Feb 232011

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

I was having drinks with a friend a couple of weeks back when the conversation took a strange turn. As a matter of background, I have known him for a couple of decades, considered him a valued friend and someone who thought before he spoke. We were discussing alternative energy and the likely way forward. What set me back was his insistence that there was no future other than through existing technologies.

The center of his argument was that, by using oil, nuclear and coal, the United States could meet its needs for the foreseeable future. He disparaged solar (a filthy production process), wind (overblown), geothermal (over-hyped) and fuel cells (something out of Star Trek). Although we might disagree on the judgments, the major difference between us was how we viewed the future – he as pretty much more of the same and I as a new world, remade by new technologies. My initial thought that he was simply afraid of the future and, because of a failure of will, found his courage broken by challenges he could not see a way past.

That judgment set until, while reading one of my old journals, I came across something that another friend had said. He is long dead but his words seemed to resonate as I read them. “When orthodoxy becomes a substitute for inspiration, that person is walking dead, taking up space and breathing air best left to others.” I realized that my live friend was simply spouting the orthodoxy being offered by entrenched interests. In other words, he was a mindless water carrier for people who both didn’t know or care who he was.

Needless to say this was unsettling. I remembered an older saying – “the greatest tragedy is what dies in a man before his body dies”.

As I went down that path – thinking about both friends and their words – yet another friend intruded. Some hours later I was reading another one of my journals – one from three years later. Here was another friend contributing to the conversation. She was one of the greatest writers that England had ever produced and once said to me “boy (I was younger then) when ideology becomes a substitute for courage, when ignorance becomes a badge of honor and knowledge is disparaged, bend over and kiss your ass goodbye – the human race has lost its way and very purpose for being.”

It is easy in this information age to find people who meet her description. People, for instance, who disparage the great insights of Darwin while neither understanding those insights or where they have subsequently lead. Other Americans are world leaders in self-delusion. They know nothing about most of the world and could care less. They speak only one language and that very badly. Still others see complexity in black and white terms and see simple minded solutions to complicated challenges. Then there are those who really believe that they are ‘reality shows’. But these have always been ‘those people over there’. Somebody else’s neighbors. Now I found that the disease had moved in next door.

When I was at the Sloan School, I was working one evening – and well into the night – on a project for the Carnegie Foundation. I was in the basement of the computer center – that’s where they had to put it so that they could keep the beasts adequately cool. About two in the morning I was thrown off my terminal. I looked around to see that everybody else had been thrown off as well. None of us were able to get back on – so we all headed home. As I was getting ready for bed, I turned on the television and heard the first news about Apollo 13. As the hours then days dragged on, I was struck by the mantra of the engineers – “failure is not an option; we are going to get those guys safely back”.

Some years later I was watching another NASA briefing – the one about how the Shuttle’s heat tiles might have been damaged during launch. One senior official said – obviously unaware of the presence of a microphone -“why bother to look at the heat shield? If it is damaged, they are dead already”. I remember being stunned by this statement. When did ‘failure is not an option’ transmute into ‘they are dead already’?

The truth is that we are living through a time when the nature of the American character is on the line. To borrow a line from Thomas Paine, ‘These are the times that try men’s souls’. There are those who, through a failure of will or sacrifice of ideology for intellect, would seek refuge in the 20th century. Others seem to still have the old spark that a Scottish friend once defined. “You Americans always want to live in tomorrow before it even arrives”.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to look in the mirror – when you do, who do you see looking back?

Don’t make tomorrow’s journeys using yesterday’s maps

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II

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