04-28-2016 | Time Limits

Half a century ago H. G. Wells observed, correctly enough, that mankind faced a race between education and catastrophe. But what he failed to recognize was that something like catastrophe has become the condition for an effective education. This might seem like a dismal and hopeless conclusion, were it not for the fact that the power system, through its own overwhelming achievements, has proved expert in creating breakdowns and catastrophes.


Admittedly the partial disasters of war, though no longer locally limited, had through the ages grown too familiar to bring about a sufficient reaction. During the last decade, fortunately, there has been a sudden, quite unpredictable awakening to prospects of a total catastrophe. The unrestricted increase of the population, the over-exploitation of the megatechnical inventions, the inordinate wastages of compulsory consumption, and the consequent deterioration of the environment through wholesale pollution, poisoning, bulldozing, to say nothing of the more irremediable waste-products of atomic energy, have at last begun to create the reaction needed to overcome them.

This awakening has become planet-wide. The experiences of congestion, environmental degradation, and human demoralization now fall within the compass of everyone's daily life. Even in the open country, small communities are now forced to take political action against canny enterprisers seeking to dump wastes from distant cities in rural areas that already have difficulty enough in coping with their own rubbish and sewage. The extent of the approaching catastrophe, its visible nearness, and its dire inevitability unless countermeasures are rapidly taken, have done far more than the vivid prospects of sudden nuclear extinction to bring on a sufficient psychological response. In this respect, the swifter the degradation, the more likely effective measures against it will be sought.

- Lewis Mumford, The Pentagon of Power p. 411

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