Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World

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9781890132163: Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World

The Story of Cassandra

Cassandra was the young and beautiful daughter of Priam, the last king of Troy. Apollo bestowed upon Cassandra a special gift--the ability to see the future. But when she refused his favors, he twisted her gift with a curse, so no one would believe her prophecies.

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About the Author:

Alan AtKisson is a true citizen of the world, whose work has led him to crisscross the globe. He has been the executive editor of In Context magazine, senior fellow with the policy institute Redefining Progress, and co-founder and chair of Sustainable Seattle, a collaborative project to design model-city plans for America's hippest town. He is presently president of AtKisson & Associates, a consulting firm focused on sustainable development and innovation. He lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Believing Cassandra

Alan AtKisson

Excerpt

From Chapter 1: When Worlds Collide

At the vulnerable age of nineteen, I read a small paperback book called The Limits to Growth. No other book would influence my life so greatly, though I could barely understand its message at the time. Had I been able to comprehend it thoroughly, I might have laid down my head in the library and wept. At the same time, had I been granted a vision of where my interest in the book and its central message would ultimately take me, I would have been overcome with amazement.

The Limits to Growth deserves a place on the list of "the most controversial books of the twentieth Century," right up there with James Joyce's Ulysses, Madonna's Sex, and Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Its publication in 1972 ignited a firestorm of international discussion and debate. The book's authors--Donella ("Dana") Meadows, Dennis Meadows, J¸rgen Randers, and William H. Behrens III, with Dana as the principaal writer--were part of a young team of scientists (average age twenty-six) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They had spent two years programming a computer to act as a model of the entire world. The future of that simulated world--they called it "World3," because it was the third in a series of attempts to create a global computer model--did not look good. In scenario after scenario, when humanity's wildly accelerating growth in population, resource use, and pollution was left unchecked, World3 collapsed. No simulated improvements in technology could prevent simulated catastrophe. Humanity's swelling billions would consistently overshoot Planet Earth's capacity to feed, support, and employ them. Then they would start dying off, as their agriculture began to fail and their industrial production crashed. Without decisive action to bring growth under control, and quickly, collapse always came within one hundred simulated years.

That word "collapse" gives the impression of suddenness and finality, but these researchers were predicting neither a sudden nor a final apocalypse. In fact, they were not predicting anything at all. They were simply analyzing the existing trends, programming the computer to project these into the future, and reporting on the results. The statistical collapse that consistently occurred was more like a swift slide than a mad plummet, more swan dive than cannonball. The little line on the graph representing human population would keep rocketing up until it reached the stratospheric level of 12 or 15 billion people, then it would turn over and start heading down to ground zero just as rapidly. The same thing happened to the lines for food production and industrial output. There was an odd gracefulness to the shape of the curves coming out of the computer, an eerie mathematical beauty that masked the horror of their meaning.

It is mercifully difficult to imagine living through a global collapse of the kind portrayed by World3's symbolic line graphs. Over the course of a generation, some combination of horrific disasters--famine, disease, widespread slow-motion poisoning caused by pollution, vicious wars fought over dwindling resources by unemployed and desperate young men, and last but not least, astonishing natural disasters fueled by climatic change--would combine to kill off quite a few billion people. Nothing remotely like this has ever happened to humanity on the global scale. The closest examples might be the Black Plague in medieval Europe, or the mind-numbing carnage of this century's world wars. But even these were limited in scope, mere circus sideshows by comparison.

And that's just the fate of humanity. Although World3 did not overly concern itself with the ultimate effects on Nature and its web of complex ecosystems, one can easily discern, reading between the lines on the old printouts, the eventual collapse of evolution as well. A world full of desperate and impoverished people is a world emptied of swordfish, rainforests, and panda bears. A collapse, if it occurred, would take so many species with it that Nature would have to spend 5 to 10 million years rebuilding its storehouse of diversity.

And yet, life would go on. There would still be humans, and other species, albeit far fewer of both. "Collapse" does not mean the end of the world, the end of Nature, or the end of anything, really, except perhaps industrial civilization, together with thousands of species, billions of people's lives, and humanity's collective innocence about three fundamental laws of Nature. First, when it comes to population growth, what goes up exponentially must stabilize, or it will crash down. Second, with regard to forests and fish and other resources, what gets used too rapidly and too thoughtlessly will ultimately cease to exist. And finally, as for waste and pollution, what gets dumped--into the water, land, or air--spreads out, hangs around, and creates havoc for generations to come.

None of these are desirable outcomes for the human project known as global civilization. Yet these are the terrors consistently produced by World3, given certain assumptions about where the real world had been and where it was currently headed.

World3, its creators knew, was flawed. There were certain to be gaps of ignorance, errors of calculation, problems of interpretation. Estimates made to fill holes in the data were probably inaccurate. But since the whole point was to imitate, as closely as possible, the likely behavior of the real world, the consistent pattern of the model's results--rapid growth to the point of overshoot, followed by collapse--was rather disturbing. It almost didn't matter whether the inevitable estimates were optimistic or pessimistic: Collapse was the perennial outcome. Prodded by their funders, the World3 creators began to feel they had an important message to deliver to the citizens of the real world, in the form of a warning, which they attempted to deliver. Aided by a generous promotional budget and savvy media work, the image of a computer pronouncing on humanity's fate made big headlines. Unfortunately, the message was garbled in the transmission.

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