In American colleges across the land the Class of 1968 experienced a tumultuous and traumatic time throughout its college years. Some commentators argued at the time — and have ever since — that these experiences opened up the chance for radically new forms of transformation in the economic, social and political life of the United States and around the world. As it turns out, the much heralded Class of 1968 is about to celebrate its 50th College Reunion. It may be instructive to reflect upon its legacy for the future.
Despite this revolutionary potential in virtually all colleges across the country in 1968, in the fifty years since, many observers have come to see that the enduring legacy of the Class of 1968 has been a sad collapse of vision concerning the need for fundamental change. Moreover, partially as a result of the direction of their leadership, America has witnessed an increased dependence upon fossilized carbon as the major source of energy to fuel its increasingly consumptive and globally destructive lifestyle.
This dependence has committed future generations in America — and the world as a whole — to a highly inflexible and tragically maladapted energy infrastructure, tied to the ever increasing oxidation of terrestrial carbon and resulting inexorably to the increase of greenhouse gas concentrations in the global atmosphere. The cumulative impact of this change in the atmosphere has created a global imbalance in Earth’s energy budget that scientists have warned for the last three decades may well lead to the catabolic collapse of industrial civilization. As the impact of abrupt shifts in climate become ever more prominent, frequent and devastating with the rise of sea-level and increase in extreme weather events the future of the human prospect looks as though it will be characterized by increased floods, droughts, famine, epidemics, mass migration and civil strife as the institutions of the nation-state prove incapable of adjusting quickly enough to climate driven catastrophe.
Initially, the generation of the Class of 1968 declared its commitment to change society towards greater environmental integrity, improved social equity and enhanced political stability as well as improved racial and increased international justice. In the subsequent five decades, however, nearly all of these potential changes have been slowed down or reversed altogether under the “leadership” of those in the Class of 1968. This is not encouraging.
In short, on a global scale the legacy of the Class of 1968 has been measured and found sorely wanting. The expansive logic based on ever more extraction and combustion of fossil fuels has led to short term wealth and numerous growth spurts in a boom-bust global economy, but this has been achieved only at the cost of system-wide stability and sacrifice of global sustainability.
Moreover, we are beginning to realize that there may not be “world enough and time” to reverse this tragic trajectory. The most senior scientists who direct the environment program at Harvard University are arguing that in the United States we may not have enough time to make the transition gracefully from our fossil-fuel dependence to a post-fossil fuel energy system. In Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, they have proposed to undertake experiments in Earth’s upper atmosphere to block sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface. They call this “A New Tool To Address Climate Change.”
To their credit, it appears that at Yale there has been some discussion of the ethics of undertaking this kind of global geoengineering and an explicit effort to broaden the discussion through the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. Launched recently in the spring semester of 2017, it is not yet clear that the Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program will include a sustained sustained ethical examination of the premises of geoengineering on the Harvard campus, across the nation or, indeed, in the wider world where most of the affected populations live.
Proponents and architects of this scheme of global experimentation assert that:
“If we use this technology with wisdom and humility… then it will almost certainly be a benefit to the world…”
But critics of this ambitious endeavor have called it: “Insane, utterly mad and delusional in the extreme.”
Given the expression of outrage in some quarters at the arrogance implied by this form of global “geoengineering” it might be prudent for the scientific community to discuss these with a fully informed global public before any experimentation in what it calls “Solar Radiation Management (SRM) proceeds much further. The reason for this is that, as the BBC’s David Shuckman has noted, the impact of such strategies would inevitably affect the daily lives of billions of people around the world. Influential scholars from Harvard have suggested, however, that in their personal opinion “…we have to keep geoengineering on the table…” because “… we might get desperate enough to want to use it” (without specifying who “we” refers to). It is this kind of statement that deserves further clarification and discussion because of the impact this kind of “fix” might have on all global populations.
In practice, however, it may already be “too late” to late for this kind of global understanding to emerge. As the 17th century poet Anrew Marvell observed “Had we but world enough and time…” we could do a lot of things we would like to do. Reaching a global consensus on deploying geoengineering might be ideal, but this may already be beyond the realm of possibility for two principal reasons. First, the political and intellectual leadership dominant around the globe is generally that provided by the Class of 1968, and this class seems irretrievably committed to a trajectory of increased fossil fuel consumption. And, secondly, even if all the leaders from the Class of 1968 were to experience an immediate transformation and sudden change in their outlook and commitments, it is now apparent that the future trajectory of human affairs may be well beyond their control.
Nation-state governments — even “powerful” ones — may not exercise the power thei would like over the dynamics of human institutions. In the absence of consensus on global geoengineering it seems possible at this point for a few “rogue states” or individual “rogue billionaires” to finance climate altering methods to alter both local and global weather systems to pursue their own goals. This is because, as one recent article pointed out: “Rogue geoengineering could ‘hijack’ world’s climate”
This is a sobering revelation because there seems to be no reticence on the part of billionaires to pursue this kind of research on the potential for modifying the global atmosphere for their own purposes. See, for example:
The stakes are enormous here. Who has given anyone “permission” to undertake a gamble of this kind? After all, there is no planet “B.” We only have one Earth. We only get one chance. Is the human community ready to let the billionaires undertake whatever experiments they may wish to fund on the global ecosystem?
Arguably, however, there is one significant — indeed, perhaps unprecedented — achievement of the Class of 1968. As a group the Class of 1968 — the one class with such seemingly great potential for change fifty years ago — has in fact succeeded in acquiring more individual and collective wealth than any other generation in human history. Yet this impressive achievement will be dwarfed by the magnitude of the legacy it leaves to future generations.
Members of the Class of 1968 were warned about the broad outlines of these tendencies and ensuing tragedies by professors who published important works while they were students and shortly after they graduated. Works by Robert Heilbroner were particularly prominent at the time.
Many other scholars have added their voice at Yale and other universities, underscoring the thrust of these observations (See for example, Noam Chomsky – Neoliberalism & the Global Order – Yale University on February 25, 1997 and Conclusion from Film – “Manufacturing Consent” ). The essential message of these contributions seems to have been largely ignored by the Class of 1968 both at the time and over the course of the fifty years since their graduation.. Tragically, as a consequence, despite its impressive collective wealth, the Class of 1968 may soon be judged by successor generations as the class that left the world with its most bankrupt legacy.
See related information and reflections: