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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33 No. 14. 1970

The Utterly Dismal Theorem

The Utterly Dismal Theorem

Western and other modern societies accept as an ideal indeterminate increase in energy use, and thereby of wealth, to provide for and enrich an indeterminately increasing population. Thus provided for the population increases geometrically, and the product of geometric population increase and increase of energy use per individual is the accelerating, self amplifying, and compulsive increase in energy use and other aspects of technology in the United States.

Indeterminate increase in complexity of organization...

To manage this system with its accelerating expansion requires increasing complexity of organization - increasing diversification and subdivision of corporations and public agencies, increasing speed and content of information communication and processing, increasingly narrow and diverse professional specialization of individuals who are increasingly parts of larger and more complex social organizations, and so on. An indeterminate increase in complexity is thus occuring. We are still, with stunning technological skill and power, largely successful in an external, obstensible sense, least, in keeping organized this system of expanding energy use and complexity. It is likely, though I cannot prove it, that the organizing devices are increasingly strained by that which they must organize, and may become increasingly vulnerable to self-amplifying disturbance.

...leads to intolerable individual stress.

There are, however, implications for human psychology. It is not by shortage of space and resources nor by massive biosphere toxicity that the limits of our civilization (if it will not limit itself) are most likely to be set, but by the effects of human numbers, technological and cultural change, and environmental degradation on the psychology of people. Crowding does not improve the quality of human beings and human relationships; and the provision of the individuals with technological power, notably the automobile, may increase the sense of subjugation to traffic, noise, pollution, and urban interminableness as products of crowding. The individual is to a degree diminished in his sense of a manageable world to which he can relate by the enormity of cities and their problems, by isolation from natural landscapes, by rapidity of cultural change, by participation in a perceptibly small role in perceptibly enormous social and corporate systems. One suspects that to bear well the conditions of urban life with its increasing scale, crowding, complexity, and bleakness there is increasing need of qualities of secure self-respect, patience and perspective, tolerance and maturity, that urban life does not now much encourage.

I will suggest the predicament of our society: A system of accelerating growth and increasing complexity is stretching ever tighter its means of organization, while producing social and environmental problems ever more difficult and beyond realistic prospects of solution, while increasing the tensions and frustrations of the human beings who must maintain the organization and try to deal with the problems, while producing increasing numbers who scorn the system and its complexities without a rational sense of the limitations on alternatives, while producing small but increasing numbers of human beings sufficiently damaged as such that they desire the ruin of the society which, for all they can understand, is responsible. I find this, if true unencouraging system of simultaneous, nonlinear, differential equations.

I will observe in judgment only that our civilization is the first in history to have available scientific knowledge in the two areas of ecology and psychology that might have given warning, and that whatever counsel these fields might have offered a civilization based on intelligence was thought irrelevant.

If the implications for stability of our civilization are these then I wish us all — our great, open society and its professional workers in the fields of the rational mind — luck.

R.H. Whittaker