It’s all up to you”–and they waited for SOMEONE ELSE to save the world.

Now the people of your parents’ and grandparents’ generation are continuing the game by pointing at you and saying, “It’s all up to YOU.”

I’d like to try to persuade you to REFUSE to play the game. Don’t let anyone get away with saying, “It’s all up to you.” No. It’s all up to EVERYBODY. Refuse to accept your parents’ and grandparents’ copout. It’s not good enough to say, “We’ve failed, so it’s all up to you.”

Tell them, “STOP failing!” Which means stop WAITING!

Tell them, “There’s nothing to wait for. There’s no ONE to wait for. No one is going to save the world but the PEOPLE of the world, and you can’t make it the sole responsibility of MY generation. We are the ones with no experience, no clout, no connections, no power, no money–and it’s all supposed to be up to US??? What are YOU going to be doing while WE save the world?”

Obviously in the few minutes I have here I can’t give you a blueprint for saving the world. But I can give you a couple of fundamental notions that I think you can follow with complete confidence. The first of these might be called Quinn’s First Law. It won’t surprise you. It may even strike you as obvious. Here it is. No undesirable behavior has ever been eliminated by passing a law against it.

The second is Buckminster Fuller’s Law, which is this: You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Most of the time when people write to me to ask what they should be doing to save the world, there is in the back of their minds two general notions of how change takes place. One is the notion that passing laws makes things change. The other is that fighting makes things change. We’re trained to think that you really are DOING something if you’re out there fighting and getting laws passed.

But if you heed these two laws, you may think differently about this. Once again they are Quinn’s First Law, No undesirable behavior has ever been eliminated by passing a law against it, and Fuller’s Law, You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Here is Quinn’s Second Law: What people think is what they do. And its corollary: To change what people do, change what they think.

At the present time, there are six billion people on this planet pursuing a vision that is devouring the earth. That’s our problem. Our problem is not pollution. Our problem is not consumerism. Our problem is not capitalist greed. Our problem is not conservative selfishness or liberal utopianism. Our problem is not lack of leadership. Our problem is a world-devouring vision that six billion people are pursuing.

Now what can we do about this vision? We can’t legislate it away or vote it away or organize it away or even shoot it away. We can only teach it away.

If the world is saved, it will be saved by people with changed minds, people with a new vision. It will not be saved by old minds with new programs.

Vision is a flowing river. Programs are sticks set in the riverbed to impede the flow of the river. But I don’t want to impede its flow, I want to change its direction.

Is it so easy to change a cultural vision? Ease and difficulty are not the relevant measures. Here are the relevant measures: Readiness and unreadiness. If people aren’t ready for it, then no power on earth can make a new idea catch on.

But if people are ready for it (and I think they are), then a new idea will sweep the world like wildfire.

In our culture at the present moment, the flow of the river is toward catastrophe, and programs are sticks set in the riverbed to impede its flow. Our path of hope is not to add more sticks to impede the flow. Our path of hope is to change the direction of the flow–away from catastrophe.

I think people are ready for this new idea.

Don’t pay attention to people who talk as if saving the world is someone else’s business–bigshots in international politics or bigshots in international commerce. I say again: If the world is saved, it will be saved by people with changed minds, and anyone can change a mind. I mean that. Back in the seventies, a lot of eight-year-olds came home and told their parents, “By God, you’re going to stop smoking!”–and they made it stick. Back in the eighties, a lot of eight-year-olds came home and told their parents, “By God, we’re going to start recycling aluminum cans!”–and they made it stick.

I’ve changed lots of minds, through my books–but the absolute fact is that my readers have changed more minds than my books have. A lot more.

One by one, readers did the work. Not me–people like you. Having done this work, having carried the word to parents, to children, to teachers, to friends, to relatives, even to strangers, they would then sit down and write me to say, but how can I help save the world? And I’d write back and say, “Look, you’re already doing it!”

If the time is right, a new idea will sweep the world like wildfire.

Let me share with you the most inspirational story I’ve heard in a long time. This story comes to me from a high school teacher in Alaska who was using Ishmael in a third-year science course. One of the students in his class was recognized as a probable drop-out. She was a lukewarm student at best–indifferent and uninterested. But instead of dropping out, after reading Ishmael, this young woman did the strangest thing anyone had ever heard of, including me. She took it upon herself to buy copies of Ishmael for her parents and to organize a week-long seminar in her own living room that her parents were commanded to attend in order to engage in a Socratic dialogue on Ishmaels themes. From that point on, she never looked back, and no one thinks of her as a probable dropout any more.
Let me make it clear that I’m not telling this story to because I’m proud of what Ishmael did. I’m proud of what this seventeen-year-old girl did! She found a path of hope for the future–all on her own. She didn’t ask me, she didn’t ask her parents, she didn’t ask her teachers, she didn’t ask her friends, she didn’t ask anyone.

If the time is right, a new idea will sweep the world like wildfire–because of people like this seventeen-year-old girl.

Because of people like you.

Because of this seventeen-year-old girl, there are two more people in the world with changed minds. That’s no small thing, believe me. Because where there are two with changed minds, there can be four. And where there are four, there can be eight. And where there are eight, there can be sixteen. All because of that one that started the whole thing by saying, “I’ve got to change these two minds.”

That’s exactly how new ideas sweep the world like wildfire–and that’s how I see it.

That’s our path of hope for the future.


*At the time this was written Al Gore was one of the folks “up there,” where it was best to keep one’s mouth closed about “saving the world.” Being no longer “up there” Mr. Gore is now free to express his concern about the future of the world (and this speech, if it were being written today, would not include his name in this list).