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Technology and the Faustian Bargain

Herman Kahn , William Brown & Leon Martel

Thus science and technology—which in Western civilization removed poverty, illiteracy, hunger, frequent and severe disease, and short life spans for the majority of people and created for them instead relative affluence, unproved health and medical care, longer life expectancy and a sense of increasing power—now appear to some groups to raise a general threat to the continuation of our civilization. Yet civilization has made a commitment to science, technology and industry—one that might indeed be called a “Faustian bargain.” For, as we remember, Faust (in Goethe’s play) bought magical (that is, secular) knowledge and powers that he was compelled to use and then perforce he had to proceed to the next experience, the next project—or be forever damned. And that illustration provides a good analogy with some formulations (not ours) of the current predicament. We do agree that mankind is involved in a process that probably cannot voluntarily and safely be stopped, or prematurely slowed down significantly, even if there are good arguments for doing so. But we maintain that on balance and with some exceptions (for example, nuclear proliferation), the arguments are heavily against deliberate policies to halt or slow down the basic long-term technological trend, even if it could be done with safety. Indeed, we would prefer to accelerate some aspects of this trend, while being prudent and generally watchful in order to prevent or reduce the impact of the baneful possibilities.

Those who suggest stopping or slowing technological progress face several problems. The foremost difficulty is the sheer political, economic, technical practicality of launching an effective campaign of this sort against the existing active opposition and/or apathy. While the zero-growth advocates and their followers may be satisfied to stop at this point, most others are not. Populations grow, and their aspirations cry out for satisfaction; prudence and foresight require that a high priority be assigned to creating an economic surplus and developing technological “muscles” and flexibility. New pressures arise regularly, impelling various “backward” groups to modernize in order to get their share of the available material rewards. Even the most advanced societies find moral as well as practical and selfish reasons for maintaining or accelerating their current momentum. Any serious attempt to frustrate these expectations or desires is likely to fail and/or create disastrous counterreactions. Some may argue that the people struggling for affluence have been brainwashed, that they are giving up “everything” for “nothing,” but we believe they are responding reasonably to such objective pressures as overpopulation, national security and local poverty as well as such obvious aspirations as the revolution of rising expectations and/or the more or less clearly formulated image of what seems to be a highly desirable postindustrial society. Thus—extending our Faustian analogy—any concerted attempt to stop or even slow “progress” appreciably (that is, to be satisfied with the moment) is catastrophe-prone. At the minimum, it would probably require the creation of extraordinarily repressive governments or movements—and probably a repressive international system.

Most of the current no-growth advocates argue for a redistribution of resources as opposed to continued growth as a means of improving the current quality of life. But we have argued that many of these “reformers” do not mean what they say. They already have a high standard of living and do not see any real future gain for themselves if others improve their economic standards—although they may not recognize these as their true feelings. It appears to be true, as we have already indicated, that many in the upper middle class are “spending more and enjoying it less”; also there are many other legitimate and illegitimate sources of their opposition to growth. But whatever the reasoning of the “haves” may be, the “have-nots” would like to achieve a great deal more of the affluence they see before considering giving up their ambitions, and they are likely to be hostile to those who try to stop them—even if there is a good cause for doing so, and in their (and our) view the case is neither good nor plausible.

Indeed, we believe that our optimistic conclusions, set forth in previous chapters, on the outlook for energy, raw materials, food, near-term environmental issues are responsible and reasonable. But we do have our ambiguities and caveats, our fears and apprehensions about other aspects of progress—though they are not of the sort likely to be persuasive to the poor or even to most of the wealthy. Nevertheless, there are issues on which we share some of the uncertainties and failure of nerve afflicting so many of the doomsday prophets—not to the same extent or in the same way, but we do have a basic empathy with some of their arguments and concerns.

The biggest difference between us is in our conclusion that it is both safer and more rewarding to move forward with caution and prudence on the present course than to try to stop or even to slow down generally. But we are not fully confident that the results of moving ahead, even with care and wisdom, will necessarily prove to be without danger; we are only convinced that the odds favor this course. Indeed, we would estimate the odds at five to one or better that all the serious long-term problems will be successfully dealt with in due course—and at a cost that is acceptable in most people’s judgments. We can only offer our best intuitive conclusion, but we do not believe any other practical policy has a better chance for avoiding great, tragedy. In other words, we are optimistic about the long term; we believe that in time society will be able to cope with any technological problems—and we are confident that there will be sufficient time, though not always enough to avoid all trouble.

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