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From the Great Hall of the Cooper Union in New York City. National Educational radio presents the Cooper Union forum series on peace love and creativity the hope of mankind. These programs were recorded by station WNYC. Here now is the chairman of the Cooper Union forum Dr. Johnson. Our immediate subject of discussion is what civilization and the speaker it was to carry with him editor of the news. Mr McWilliams I've spoken here on this platform on numerous occasions I am very happy to say. For the benefit of
those eight people in the great hall audience in the radio world that do not know him but mention that he is born in Steamboat Springs Colorado educated in California became a lawyer. Big game commissioner of labor housing and immigration they are very troubled and difficult state of California. And he has one of the Guggenheim Fellowship several occasions he has worked with the nation for a long period of time. So the floridly on the labor of social relations and groups of people. He has written nowhere as a book of his own. So which are the rival Paris William M. privily
prejudice Robert was one of those. Again there's the land north from Mexico. Factories in the field and so on. I've written many many are as you probably realize the nation who is the foremost magazine of dissent in this country just without editorializing or I hear that. May I just say that I feel we have all too few outlets for dissent. Some people felt that the magazine of dissent must necessarily be a communist magazine or even a Republican magazine ever. It is neither one of the nation's extremely distinguished form of magazine up to
tonight. It's very fine. Mr. Carey McWilliams talking to us on the very exciting and very interesting topic that has to do with the price of civilization with the current would not read. First of all I'm and like to say that I spake in response to this question what price civilization from the point of view of a working journalist. And I don't know how many of you are familiar with the commers definition of a journalist but it's a pretty good working definition. He said that a working journalist is a person who occupation only must be must know a little bit about such a vast
variety of subject matter he never gets a chance to know anything very much about anything. And I think that's true. But in response to this question I did do some homework that is to say I read a book and I read a book titled civilization and it's a book made up of essays by a distinguished American scholars. And I was interested to note that they could not agree they were in total disagreement about a definition of civilization. Nevertheless I did get from that book a working concept that might serve at least for the purpose of clarifying this discussion. It's a concept in an essay by vs McCain which was in this volume and I referred referred to. He said Our civilization is both means and end. It insists a continual means to its own ends
justified only by the achievements and enjoyments of individuals alone as a means. It is a collective concern of everyone. Civilization is that which enables mankind to progress independently of her rent three at a mere natural selection. It is also that which justifies the progress mankind has been able to make since any conceivable goal of happiness and progress is the enhancement of some type of civilized existence. That as I say is a at least a working concept to which this discussion can be directed. Now first of all I want to suggest to you that until the last decade or two this question this particular question what price civilization would have been a non-question. That is to say up until a couple of decades ago civilization was clearly worth any price it had to be
paid for. But this is no longer the case and it hasn't been the case for at least two decades and it hasn't been the case for a definite reason namely that within the last two or three decades men have acquired such phenomenal power to control and influence and tamper with the environment that they have acquired a power that is awesome in its implications of far as the future of mankind is concerned. Therefore this question which once upon a time would have been a rhetorical question is today a very live question a very real question a very discussable question and I want to answer it right off by saying that even today civilization is worth the price we pay for it. But what I do want to suggest to you is that the price is much too high far higher than it need be and that if certain trends are not corrected the price could well become prohibitive.
By way of procedure it therefore lets first of all consider a few illustrations to indicate why the price is too high. At the present time. Then let's take a bate a look at the basic problem of why the price is too high. And finally let's consider some suggestions about means of keeping the price right. So first of all let me suggest to you why I think the price at the present time is too high. That is to say far higher than it need be. There was a report about a year ago of the National Science Foundation and wets the National Science Foundation or commission of that foundation said that the three most frightening problems facing the future of the race were the first of
all the risk of nuclear war. Second the population explosion and third the dangers arising from an improbable and reckless tampering with the environment. Now if you think about these three reasons for a moment you will see that they are all aspects of one essential problem namely that technology and science man has acquired me a degree of control over the environment which is so great and so so awesome in its implications as to create the very problems that were cited in this specification. So let's take a look. There's been so much said about the danger of nuclear war. There's been so much said about population explosion and the dangers thereof. Let's take a look at that third category this inadvertent tampering with the environment and see what illustrations we can turn up turn up the
better on this. First of all let's take a look at air pollution and the problems in relation to air pollution present time forgot about cities and smog and that aspect of the problem. There's another aspect of this particular problem that I think is much more significant from a long range point of view and that is the growing realization that air pollution is having a disastrous effect upon American agriculture. Today we know on the basis of really first rate studies made in a score or more of American studies that the damage that air pollution is doing to crops in the United States today is greatly in excess of the damage to crops caused by bad weather so-called or by the ravages of insects or any of the sergeant ranks well towards the top of the list of the damaging factors to crop production in the United States at the present time and not merely
crops as one would ordinarily think about crops. For example there are very disturbing reports that come in from the Pacific Northwest as to the effect of air pollution upon forest products and forests in the Pacific Northwest. So that you have to keep in mind that air pollution today is an ongoing and continuing source of damage to American agriculture to the great outdoor aspect of American life running into the hundreds of millions of dollars annually and to increase in damages unless something is done about it. Or let's take a look at water pollution. Very obvious very obvious aspect of what happens when man begins to tamper improvidently with the environment without realizing exactly what he's doing. We know a great deal about water pollution today but not nearly as much as we should know a year or
so ago on the same farm. I had occasion to refer to what is happening to one of the greatest natural bodies of pure water what was once pure water in the world. Namely like taco in California. But since that that talk the Joint Commission on like Tahoe has filed a report with some which I want to read one paragraph because it's a very striking illustration of what can happen by way of the den the incalculable damage that could be caused by an improvment reckless careless tampering with the environment. This is from the joint study commission report of July 29 of this last year. It's sad. Just as there is a point of no return. One thing unrestrained generation of an outside get started in a pristine body of water.
So there is in a relatively self-contained regional complex like Lake Tahoe a threshold beyond which Tomoe environment deterioration becomes irreversible or to prohibitive cost to reverse. That's the point. What's like Tao is at the present time. In other words as a result of the empowerment and building of sky rises around the friends of Lake Tahoe and the dumping of surrogates into the lake they have created a situation which today may well be beyond the reach of modern technology to correct or control the damage becomes irreversible. Once a certain point has been reached and I want to suggest to you that there are very good studies indicating that this may well be the case with respect to the Hudson. So that so that when we talk about the issues of this kind I think we should have in
mind how very great the priciest with respect to an improvident progress a kind of forward movement that we call it the advance of civilization without realizing that there is an enormous price tag that we're paying. Or let's take a look at another very seldom discussed issue. The enemies see him prominent reckless damage that we're doing to the atmosphere the very environment in which all of us live. Recently there was a study published in Science which is a publication as you know of the Triple A as the American Association for the Advancement of Science by Messrs Noel and Japanese and which they talk about the atmosphere of the universe of the world. And they point out in a study that only a rise of a few degrees in the average temperature of the atmosphere could cause profound changes in
the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increased 8 percent in the last 16 years. It may now well be exerting real pressure on the ultimate sources of oxygen. And of course they say the consequences of ignorance in this area could be drastic and catastrophic. I think best if you're going to tamper with the environment in an area as sensitive as this you better know what you're doing. And if you don't know what you're doing the consequences could be very drastic indeed. Another illustration and the last one I saw a sight of the fact that we are paying much too high a price for what we call civilization at the present time. And a point I would like to make with respect to the consequences of this guide is that the price in most instances is unnecessarily high. We do not
need to pay ANY this higher price even in terms of the progress that we think we're achieving at the present time. Just recently a very distinguished British planner in name visited the United States and and wrote for The London Observer a really fascinating series of pieces describing the destruction of the American landscape the awful things that have been happening to the American landscape in the course of the last two decades. And he made what to me was a very striking point that this is almost all of it completely unnecessary needless easily avoidable. For example he said by constant by comparison with concentrations of population per square mile you could put all of the present population of the United States in the state of Texas. So what we have done to the landscape in the United States
has been done not because that was not enough land. Quite the contrary it's been done as a result of reckless misuse of the environment reckless misuse of resources a wanton disregard of natural causes natural sink Wences etc.. I think this is a very striking illustration a little I would like to point out that would be necessarily a very cruel thing to do. But all of the American people in the state of Texas. But it does suggest that does suggest that the way we misuse land and space in this in this country is not because there is a deficit of land or death or deficit in space. Quite the contrary. Now I want to would like to suggest to you what having said
having pointed out I hope why I think the price is in many respects too high and the kind of illustrations that I just suggested to you could be multiplied endlessly. I want to suggest to you what the real cause of this is. I want to suggest to you why it is that the price is too high. Now first of all let me point out why the price is as high as it is. The problem lies not with technology. Technology is not a compulsory mechanism. Technology is not a pre-determined in every. The MO tendency in a certain direction. Nor is science and in thing of the sort. The point is that there are no undirected technologies anywhere in the world. Technology is always direct and the question we must ask
ourselves is is directing technology in the United States towards what ends and towards what purposes and towards what objectives. And when you ask yourself this question you come up of course with a very immediate answer namely that so far as the government is concerned the Department of Defense overwhelmingly is directing American technology and research at the present time towards ends and purposes which are determined by the Department of Defense. And if you turn some government away from government you will of course I think agree that American business is directing technology and it is directing technology to the highest potential profit rate that can be derived from the expenditure of funds for research and development in particular areas for particular purposes. So they've the unfortunate consequences that flow from an improvment
expansion of technology in the United States. They are not inherent in technology. They are inherent in the controls. They are inherent in the processes by which technology is directed and this direction is at the present time I think almost wholly unfortunate. It's being technology and science are being mis directed. MR You and misapplied. And as a result of this we create problems when we see no means of coping with OTHER THAN EVER repetition of the same mystery action of technology and science. Paul Goodman I think has been the person who has had the sharpest shrewdest insight into this aspect of the problem. He points out that we have this kind of where we're caught on this kind of treadmill at the present time. If we have too many automobiles
in the United States we think the answer is to build more highways so that we can have more automobiles on those highways. And when those highways tend to be got it then we must have more highways. And so we go on and on repeating the same mistake that was made in the original charter. And if we think that administration has become too cumbersome in the United States too bureaucratic that we add two or three new layers of bureaucracy just to complicate it that much further or if we are appalled by what we have done with regard to nuclear weapons then we must say then we say to ourselves we must have an anti-missile missile. And beyond this we must must have among the most I must I had a new kind of missile and so forth so that once you get caught on this technological treadmill without appreciating the consequences then you're determined to make. The technological The Sages to
cope with these consequences which have the effect of perpetuating the very problem you're trying to avoid. Now it won't do. Faced with this problem to simply say a pox on technology let's have no more progress. Let's have no more technological innovation. This is clearly not the answer to the problem and it won't do to simply blame scientists and technology and technicians for this situation because they as individuals are caught up in a process much larger than than themselves and they have a limited but a very real freedom of action a real freedom of action but nevertheless a limited freedom of action. So let's not make scapegoats of scientists and technicians and technologists. This is not the problem. The basic problem I think which is forcing up the price of civilization to a point which
is much too high. I think this basic problem has been defined by Salvador and Maria in a piece in science of August 11 which raises the really fundamental issue. He says the progress of science is so rapid in our time that it creates an imbalance between the power it places in the hands of man and the social conditions in which this power is exerted. When this happens neither are warnings of science nor of public information nor wisdom of citizens may compensate compensate for in adequacy needs of the institutional framework to cope with these new conditions. I think that's true. Now what then are these institutional and adequacy of these inadequacies that is in the institutional framework. I think there are four in number.
One has to do with the kind of India logical back you want in American society to present time. The second has to do with our addiction to a mystique of growth. The third has to do with our addiction to the mystique of money and cost accounting measured in terms of money. And the fourth has to do with a very deep seated drive for expansion in American society. Now let's look at these four factors in order. First of all the illogical fact. Now what I mean by that that is simply this that when the Constitution was adopted. A very intelligent far sighted group of men came to the conclusion that if you set up adequate and adequate governmental institutional framework to protect
individual liberty and if you freed men from the restraints of a kind of feudal society and you turned them loose so to speak in a new environment they pursued by each of them up here whose individual self interest would constitute an adequate social go for the society as a whole and that therefore the province of government was simply to provide a framework within which this competition could take place freely and at the same time in actually encouraging. This kind of individual self aggrandizement. Now at the time the Constitution was adopted I think this was a very adequate statement. For the time. I think so because if you try to project your imagination back into colonial America as of 1787 and 1789 how much power
could any one individual acquire in that society. That would be threatening to other individuals or that would constitute a kind of social menace. It's very hard to see because at that time there simply was not possible. So this situation was a perfectly good working situation until I should say about 1870. And then it began to get to me. Functioned very badly and the vacuole any illogical vacuum in American society was filled by a distortion of that original impulse that all classic constitutional impulse of individual self advantage became distorted when it became construed as the right of a corporation to pursue its own interests on restricted and uninhibited.
And this of course leads in our time to that monstrous proposition that what's good for General Motors is good for the country and the most monstrous aspect of that statement is that given our present that and given the present state of our society it happens to be true because as autos go today so goes the entire economy. So we're hooked on this fallacy that we were committed to at the beginning of the Republic namely that to its very it's alright to just let individuals pursue their own self-interest without restriction without any inhibitions. And if you can say that proposition then you find yourself in the same kind of kind of dilemma that we find ourselves caught at the present time. And one of the reasons most Americans do not see what is wrong with the functioning of the
society as a top talent is they'd do not see that this institutional bias is built right into the society. Our institutions from education on down are geared to the idea of making it possible for individuals to advance their own self-interest. And this kind of individual ism in the kind of world in which we live at this present time takes on very sick connotations. Now the second institution in adequacy that I refer to is the one called the mystic of growth. It grows very naturally out of this first institutional inadequates a name namely the over emphasis on individual ism. The mistake of growth is simply this that we are as a people on the growth fallacy and it's simply not true. As we pretend to believe at the present
time that the answer to all social problems is to be found in some escalation of gross national product. We think that if we can just increase production of one notch more we would be able to take care of this problem or that problem or the other problem. It's simply not true because economic growth as a concept is simply a quantitative concept and the problem is what are you increasing the production on. And under the GNP as we construe it in the present time everything is subsumed under the gross national product. So that when we say that last year's gross national product went up three and a half or four percent what do we mean specifically.
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Peace, love, creativity: Hope of mankind
What price civilization?, part one
Producing Organization
WNYC (Radio station : New York, N.Y.)
Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
This program features the first part of a lecture by Carey McWilliams, editor, The Nation.
Series Description
This series presents lectures from the 1968 Cooper Union Forum. This forum's theme is Peace, Love, Creativity: The Hope of Mankind.
Media type
Producing Organization: WNYC (Radio station : New York, N.Y.)
Producing Organization: Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
Speaker: Fairchild, Johnson E.
Speaker: McWilliams, Carey, 1905-1980
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 68-10-6 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:53
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Chicago: “Peace, love, creativity: Hope of mankind; What price civilization?, part one,” 1968-03-29, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 29, 2024,
MLA: “Peace, love, creativity: Hope of mankind; What price civilization?, part one.” 1968-03-29. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. May 29, 2024. <>.
APA: Peace, love, creativity: Hope of mankind; What price civilization?, part one. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from