It’s been a couple of decades since my wife and I took a trip to England, but what I remember most about it was a couple of incidents during the return trip. The first occurred when we tried to check in at Heathrow. A person behind the counter said we were too early and perhaps we should walk around and come back in an hour or so. We did so, only to learn when we returned that they had given our seats to someone else – and the plane was full. I made such an angry fuss that they finally gave us the seats intended for the stewardesses – who glared at us as they sat down on plastic, pull-down “jump seats” at the end of a back row.
The second incident I remember came about because we took the “northern route” from Heathrow to Minneapolis. Somewhere over northern Canada, I looked out my window to see a fire burning a large section of the forest below. When I called it to the attention of a stewardess, she replied, unsmiling, “We see lots of them on this route. No big deal.” I’d grown up during the “Smokey, the Bear” era, so I was surprised by her nonchalant attitude. But in the last couple of years, we’ve learned that Smokey misled us – or that the prevention policy he pushed was not wise. It allowed the natural fuel to build up until the inevitable fires could become holocausts, burning whole cities in their paths.
About that same time, I wrote an essay titled “We Must Get a Lot Smarter or a Lot Dumber – and Quick.” The premise was that we humans were intelligent enough to invent and discover all sorts of things, but we were not smart enough to realize the long-term ramifications of what we were inventing or discovering. Today, our short-term solutions are on course to eliminate our entire species.
Many similar alarms were sounded during the Cold War in the second half of the 20th century, when we and the Soviet Union stockpiled enough nuclear weapons to kill every human on Earth many times over. After witnessing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an intelligent species would want atomic weapons gone. But we humans decided we needed a more powerful hydrogen bomb. At the time, writers liked to call atomic weapons “a modern Frankenstein,” suggesting that we had built a monster that would one day destroy us.
The threat of an atomic war diminished during the ensuing years, but concurrently we came up with a product that seemed attractive in that it was cheap, useful and nearly indestructible – plastic. Bombs were dangerous and were never meant to improve our lives, but we were assured plastic would – and it has. On the other hand, we didn’t think through how we were going to deal with a nearly indestructible product when we were done with it. Consequently, plastic, because we can neither control nor destroy it, has become the new and more fitting Frankenstein.
We seem to do all right on small, insignificant things like mouse traps and fishing lures, but we’re just beginning to realize what our insecticides are doing to us. One can cite dozens of other examples of delayed misfires. A recent news story told about how several firms in and around Springfield, Ohio, are close to producing a personal vertical take-off flying vehicle. The report claimed that these things are so safe and so easy to fly that, after a brief orientation, any ordinary person can take the controls. The report claimed that our skies may soon be filled with commuters, blithely on their way to work or the supermarket.
Fellows, let’s take a break and think this through.