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Human Ignorance and the Limited Use of History Richard D. Lamm Let me state up front my thesis. I believe that history has become of significantly reduced usefulness for human wisdom and for guidance in the management of the future. I believe that many of the great and wise sayings concerning the importance of history—like Santayana’s that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana 1905, 284) or Harry Truman’s to the effect that the only surprises in the future are the history you don’t know—while still true for human events, do not give us guidance on our major environmental public policy challenges and can be downright dangerous as we face the next generation of public issues. In some ways, history has become a trap because it prevents us from recognizing the full seriousness of the new problems we are faced with. An old world is dying, and a new world in which history is of limited use is struggling to be born. Heretical words, but let me make my case. History does teach us much about human nature, about human ambition , cruelty, folly, about the seduction of power, the temptation of riches and lust. We enlarge our knowledge and enrich our soul by the study of history. But history does not teach us about Mother Nature; it does not allow us to properly evaluate something like global warming, environmental degradation, or the growth of human numbers. It is likely that we are entering a new era of sustainability. A study of history would not have predicted the Renaissance or the industrial revolution, and I don’t believe it is of much help in the search for the new world of sustainability or what may exist on the backside of the Hubbert curve. 60 Richard D. Lamm The past gives little guidance to the next generation of problems because (a) we are living on the upper shoulder of some unprecedented and dangerous geometric curves and (b) we face an ecological crisis beyond historic precedent. We ignore Al Bartlett’s wise words that the greatest human failure is our inability to understand the exponential function (Bartlett, n.d.). Events are moving at stunning speed. Every modern year is the equivalent of decades of historic years. Our eighty-mile-per-hour cars need better headlights than did our parents’ forty-mile-per-hour cars, but the speed of change still makes the landscape a blur. We have difficulty focusing on the patterns and what they might have taught us in more placid times. We are awash in disorienting, discontinuous change. But, more important, the next sequences of geometric growth in human numbers and environmental impact are, I believe, unsustainable and thus, by definition, without precedent. The relentless cascade of ecological challenges is giving us a world where historical precedent is less useful. History teaches us of human limitations but not of nature’s limits. History gives us little guide to a world that needs to turn from “growth” to sustainability. Some guidance, of course, but not where it really counts. We are sailing on uncharted waters. I believe that we are surrounded with evidence that increasingly shows that something is fundamentally wrong with our historic ways of looking at the world. Yesterday’s solutions have become today’s problems, and these problems are of a different scale and coming at us with increasing velocity. The growth paradigm that allowed us to create wealth, reduce poverty, and increase living standards is becoming obsolete. Those human traits that allowed us to prevail over the ice, the tiger, and the bear—in a time of an empty earth—continue to operate long after we are no longer an empty earth. In The Spirit in the Gene, Reg Morrison suggests that those genes that saved us as a species now are on course to destroy us (1999, 257). We are hardwired by survival traits that now, unless controlled, will drive us into oblivion. Evolution moves too slowly to correct the dilemma that evolution put us in by its past slow progress. Our globe is warming, our forests are shrinking, our water tables are falling, our ice caps are melting, our coral is dying, and our fisheries are collapsing. Our soils are eroding, our wetlands are disappearing, our deserts are encroaching, and our finite water is more and more in demand. I suspect these to be the early warning signs of a world ap- Human Ignorance and the...


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