The Perils of Futurism


The Seventh Year: Industrial Civilization in Transition, by W. Jackson Davis, New York: W. W. Norton, 1979, 296 pp., $18.95.

"This book is a chronicle of the future," says its author, W. Jackson Davis; and indeed it is. Unfortunately for Davis's thesis, no chronology exists for the future, so one must be fabricated from trends. (We would say "extrapolated" if futurism were a science.)

Davis's fabrication is seductive. He begins with excellent definitions of physical laws for the nonscientist and woos the reader with data and graphs leading to the conclusion that only a "cornucopian," as he calls the nonbeliever, could disagree that a totally new era (depletion, etc.) is imminent.

Not only am I a cornucopian, focusing on a different future from that which Davis sees; I am also a geologist. I have spent my professional life dealing with natural resources as unseeable as The Future, but there has been this discipline: since subsurface reserves extrapolated by geologists are soon measured as "production," being right is fairly critical in the science of geology. In any case, I sympathize with Davis's task, faced with such a mass of opinion and data.

And what a mass of data, well-interpreted and cleverly related. Davis copiously quotes to "prove" that industry is not only depleting our resources but is killing us with wastes, filling our minds with materialistic ideas, and boring us with the drudgery of the workplace. Largely ignored are facts such as these: that life expectancy in industrial societies continues to increase, and that technology has historically created more resources than it has used—that is, mineral reserves are human concepts, created by demand and technology. Any calculation of known mineral reserves versus demand at any time in human history could have shown—and over and over again were taken to have shown—that reserves were rapidly approaching exhaustion. Ten thousand years ago it would have been arrowhead flints.

Historically, people in agrarian societies have always sought to escape the drudgery, frustration, and uncertainties imposed by living off the land. The author does not deal with this, nor does he deal with the fact that the agrarian societies of Africa, South America, southern Asia, and the Middle East are destroying, at the highest rate in human history, their land, their forests, their soil and water resources. Even in China reforestation is only marginally successful, although it might become more so as the country becomes more industrialized and less dependent on forests for energy—at least this is what other industrial countries have been able to do. As a "cornucopian," my predictions do not lead me along Davis's path, to an agrarian society populated by communes of happy people toiling from dawn 'til dusk, enjoying the satisfaction of hard work, unhampered by labor-saving devices of modern technology, no longer concerned with the "monotonous pursuit of the paycheck."

Seers have a tough row to hoe these days. Because of the accelerated momentum of change, much of the material required to produce such a volume as Seventh Year may be superseded by the time it is as well assembled as Davis's. The Seventh Year is a potentially valuable book. Scientists may see such a compendium as a method for thinking of the future. Unfortunately, many laymen will see it as Truth. The trouble with such intellectual exercises is that they have a self-fulfilling aspect. Presently, for example, the no-growth philosophy is itself undoubtedly a major cause of no growth.

Seventh Year is well written, a consistent summary of data from one perspective. But it demonstrates that when facts are diluted with opinion, the result must be called opinion.

James Dunn is a retired teacher of geology, now chairman of the board of Dunn Geoscience Corp.