2001 : WHAT NOW?

piet_hut's picture
professor of astrophysics at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton
professor of astrophysics

I find it fascinating that, notwithstanding John's initial urge to limit the discussion to "hard-edge" comments, most writers have focused on what we normally consider rather "soft" topics, such as culture and ways of viewing one-self and one's world, as well as suggestions for changing the current global economic situation. This is a remarkable shift, especially among a group of intellectuals with a background in science and technology.

Of course, it has always been true that prevention is the best approach to most problems. But until now we have been preoccupied with high-tech solutions, intellectually challenging and expensive, rather than low-tech approaches, cheap and less interesting scientifically. And we assumed that we had the luxury to focus mainly on the fancy but less efficient approaches.

Far more resources have been spent on "fighting", on scales from individuals to nations: on fighting cancer rather than in stimulating people to live healthier life styles; on fighting AIDS rather than creating conditions that lower the possibility of infection; on fighting drug dealers rather than diminishing the demand for drugs; on fighting unfriendly countries with military or economic might rather than trying to understand what the cause of their unfriendliness could be.

If anything good will come from the tragic events on 9.11, it may be the public realization that the answer to our main problems can be neither technological nor societal, but have to be an intimate mix of both. The notion of a third culture is relevant now more than ever before. And perhaps there is room for hope.

In the first half of the twentieth century, we had two world wars. In the second half, after the invention of weapons of mass destruction, there were no more world wars. Could it be that the current half century might witness the end of all wars, when we learn to counter global terrorism in really effective ways?

All eyes have been opened now for the specter of terrorists armed with nuclear or biological weapons of mass destruction. While this threat has been with us for decades, it was largely ignored. If we are lucky, the cruel awakening on 9.11 will finally teach us to prevent rather than to fight. Unbelievable as it may sound, wars could soon become a thing of the past, just like world wars have already become a thing of the past. The sudden end to hostilities between the Israelis and the Palestinians may be just the beginning.

For this optimistic vision to be viable, we need insight. That the cold war remained cold was not through an increase in wisdom and insight, but rather through a very effective form of deterrence, a side effect of nuclear weapons. Now that the cold war is behind us, perhaps terrorism will have an even more remarkable side effect. Instead of paralyzing the civilized world, it could force upon us a real and deep reflection of the role of "soft" world views upon the real "hard" world — from scientific or religious to cynical or nihilistic world views, and everything in between. Wrestling a discussion of world views from the specialized and obscure corners of academic philosophy or comparative history of religion into the broad daylight of practical life-and-death issues of confronting terrorism would be the first step.

Ways of changing world views, both ours and "theirs", may seem like an odd weapon, far more odd even than a hydrogen bomb that is too powerful to be used in a war. But what else will give us a chance to cut the roots of the mind set in which terrorism thrives? We will have to change our views of the societies in which there is so much hatred against us. And they will have to change their views of our values. This means that both sides have to make radical changes in how they view the world. Helping each other to make these changes may be the only way to go. Just to give one example: over-simplified and arrogant arguments of scientists against religion, or of religious adherents against science and secular values, will hopefully be superseded by more mutual understanding and hence respect.

In short, the main challenge is not to start new fights nor to focus only on deterrence, but to offer an open invitation for recognition and respect. By creating a climate for opening up world views, both ours and 'theirs', whoever and wherever 'they' are, we can invite friend and foe alike in new global gatherings aimed at learning from and appreciating each others views. How to even begin such an idealistic program? Several answers have already been suggested by other contributors: Roger Schank advocates exporting education; Douglas Rushkoff advocates writing new narratives; Mihaly Csikszentmihaly advocates finding a way of including the hopes of the rest of the world in our plans; Terry Bristol, George Lakoff, Tor Nørretranders and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly all advocate a new social contract between the developed and developing world.

Could we really move from war to deterrence to respect? I don't know, but I also don't know anything more worth trying.

To be honest, I have always thought that "third culture" was a bit of an overstatement; to me the count felt more like two and a half than three since the leaning was so much to the scientific and technological side: interesting and fascinating, but not really fully a "third way". Until now. The current discussion is sterling third culture. Congratulations and thanks for working for so many years to lay the foundations. How paradoxical it is that it takes such a cruel event to let the core of the third culture become more bare and visible.