The Preface to "actually THINKING vs. just BELIEVING"
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." These are familiar words from Dickens. My question for our consideration is: How are our times? Before taking the first step toward answering this, let me emphasize that we must look decades beyond this immediate political cycle. Realistically assessing the nature of one's times has historically required the benefit of hindsight. That no doubt, to some degree, is still true. However, in business, in sport, even in driving a car, real time assessment of your situation can mean the difference between success and failure and even between surviving, or not.
I submit that our times call for a serious effort to realize our situation without the delay of waiting for the perfect clarity of hindsight. Our times are a strange mix of privilege and peril. The "privilege" part doesn't need much explanation; no matter if you are a newborn or a centenarian, life has never been easier or apparently more secure. I am convinced though, that the vast majority in our society haven't thoughtfully explored the "peril" part, or begun to make committed decisions toward being part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Join me in doing what I call a "50 year experiment." Let's start by going back 50 years. In 1960 WWII was 15 years into our rearview mirrors. America led the world militarily, economically, technologically, scientifically; you could name almost any field. If you were a typical American family, with the exception of the background threat of the cold war, the future seemed bright well beyond the horizon. Your kids, grandkids, then great-grandkids and on would live in bigger and more luxurious houses, and they'd drive faster and cooler cars. It hadn't entered the public consciousness that there was actually a limit to fossil fuels (or that burning more and more of them would inevitably add up to some kind of slowly developing consequence); everyday folk had no idea that ecosystems, both terrestrial and marine, could be strained to the breaking point.
Now let's go forward 50 years. In 2060 how will things be? Keep in mind that next year the human population will hit 7 billion. Also keep in mind that when my mom was a 10 year old in 1930 and the human population hit 2 billion, no generation of people had ever lived through a doubling of the population. (The 1 billion mark had been reached in 1800.) Now my mom and her generation have lived through well over a tripling of the population. If we don't destroy ourselves first, we're projected to hit 8 billion by the mid 20's, and 9 billion well before 2060. What will that do to competition for basic survival resources?? (Consider energy, water, arable land, food, jobs...) And what will it do to already strained ecosystems?
This isn't about despair and gloom, but it is about facing reality and beginning to do something about it. Imagine a doctor consulting with an obese 30 year old who has gained an average of 10 lbs a year since graduating from high school at 180 lbs. The doctor can tell this beer, cigarettes, and football-lovin 300 lb couch potato, "If you don't change your ways, you're dead by 40." Now, the doctor has made a prediction, but does it have to come true? What was the first word of his prediction? "If." So if the young man does change his ways, the outcome dramatically improves. Ah- ha. If we change our ways, this 50 year experiment also doesn't have to end in the very picture of ugliness.
We each have a natural tendency, an instinct, to be geared toward self-preservation. That is obviously not a bad thing. But when we unconsciously let that morph in the all-too-common "me, now" mentality of our current society, that spells trouble. We have been all about growing our 401Ks, accumulating toys and luxuries, being hip with style, wanting good Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and the world's strongest military, while, oh yeah, wanting low taxes. We have been all about "growth", with not a thought to "sustainability." We have wanted somebody else, in some place else or in some future time, to pay for our desired lifestyles today. Broadly, we have acted like ecosystems are infinitely stretchable or quickly repairable, or like future generations won't really miss what they never knew. We have pretended that a world of increasing inequity with major regions of poverty, ignorance, and despair will somehow remain a relatively stable world, and that the roots of terrorism will shrivel up as if by wishing it so. Far too many of our rich have believed that they somehow deserve their luxuries and don't owe society the same disproportionate generosity in return; far too many of our poor have believed that someone owes them a free ride; and far far too many of all of us have put up with both of these mindsets.
While a bright future for mankind is possible, the grave for modern civilization as a whole is unfortunately also a distinct possibility. What keeps so many in our society from getting serious about the challenges of our time, and beginning to choose to be part of the solution? No doubt there are a variety of things, but certainly it includes: ignorance, by circumstance, but also by choice; simple preoccupation; our tendency to "believe what we're most comfortable believing"; our tendency to see the problems as "too big for me to make a difference"; and our belief, conscious or subconscious, that the solution to our natural or man-made problems is, in the end, supernatural. All of these lead to a failure to think, to analyze evidence, to reevaluate beliefs, to change our minds when it's called for, to choose and to act differently, to get way past the "me, now" mentality, and to recognize that we do owe a decent, stable, and enjoyable world (ecologically, sociologically, and economically) to future generations.
My friends, we are all in this boat together. We share the only habitable planet we know of... one ocean, one atmosphere. We have to get beyond thinking of our individual freedoms in the good ole American way. We need to remember that the founding fathers wrote into the preamble to our Constitution that part of the very purpose to this new government was, "to promote the general welfare." Of course they weren't speaking of welfare checks, but they certainly were saying that we need to keep in mind what accomplishes the broader good, and not be solely preoccupied with "me, now."
In assessing our situation, we must learn to periodically if not regularly reevaluate our beliefs, and we must do this openly and honestly. This involves taking verifiable evidence more seriously, and it involves insisting with ourselves that our thought processes themselves be more objective. This must mean that we allow ourselves, and perhaps require ourselves, to change our minds when the evidence warrants it.
Young people are sometimes better at this than middle-aged adults. After a school-year-ending month of research and student presentations on "Challenges in the Next Half Century" my students have often asked, "What do we do?" We brainstorm briefly. It is interesting that on one hand we end up with a list of practical and concrete things from the tried and true three Rs (reduce, reuse, & recycle) to increasing use of alternative energy sources. On the other hand, inevitably some students point out something like, "But there are a whole lot of people who don't realize any of these challenges need to be faced." My next question for them is, "Why is that?" We end up discovering that before changes in behavior happen, changes in mindset must begin.
This book is about our mindsets and our future. We'll examine our biases, we'll deal with the real-world politics of terrorism and our foreign policy, and we'll delve into a variety of internal matters that will ultimately keep us a stable and sustainable nation and culture, or see us fragment and weaken into irrelevance, or even devolve into chaos.
Who am I to think I have something to add to the discussion of winning out over terrorism and maintaining a stable and sustainable society at home? Let me first say some of who I am not. I'm not an Ivy League graduate, I'm not a Washington insider, and I was not born to wealth or connections. I grew up a conservative Christian, went to graduate school at a regular state university, and I'm raising my family in small town America. Like scattered other middle-Americans though, I'm ending my silence and speaking up. Why I care about international issues and have the guts to speak out from small town America has somewhat to do with my unusual background. I grew up in India as a missionary kid, went to high school in Singapore, and as an adult have lived and worked in Lebanon, Canada, France, and Rwanda. My experiences in Lebanon and Rwanda were particularly informative to my world view. Watching the fabric of civilization begin to unravel left me with a heightened concern for risks we face today and in the near future. Lessons I learned working in Lebanon and then travelling in the Middle East are a significant part of what I share in chapters 3, 4, and 6; lessons learned while working in and then evacuating from Rwanda are most focused in chapters 1 and 9. The breadth of my life experience, however, does not guarantee the correctness of what I assert any more than others being born to privilege guarantees what they assert; it is evidence and careful reasoning that should be used in evaluating anyone's assertions.
I have chosen to contrast simple truths with politics-as-usual in pretty direct words, thus you hold in your hands a compact book... it doesn't need to be long. Though I suspect that some may initially be offended, that is not my intent, and if they keep reading through the explanation and background to these truths, I think that many will get past feeling offended. Although on various particulars I have referenced specific sources, in general I have deliberately limited the interruptions of numerous citations; this is not a doctoral dissertation. My approach is rather to rely on common sense based on experience, a lifelong habit of asking questions and actually listening to answers, reading, and thinking rationally. My choice of informal voice, as if you and I were engaging in conversation, is deliberate; I hope it encourages you, my reader, to find venues in which to speak up. It is direct cut-to-the-chase truth backed by evidence that I hope will provide food for thought and a foundation for real dialogue.
My intended target audience is my fellow middle-Americans... people who read and think, who don't blindly vote any party line, but who have for too long been silent. We have let ourselves be polarized by extremists on either end of the political spectrum. The "squeaky wheels" at these extremes have dominated the discussion. It is time that we in the middle speak up and take responsibility for influencing policy. We don't want to be blindly ideological like some, we don't want to be intolerant, and we don't want to resort to violence. However, we most certainly do want to end our passivity. We can be radically activist for non-extremist positions. Even if you don't end up agreeing with me, end your silence. Participate in the public debate on how to strengthen our society and constructively interact with the dangerous world in which we find ourselves. Let's quit being silent followers of the supposed political elite... they can actually be pretty ignorant.
I have taken the risk of dealing fairly early in this book with our convictions, often based in religious belief, and the biases behind them. It is this contrast between believing, based on conscious choice or not, and analytically thinking that is the central theme of this book. We cannot begin to deal realistically with the myriad challenges of our time without first recognizing the influence of our philosophical starting points, and then learning to step beyond the shoes we happen to have grown up in. Note that at times this will inevitably mean hearing a point of view which we don't initially like. An important question to ask ourselves is: "When we don't like an idea, do we just stop in our tracks, reaffirm our prior belief, and think no further? Or, do we hear things out, weigh what evidence and logic is presented, and then allow ourselves to make a thoughtful decision?" That is for you to decide. I invite you to join the discussion.