Future Talk

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Bill Moyers examines the politics of the environment and how choices Americans make now will determine whether we can create and sustain a quality of life that will not jeopardize our children’s future. The program focuses on population and energy policies, the depletion of our natural resources and relations between the developing and developed nations.


AL BINGER, Rockefeller Foundation: The goodly book of proverbs had a great saying. It says, “Where the leaders have no vision, the people shall surely perish.”

ALLEN HAMMOND, World Resources Institute: We’ve taken the environment for free, for granted, and we need signals that remind us that it’s not free.

BILL MOYERS: These men and women belong to a world-wide community of scholars thinking about the environment and the future.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS, World Resources Institute: Victor Hugo said, “Wisdom in government is knowing how much of the future to inject into the present.”

JOHN STEINBRUNER, Brookings Institution: That’s the drama of the situation. Can we look far enough out with enough clarity that we can coordinate our actions?

JOHN HOLLAND, University of Michigan: The question is, are there things that we can do early on in a situation like this that keeps us from getting into the either-or situation?

JAMES MacNEILL, Author, “Our Common Future”: How can we meet the needs and aspirations of future generations without destroying the planet?

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Tonight on Listening to America, how we think about the future. Santa Fe, New Mexico, a place called Sol y Sombra, Spanish for “sun and shade.” Native American artist and flutist Alan Houser is a member of the Chiricahua Apache tribe. His work stands in renowned art collections, as well as at the United Nations and in the halls of Congress. Through his music and sculpture, Alan Hauser celebrates the tradition of his ancestors.

In his audience today are men and women who, in their own work, are asking what it means to be a good ancestor.

AL BINGER: Somebody has to have an idea of what…

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] They belong to a world-wide community of scholars concerned with the environment and the future.

JOHN STEINBRUNER: There is no image, as yet, of the long-term consequences and that’s what is going to force political opinion to change, when they see what happens when you double or triple the population and you try to operate where you currently are, the consequence — you begin to feel that —

ALLEN HAMMOND: The concentrations in the atmosphere and you lose half the species and you degrade a third of the land and you ruin the coastal estuaries —

JOHN STEINBRUNER: That’s what compels people to change their opinion, and they’re not going to do it willingly. Somebody has to sketch the picture for them.

AL BINGER: Turn off the water when you brush your teeth. Turn off the lights when you do it — when you go to bed. Don’t leave them on all night. You know, don’t rev your car. You know, don’t park it, sitting. Just reduce all the waste.

JOHN HOLLAND: It seems to be a whole litany of denial, that we’ve got to do less of this and less of that. But there are things, technologically, that are getting cheaper and cheaper, take less and less resources. The computer is the standard example, where they cost less and less, they do more and more, and they’re desirable. Same goes with a TV set. A TV set now is much less energy-intensive than they used to be. So it’s not a question of denial. The thing we don’t know is, if we save in these directions, which are the ones that are most effective? Which are the directions that are going to have the big effect?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: I think we’ve got a special problem which doesn’t have anything to do with the environment or anything else, which is that, as a country, we’ve stopped caring about the future. You know, when Bush a year ago said, ”We’re going to set this goal that American children will be the best in the world in science and math by the year 2000,” well, it’s so manifestly silly, all right? There’s no chance in the world. If we did nothing else for the next 10 years, we still couldn’t do it. We’re that far behind. And I was trying — I was thinking about why, then, did he say it? And I, my, I mean, why say 10 years? Why not say 20 years? And I think it’s because —

AL BINGER: [off-camera] It’s not on his watch.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Well, neither even is 10. I think something different. I think that they feel that anything beyond 10 years is just not meaningful to Americans at all. And so you couldn’t set a goal for more than 10 years. And yet, you look back at the Founding Fathers, they talked about the 10th generation, the 20th generation, all the time and people really did feel like they had an obligation —

JOHN HOLLAND: Well, I think we’ve got this disconnection-


JOHN HOLLAND: You know, along Murray’s line. That is, we care about our grandchildren, I think all of us do, but we disconnect that somehow from this horizon that we look at, in terms of economics and politics and so on. And somehow we’ve got to get those two in the same ballpark, that we realize that what we’re doing right now is going to affect our grandchildren. Somehow people just separate those two things.

JOHN STEINBRUNER: [off-camera] But I think it’s a simple enough idea…

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] They have come here to discuss what the scientific community calls a “sustainable economy,” how our generation can meet our needs today without destroying the environment for generations to come.

Jessica Tuchman Mathews is a molecular biologist and vice president of the World Resources Institute. John Holland has pioneered computer models of evolutionary adaptation at the University of Michigan. Murray Gell-Mann, winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize for physics, teaches at the California Institute of Technology. Marcus Feldman, an Australian biologist, heads the Morrison Institute for Population and Resource Studies at Stanford University. James MacNeill of Canada was the principal author of the United Nations report, Our Common Future. And Al Binger, an agronomist from Jamaica, is a senior environmental officer for the Rockefeller Foundation. Allen Hammond is director of the Program in Resources and Environmental Information at the World Resources Institute. John Steinbruner, a political scientist, directs foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

We began our discussion with a date in the not so distant future.

Imagine this is January 20th, 1993. The new president has just been sworn in. He comes back to the White House for his first meeting of his administration and you’re there. He’s invited each of you to the Oval Office and he says to you, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m convinced. You’ve made a convert out of me. I believe the evidence. I understand now that if we continue to lose our topsoil and our forests at the rate we’re now losing them, if we continue to spew forth toxic waste, deplete the ozone layer, poison our water, we face not only environmental but economical disaster. I want to do something about it and you’ve got to tell me what to do and how. But remember, I’m president of the United States. I don’t want to throw people out of work and I don’t want to throw the economy into chaos. What do I do?”

Jessica Mathews?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Well, the first thing I would do is, I would try to set a goal that, by the millennium, on the year 2000, January 1st, every couple in the world had access to modern means of family planning who wanted them, affordable access. And I do think — I mean, there is — and you put it first because of the momentum of population growth. This is the crucial decade and we’ve really — we’ve got to act. If we care about the future, that’s the number one thing you do. I would urge him to think — to bring back the future into our present policies.

BILL MOYERS: But American politics, as well as the American people, are allergic to the future.


BILL MOYERS: It’s now or never for us, right?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: I think what’s different now is that a duty to the present requires you to think about the future.

PANELIST: [off-camera] Absolutely.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: And that the way to get both economic growth and environmental stability is not to wait until the last minute, not to wait until you’ve got a crisis. You’ve got a patient in intensive care and what we ought to be doing is dealing with it, you know, at the office visit stage, when it’s cheap to align our-[crosstalk]

JOHN HOLLAND: It seems to me, Jessica, that point’s a really important one. When we play a difficult game like chess, the whole business of playing good chess is stage setting. Don’t make big mistakes and the way you avoid that is to set the stage early and you have to anticipate what the big mistakes are.

ALLEN HAMMOND: Well, and the other thing is that the chess board has changed. We’re now talking about a planet, not a country.

JOHN HOLLAND: [off-camera] Yes. Yes.

AL BINGER: If you’re going to manage the planet, it means you have to work with your neighbors. You have to make sure that the Canadian lakes don’t get polluted from acid coal. You have to make sure that the industries don’t go to Mexico to pollute when they can’t pollute here. You have to make sure that your water systems are protected, that your whole planetary survival mechanisms are able to function and no single country can do that, so it means your whole international institutions which now have that responsibility has to be looked at in a new light, in terms of how can they become part and parcel of a new management system for this planet.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: It’s going to be, it’s especially hard for the U.S. because we are really uncomfortable in international forums where we can’t dictate the outcome because we’re very used to being able to say, “This is how it will be” and being able to basically buy other countries’ compliance. And where genuine cooperation is required, of the kind Al just described, the United States is very uncomfortable.

JAMES MacNEILL: Bill, will your mythical president invite any non-Americans in to see him?

BILL MOYERS: Well, you’re — yes, he would — you’re here. He’s invited you, too. You’re from Canada.

JAMES MacNEILL: I would remind him that his decisions as president, or her decisions as president, will have a greater impact on me and my children than the decisions of my own government. And the second thing I would suggest is that he should, in his administration, look upon his economic agenda and his security agenda as his environment agenda. We used to think during the 70’s and the 80’s that the ecological system and the economic system were two separate systems. We now know that they are totally interlocked. They’ve become married, so to speak, until death do them part. His or her job as president, more than anything else, is to ensure that the economic ministers of the American government — the treasury secretary, the secretary of state, the energy secretary — are held accountable for the impact of their decisions on the environment, and not only the environment of the United States, the environment of other countries and the global problems. [crosstalk]

JOHN HOLLAND: Doesn’t this take us back to Bill’s original question, though? Then how do we get a president who’s elected by a relatively small constituency, and who depends on that constituency, to act in this larger arena? Is that something we can address?

JOHN STEINBRUNER: There are some easy things. Change energy prices. We’re underpricing energy and we cannot go on indefinitely doing that.

BILL MOYERS: What will that do?

JOHN STEINBRUNER: That will encourage — begin the process of transforming the base of the economy from a: current use of energy that’s not sustainable, hopefully, to one that is. We know that we won’t get there without changing the energy prices. That’s presumably not the only thing we can do, but we have to do that.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: I have — we all do — have a bookcase of studies that suggest that the United States could be using half of its current energy, replacing, that is to say, with higher efficiency, new sources, at current prices, even at current prices.

JOHN STEINBRUNER: Even at current prices.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: And even with current technology.


JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Much less. And if you then extend what you could do with a determined R&D program, the horizon just becomes enormous.

JOHN STEINBRUNER: OK. All right. Now, if we had to sit here today and tell the president exactly what the answer is, we would be in very deep trouble. We can’t do it. What we do say, though, is that we know we cannot do it the way we’re currently doing it. And we also know that it takes two or three decades to change course gracefully because we have huge built-in momentum in the current economy. So if we’re going to be producing energy in a different way 30 years from now, then we have to begin right now to change the prices, the incentives and the investment patterns. Now, what you have to do is convince the president that although we cannot now specify the outcome, he has to make very hard decisions in anticipation of the need of those outcomes.

MARCUS FELDMAN: In the long term, it may be that we should be focusing on the people who are going to elect the president in 2012, or whenever that situation will arise, and that requires 20 years of cultural evolution in the changing of the mindset of large numbers of people, in the same way that we’re successful with cigarette smoking. It’s been very obvious in California that diets have changed. Individual diets have changed over a relatively short period. So it is feasible —

BILL MOYERS: So change from what to what, Marcus?

MARCUS FELDMAN: Change the mindset of the population from being one of high energy users to low energy users, to opting for low-tech options when they’re available, so that the president who comes – the candidate who comes to you in 2012 who says that, “These are my programs,” that that president is more favorable, is viewed more favorably by more people at that time. Now, that may, you may view that as a slow option, but I think it’s a very important one.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Education. [crosstalk]

JAMES MacNEILL: But Marcus, what you say presupposes that there is, in fact, a conflict between getting the president re-elected and doing the right thing by the environment. I don’t think there is. The fact is, those countries that have gone the furthest in achieving energy efficiency through regulation, through exposing their economies to world oil prices, or through energy taxes, those countries that have gone the furthest in the way of energy efficiency — parts of Europe and Japan — are at the top of the economic pecking order. If the president, or present president, was right, one would expect to find Japan and Germany and Sweden and Switzerland at the bottom of the economic pecking order.

ALLEN HAMMOND: We really have to start thinking about shifting from an exploitive sort of — the resources out there, “Let’s use it quick” attitude towards a more long-term, conservative, “We’ve got to protect resources.” I mean, this, in this country, we’ve always had open spaces and more land and so we’ve had an attitude that we can exploit the forests, we can exploit the range lands, we can exploit the soils as if tomorrow didn’t exist. And what we’re now finding is that that’s not true, even within our own country. But more than that, it’s now becoming clear that that’s true on a planetary scale and so we really have to start living on the sustainable income of the planet, not on the storehouse, because we’ve come pretty close to exhausting that.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean by that? ”We have to start living on the sustainable income of the planet.” What does that mean? I mean, all of you have written and talked about a sustainable future. What do you mean by that?

ALLEN HAMMOND: Well, if you use up your soils in the framework that an economist would tell you makes good bottom-line sense, after 20 years you don’t care, you’re not going to be anywhere, so let’s go ahead and grow the crops in the cheapest way possible, let the soil run down the hill. But that is a very short-sighted way. That’s not living on the income. What you really want to do is grow your food in a way that sustains the — so the soil is as good 20 years from now as it is today. And you haven’t poisoned it and you haven’t let it erode. And if you take that metaphor large for all the natural systems of the planet, that’s living on the income. [crosstalk]

JOHN HOLLAND: Yeah, we’re in the position of a business that doesn’t allow for a depreciation of its capital equipment and if you forget to do that, then the day comes when you have no funds set aside to replace your whole factory, and that’s a disaster.

AL BINGER: So the whole system is really not geared towards sustainability in the use of resources. The policy has a lot to do with it and the economic system has a lot to do with it. So we’re talking about a long transition.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: I personally don’t know of any step you could take that would have a bigger — and it doesn’t cost a thing — that would have a bigger effect on more policies than changing the way gross national product is calculated. As a general rule, if you can, as a kind of a central theme for the president, say “We’re going to make prices reflect every cost, every real cost that we can find,” all right, cost to the atmosphere, cost to the soil, cost to the water, health costs, everything. And one thing that means is getting GNP accounts to reflect those costs, right?

BILL MOYERS: Gross national product —

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Because, I mean, it’s crazy. We — it was invented, what, 60 years ago now, right, at a time when people figured that resources were basically infinite, when capital seemed like it would be a constraint and labor was a constraint, so those were factored into GNP, but resource use was not considered to be a problem, so it wasn’t. So — I’m getting — I mean, Allen used the example earlier of income versus capital. What you can do now is, you could take a country which is covered with forest that produces an annual harvest and could do that forever, all right? And a country can chop down the whole forest, right, sell the timber, and put that money under the black ink, and the loss of the asset doesn’t show up, right? So you confuse capital and income in a way that the rawest neophyte in banking or in business would be fired for — you know, if you can’t tell the difference between capital and income, you don’t belong in the – and that’s, in fact, the way that we do it. So one thing the president can do on day one is say, “We can’t price everything. We can’t turn all these environmental costs into monetary terms yet, but we’re going to start calculating the U.S. income accounts, national income accounts, to include everything we can monetize and we’re going to encourage other countries to do the same and we’re going to encourage the UN to turn its system around as fast as possible.” You do that with American leadership, it could happen in a couple of years.

[crosstalk] The bottom line is this. The bottom line is that the decisions that affect the environment are not made by environment ministers. They’re made by economic ministers and prime ministers. And the signal that they look at is GNP, is growth. So if they’re always following the wrong signal, then we’re always getting in trouble in the environment.

BILL MOYERS: You once defined a “sustainable future” as “the quality of life enjoyed today, but purchased not at the expense of the future.”

MURRAY GELL-MANN, California Institute of Technology: Sustainable quality, I think, is what we’re really after. [crosstalk] It’s clear that one thing that an approach towards sustainability means is gradually shifting over from growth in quantity toward growth in quality, in many different spheres.

BILL MOYERS: Growth in quality? You mean — what’s “growth in quality”?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: I mean, if we had the French train, which is just existing technology, steel wheels on steel rails, at the current speed that it goes that Washington-New York trip is 47 minutes and that, you know, the shuttle would not be in business on the next day. I mean, who would ever — that’s a higher quality of life at a tiny fraction of the energy cost.

JAMES MacNEILL: The fact is that the world is going to double in size in the next 40 years.

BILL MOYERS: Double in population.

JAMES MacNEILL: We’re going to have to build another world on top of the one we’ve got in 40 years. And I think the key question before the Earth Summit coming up in Rio is, how can we multiply, multiply food by four, energy by six, income by, say, eight — much more evenly distributed, of course — without crossing certain critical thresholds that we are only now beginning to understand? How can we meet the needs and aspirations of future generations without destroying the planet? And that basically is the sustainability question.

BILL MOYERS: If you say you are committed to a sustainable future, dealing with the questions that Jim MacNeill just raised, what do you do differently from what you were doing when you didn’t believe it and when you weren’t committed to a sustainable future? It is apparent to me that no one in this room presently lives a sustainable life.

JOHN HOLLAND: That’s absolutely correct.

BILL MOYERS: All of us — looking at what we’re wearing, at the shoes we have on, the cars we drove here in, at the food we had last night, a wonderful meal, none of us is living a life that could be sustained in the present only, right?

ALLEN HAMMOND: That’s right, and no country, either.

BILL MOYERS: No country. So what do I individually, you individually, have to do in response to the crisis?

ALLEN HAMMOND: I think you can take this down to a personal level, in the sense that it seems quite fair to everybody that the people who pollute should pay more and the people who tax the environment by waste or other things should also pay an economic tax for that. And in fact, when we get price signals as individuals, we do change our behavior. In Seattle, for example, like most cities, they have a big solid waste problem and they did something different there. They tried to build an incinerator and people said, ”We don’t want it here.” So they did something else. They said, “OK. We’ll pick up one can of garbage a week and after that, every can of garbage, it’s $9 a can.” And lo and behold, after two or three years, their solid waste problem has shrunk by a third. People are creating less waste. Take parking. When parking downtown doesn’t cost you anything, why should you take the bus? If it costs a fair amount of money every day, ”Well, maybe I’ll take the bus,” OK? We’ve taken the environment for free, for granted, and we need signals that remind us that it’s not free, that air pollution does have a cost, a health cost, an economic cost, that energy use has a cost, that water use has a cost and that we need to change our behaviors gradually in ways that –where we, in effect, either pay that cost explicitly or don’t cause the harm.

BILL MOYERS: Don’t you expect politicians and policy makers to equalize the sacrifice?

ALLEN HAMMOND: Yes, in some sense. I think that’s right. And more than that, we can ask them to make the investments that will give us options in the future that we don’t have today. We should demand — and Southern California has started to demand — that we have technologies that don’t pollute, cars that don’t pollute, factories that don’t pollute. There should be no reason we can’t have those, but we have to make the investments to develop them.

BILL MOYERS: Isn’t — what you’re talking about is that we have created, on the basis of an ideology of growth, a society that delivers a higher standard of living to more of its citizens than up until now almost any society in the history of the human race, and we’re reluctant, we don’t know how to change that ideology because it has worked for the majority of people and we’re not sure we want to change it because we don’t have the alternatives.

AL BINGER: I mean, we went through a whole decade of Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher telling, “Look out for number one. You make as much money as you can, as quick as you can.” That’s the dominant culture of the world, right? They want —


AL BINGER: Nike sneakers. That’s the reality, Jessica. And the point is how you change that — and I hate to become Biblical, but the goodly book of proverbs had a great saying. It says, ”Where the leaders have no vision, the people shall surely perish.” And if you were to go around collectively on this planet and survey the leaders of this planet and really figured out which one has the vision thing, I bet you wouldn’t come back with enough things to actually count five fingers.


AL BINGER: And that’s the problem. The problem is nobody has the vision thing and the vision thing that’s been crafted is totally attuned to Wall Street, stock markets, material gains, material consumptions.

JAMES MacNEILL: There are a number of things that, within your culture, a government can do and not alienate the electorate. You mentioned that many of us arrived here in an unsustainable way. We certainly did. The options weren’t there. The options weren’t there. [crosstalk] You can create them and also create a higher standard of living.

MARCUS FELDMAN: It’s not out of the realm of possibility that all of the public transportation technology, the shinkansen in Japan, the fast trains in France – they’re available. It’s a matter of making the decisions to implement them.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: The biggest reason we can’t get a decent transportation policy in this country, aside from a ridiculously low gas tax, is because we heavily, heavily, heavily subsidize the automobile, relentlessly, and to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars a year, the biggest one being — Allen mentioned it before — we subsidize free parking.

JAMES MacNEILL: You also subsidize —


JAMES MacNEILL: You also subsidize the fossil fuel industry to the tune of over $40 billion a year, the U.S. federal government alone.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Yeah, but that’s peanuts compared to what we do the automobile.

AL BINGER: Since Henry Ford invented the motor car, we have taken this little thing-it now produces probably 40, 50 percent of the greenhouse gases. In short, we have taken this little thing to move us from place to place and we’re using it to kill future generations.

BILL MOYERS: So after this diagnosis, what’s the prescription?

AL BINGER: Well, the prescription is, we need to better design systems to move people. We need to develop different kinds of habitats for where people live in, where they work, how they get educated, how they buy the things that they need.

BILL MOYERS: In the battle to save the planet, does it take a Pearl Harbor to —


BILL MOYERS: — get us to wake up and mobilize?

JOHN STEINBRUNER: [off-camera] Well, the point is, we can’t afford that.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: We got very lucky, in my view, with the ozone hole because it scared everybody to death without hurting anybody too much, we think. I mean, it scared the scientific community to death because they’ve been thinking about ozone depletion for a decade and nobody had ever even conjured up the notion, right, of a continent-sized hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica. It just — it came as a shock. And out of that, we got the Montreal treaty to control CFC’s. I mean, it was right on the verge of falling apart. If we have some — I mean, we would be luck, I mean, if we get another crisis like that, that’s not too painful but is really scary. That may be what — [crosstalk]

AL BINGER: The ozone, the CFC, never really required any fundamental change-

BILL MOYERS: That’s right.

AL BINGER: — in our behavior, OK?

BILL MOYERS: That’s right.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Well, I don’t think that’s right.

AL BINGER: I mean, we still have air conditioners. We still have the aerosol sprays.


AL BINGER: We still clean transistors. [?] When it begins to mean fundamental change when you wake up in the morning that is different from when you went to bed last night, that’s when the-

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: See, I don’t think we need fundamental change right now because there’s too much waste. In other words, we can afford – the next few decades, we can do it by getting rid of waste and using technology.

JOHN STEINBRUNER: The problem, however, is that that will probably not be enough, that there will have to be a bigger change down the line and that we have to prepare for it now. So the president’s problem is to give a combination of immediate things and a longer-term program and we do not have a political system that easily makes long-term decisions.

BILL MOYERS: Give me an example of a big mistake we could make now that would affect the distant future.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Global warming. You know, with the ozone depletion, we think – we look at the Montreal treaty as having been a great success, as it

was, an enormous achievement, as it was, one that perhaps happened in time, but it may turn out also that it didn’t because if it turns out, as some studies suggest, that increased ultraviolet causes suppression of immune systems, we could be looking in the year 2000, when ozone depletion will reach its peak, at a very, very – all you have to do is look at AIDS to see what immune suppression does.

JOHN STEINBRUNER: Or even more serious than that, let’s imagine it does affect the food chain, and there is some evidence that it affects the formation-

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Phyloplankton, yeah.

JOHN STEINBRUNER: -of phyloplankton, which is the bottom of the food chain. If that happens, then we could be into a major global catastrophe.

BILL MOYERS: If we see this as a big problem, the ozone depletion, and we want to act now in order to save the distant future, on this particular issue, what specifically do we do?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Well, we’ve done it. It just – we may have done it too late, that’s all.

BILL MOYERS: The Montreal treaty, which –


BILL MOYERS: -says every nation will limit the chlorofluorocarbons it sends into the atmosphere? [crosstalk]

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: You know, we’ve had a pretty – in the – you know, the last few minutes, I think, a pretty gloomy conversation, part of which I don’t think is quite warranted because you look at what’s happened in the last decade, we’ve had in all the industrialized countries huge cuts in sulfur and nitrogen emissions, in Europe two treaties. We’ve had the Montreal treaty with three protocols and now have a global warming treaty. If you put that into a context of that achievement in a decade, that’s a lot of – it’s a lot of change. It’s a huge amount of institutional change and-

JOHN HOLLAND: Take this exact problem, but suppose that we had tackled it 15 years earlier by looking at what are possible, what we wanted to produce, how we went about it and so on, and we saw this as a possible problem even before it-you know, really before it was on the horizon-

PANELIST: [off-camera] It actually was-

JOHN STEINBRUNER: We can congratulate ourselves for having seen it before it was a true disaster, let’s hope, but we got onto it late, so we ought to learn. Next time around, let’s be more alert.

BILL MOYERS: I want to persuade the politician who’s up for re-election that he or she should impose a small tax on a method of production right now in order to buy some safety for generations not born and therefore not yet voting.

PANELIST: I’ve got a chance to get that small tax through.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: You’ve just defined exactly the debate that’s going on about global warming, precisely, which is, do we put-a very high uncertainty and possibly irreversible consequences, on the one end, and do we put a small tax on energy to begin to move away from fossil fuels? That’s exactly the debate that’s happening.

BILL MOYERS: What do I say to the American voter that says –

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: You wouldn’t have any problem on this issue.

MURRAY GELL-MANN: Exactly the same as what the conservative prime minister of Britain said to his people-

BILL MOYERS: John Major.

MURRAY GELL-MANN: -before the election. He said – as a conservative, he said, “We’re changing, drastically, important parameters of the atmosphere on which we depend and all living things depend. The prudent thing to do – especially if you are a conservative, the prudent thing to do is to be insured against these unfortunate consequences, especially since most scientific opinion is in agreement that most likely there will be a serious increase in average temperature and that that will produce big effects. In that situation, the conservative, prudent thing to do is to take out insurance and the insurance one takes out is to try to reduce the emissions significantly.

BILL MOYERS: Are you saying to conservative voters, “Think of a tax as a form of insurance policy”?

MURRAY GELL-MANN: Yes. Certainly. That’s – absolutely. It is – it is so.

BILL MOYERS: Aren’t you glad you’re in science and not politics? ALLEN HAMMOND: Suppose – you’re the president, right? Suppose we put it to you this way. Here’s an emission, a form of pollution, that we think might have some serious effects long term. So why don’t we put a little tax on this thing that might be bad and take off the same amount of tax of things that are good, like employment? Why don’t we tax things generally that are bad or that we suspect may have bad consequences and reduce, penny for penny, taxes on things that are good, that we want, like employment and savings?

BILL MOYERS: Tell us how to do that, Marcus. Tell us how to do that in a way that raises the consciousness – that’s your business – of people out there so that they make changes to anticipate consequences they cannot see.

MARCUS FELDMAN: Well, I think that part of it is an education to think in terms of models.

BILL MOYERS: Of models?

MARCUS FELDMAN: Of models, because it’s through playing with the various structures of the models, seeing what parameters matter, that you see that small changes can make big differences in a non-linear way.

BILL MOYERS: Can you communicate that, though, to the masses of people?

MARCUS FELDMAN: I think you can. John was talking at lunch about the use of a computer to teach priests in Indonesia how to operate a water system.

BILL MOYERS: What’s that, John? What was that?

JOHN HOLLAND: Oh, that was an experiment where, in Bali, traditionally the priests controlled the flow of irrigation waters and-

BILL MOYERS: For theological reasons.

JOHN HOLLAND: Yes. They had a nice ritual of-[crosstalk]

PANELIST: [off-camera] And did a very good job.

JOHN HOLLAND: And did a very good job. And then a bit later, we came – we – not “we” personally, in this case, but people came in and –

ALLEN HAMMOND: U.C.L.A. anthropologists.

JOHN HOLLAND: -built a bureaucracy that decided when and where this was going to be – and they, in effect, overrode-

BILL MOYERS: So a government bureaucracy took over for the priests?

JOHN HOLLAND: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: And made some bad mistakes.

JOHN HOLLAND: In effect, they moved the priests off to one side and they did the-and they made plenty of bad mistakes, doing the obvious, near term things – you know, increasing flow and so on – when it looked good, but in fact had long-term consequences that they didn’t anticipate.

BILL MOYERS: So what happened?

JOHN HOLLAND: And the interesting thing is that then some people came in, studied this a bit and built a computer model of this, which now they gave to the priests and re – sort of re-established the priests now as the controllers of the system. The priests understood why. They also understood the model on the computer.

JOHN STEINBRUNER: I think it is also the case, in this case, the modelers learned from the priests.

JOHN HOLLAND: Oh, yes! Very much so. [crosstalk]

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: The model just uncovered-

JOHN STEINBRUNER: That’s what the priests were doing.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: -the wisdom that was in the tradition.

JOHN HOLLAND: That’s right. That’s an important point. [crosstalk]

BILL MOYERS: The model did what?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: The model was a tool that Westerners used to uncover the wisdom that was in the traditional system. The priests knew exactly what they were doing.

PANELIST: They just hadn’t modeled it.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: But we – but nobody else was able to figure it out.

JOHN HOLLAND: Well, I’d be a little bit cautious because the model was, in fact, in some cases, better than their system and one did understand more

PANELIST: [off-camera] But along the same lines.

JOHN HOLLAND: But it was along the same lines, exactly so.

BILL MOYERS: But what’s the – what do you we draw from this?

JOHN HOLLAND: Well, I’d say two things, and here I agree very much with Marcus. Kids right now are very – models like this are very natural to them. You know, I could list off quite a few where the kids actually play around with fairly complex systems, simulations of cities and so on. They think these are great games and they don’t have any hesitance about, about doing that.

BILL MOYERS: Take the issue of population. If present expansion continues, the world’s population will double in the next 40 years. France in the 1600’s lost the capacity to support its people. The result was the 100 Years War. Can your computers tell us if the population of the world keeps doubling that we’ll resolve it with war, with plagues, with pestilence? Is that the kind of thing you can address statistically?

JOHN HOLLAND: That’s an important point, Bill. The way – the kind of models we want to build are not really statistical models. They’re models that are animated. They’re models – good example. If I take a flight simulator, then I control the flight simulator, if I’m a pilot, by the things I’m used to doing and I can do things I couldn’t possibly do with a real airplane. I can try a flame-out or I can try a lost rudder. You know, that kind of model, if I now translate that to a policy maker so that the policy maker can do the kinds of things that are natural, I get two advantages. One, I get a reality check because the policy maker does some of the actions that he or she is used to making and sees that the model does the wrong things. He or she knows this well enough to know what the outcome should be. He does those actions and it doesn’t do it. That’s a reality check on the model. I can correct the model then. On the other hand, once I get to be relatively comfortable with the model, as with the flight simulator, then I try these things that are disastrous and see if there’s anything early, any early correction that I can make. So if we’re talking about population – for instance, right now the argument seems to be between the north and south. And, you know, one side says, ”Well, poverty is the cause of all of this trouble,” and the other side says population is all the cause. They try to make one or the other cause, whereas these are tightly interlinked. The question is, are there things that we can do early on in a situation like this that keep us from getting into the either – or situation, this kind of catalytic effect?

BILL MOYERS: So you could, in effect, put a flight simulator in the Oval Office for the president on environmental issues. “If I encourage this kind of growth, these kinds of things might happen unless we do certain other things.”

JOHN HOLLAND: I’m not quite as optimistic as you. I think it would be his staff, but-

PANELIST: [off-camera] But not just environmental issues.


PANELIST: [off-camera] Because it’s economic issues. It’s population is-sues.

BILL MOYERS: That’s what you’re feeding in. Everything is feeding in.

PANELIST: [off-camera] Yeah, they’re all closely interacting.

MURRAY GELL-MANN: One shouldn’t get the impression that we think, or anybody thinks, that it’s possible to predict in a serious manner what’s going to happen a long time from now, but what one can do is to sketch a lot of alternatives and to have these simulations sketch a lot of alternatives and to have the possibility of varying the assumptions and introducing surprises and introducing changes. And that’s what modern computational facilities make possible. So that skeptics can actually be handed the lever, so to speak, and told to change things. ”You don’t believe the assumptions that were made in this particular study? Change them. See what happens?”

BILL MOYERS: Never before, it seems to me, Marcus, has a society had to grasp, comprehend, absorb, assimilate, organize, interpret, analyze so much information at once. There is more information in a single edition of The New York Times than an individual in the 16th century had to process in the whole of his or her life.

ALLEN HAMMOND: At the same time, some of the critical information we need, we don’t have. And I think that’s one area that we should make a serious commitment to right away because we – many of the key biological systems of the planet, we don’t have any idea what’s happening to them. We don’t know what’s going on in the coastal zones of the ocean, except we suspect that it’s not very good. We have only modest information about some of the atmospheric problems. We don’t know where some of the CO2 goes. We put it up there and not all of it stays there. Where does it go? We don’t know that yet. So I think we need a much more serious investment in understanding the planet that we’re now responsible for and in gathering information so that we can be responsible managers, you know, over the next couple of generations because if we don’t, then our descendants will not bless our names.

AL BINGER: If I’m a politician, I’m definitely not going to run an election with no models, OK? I mean, models is something that I will use to help me sharpen my vision, help me craft my message. I’m not about to go tell people, ”Well, listen, if you will just get your kids to play with this thing, you will understand why you should vote for me to elect me president,” OK? I mean, I – let’s be reasonable. Models are very good things, very powerful. You talked about poverty and population. One of the biggest war going on now is which is the push, which is the pull. Could I use my model to clarify which is the push, which is the pull, and is the intervention going to be on economic growth or family planning? Which is going to give me the best buck return on every dollar I’ve got to invest?

MURRAY GELL-MANN: Or empowering women.

AL BINGER: Or empowering women or whatever, or developing some new kind of agriculture that’s going to make it more profitable for them, yeah? That’s how I see the model also as being, as I say, a periscope into the future that says, “We need to get these people to go in this direction. We need these set of tools” and the model can help us design the parameters of what that tool is going to look like. But I don’t see somebody in a way of convincing people to vote based on a vision of the future.

PANELIST: [off-camera] No, no, no. [crosstalk]

BILL MOYERS: But haven’t you carried us here beyond a scientific model? Aren’t you – what – aren’t you really talking about what lies in the area of spirit, religion, ethics and morality, the realization that I am part of something transcendent, this human experience that I sit under trees that I didn’t plant, that I go to universities I didn’t build, that I – that the past flows through me into the future and therefore that just as I am a creature of the past, I’m a part of the future and that I have some kind of moral, reciprocal obligation there? Isn’t that where we’re going with this? [crosstalk]

JOHN STEINBRUNER: That’s right, but in order to bring – that is very, very important, but in order to engage a moral sense, you have to give a sense of the consequence. It is important. That’s what models are about, to give a sense of the future consequence of what we’re currently doing, as a way of making moral judgments, as a way of framing them. And I do think that we are – that’s a vital element and we can do something about it. Not only can we make the models, we can also provide better information for the models. We can be monitoring the environment much better than we’re currently doing. We can be much more alert than we are. We have the capacity to do that.

BILL MOYERS: But here I’m on the outside, I think. If we give the impression, even from this discussion, that the answer’s in the model, that the cure is in the prescription-

PANELIST: [off-camera] No.

PANELIST: [off-camera] No.

BILL MOYERS: -aren’t we misleading?

PANELIST: [off-camera] No.

PANELIST: [off-camera] See, it’s a tool for exploration.

PANELIST: [off-camera] That’s right.

MURRAY GELL-MANN: There’s no way in the foreseeable future that one can give definite answers about the distant future. There are too many surprises.

JOHN STEINBRUNER: And the message-

MURRAY GELL-MANN: As a tool for exploration, as a tool for identifying the leverage points in the present that may have great effects in the future, for good or for bad, that sort of thing, it can be very – this technique can be very useful.

JOHN STEINBRUNER: And it can underscore

MURRAY GELL-MANN: It mustn’t promise too much.

JOHN STEINBRUNER: It can underscore the message. The message says, ”We are having big effects in the distant future that threaten, possibly, the environmental viability of the people who live there. We must think about it,” OK? Now, how we think about it, what we conclude, what moral judgments we bring to bear, what evidence we bring to bear, all that has to be worked on and there’s no single answer. But you’ve got to set in people’s minds the necessity of making judgments on this time scale and we’re not doing it now. We’re just not-

MURRAY GELL-MANN: It involves the strong interaction of virtually all aspects of policy, not just environmental and economic and demographic, but also the so-called “security” issues.

BILL MOYERS: Security? What do you mean?

MURRAY GELL-MANN: Ethnic competition, national rivalries

BILL MOYERS: Religious wars.

MURRAY GELL-MANN: -religious wars, competition of ideologies, all of these things are-

BILL MOYERS: Migration of human beings.

MURRAY GELL-MANN: -migration, all of these things are intimately-are interacting with one another in a very strong way and one really has to consider gaming all of them, thinking about all of them. But the particular angle here is to try to define a sustainable future, in some way, a sustainable and more or less desirable future, in some way, so that one isn’t simply asking the open-ended question, ”What are all the different kinds of branching trees for the future that are possible?” but rather, “Are there paths that have a certain reasonable chance of leading to a future, say, in the middle of the next century, where one is a lot closer to sustainability than [unintelligible]

AL BINGER: In the 1960’s, there was a big concern that Asia was facing a food crisis, yeah? I mean, the thing was, there was not enough food. So we took a very linear approach, a scientific linear approach. “Let’s create technology that will produce more food” and we spawned the “green revolution.” And we never looked at, ”Well, suppose we combine that technology with serious family planning? Where would we be 10 years? Where would we be 15 years? Where would we be 20 years?” So now we fix a nat- we bought some time in Asia, but now, if you look at India, they are back to facing almost the same – except this time, they have destroyed a lot of the natural resources, using this interim, bridging technology. There’s a classical case of how you could use more complex, non-linear models to say what would be some of the best levers, as Murray says, to use or to use in combination.

MARCUS FELDMAN: But Al, what happened was at the late 60’s, early 70’s, the Chinese demographers of that time did those calculations for themselves, using birth spacing, using postponed marriage, and they came to conclusions that were outrageous, that they could, in fact, support their population. It wasn’t until very careful modeling started to be done later on that they realized that they would have a very serious food crisis and that was the impetus for their family planning program.


AL BINGER: That’s also the rationale for really good modeling.

MARCUS FELDMAN: That’s true. That’s exactly the point.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: I think – then I think there’s another real problem when you start dealing with governments, which is then how do you get them to believe it? Because when you look at all the great intelligence failures, say, in the U.S. case, of the last 50, 60 years, they were very seldom either that we didn’t know what was happening or even that analysts interpreted it wrong. It was that the people in power didn’t want to believe it.

JAMES MacNEILL: We have to bear in mind that most politicians, almost all politicians, are very skeptical about models, especially in this field. Most politicians of this generation will not accept the results. Now, they may, in a decade or two decades, when the children who are now playing with computers become our politicians and our leaders. But I think that we’ve got to use other techniques than models to persuade our political leaders of the validity of these concerns in 1993 and through the next decade.

JOHN STEINBRUNER: Yeah, but let me say that a model – the way to define it, perhaps, is simply “an organized image of what might happen,” OK? Not necessarily a set of equations, it’s just a set of ideas that go together to give you a sense of what might occur. Now, we’ve just gone through a 40-year period in which we spent $11.4 trillion protecting ourselves against an image of a surprise attack in Europe or with nuclear weapons against the United States. We invented the notion. We predicted that it might happen. We decided it was a grave threat and we spent that much money protecting against it. That was a model. It’s a model that everybody bought into. It was an image of how the future might unfold and something-

JAMES MacNEILL: [off-camera] It was an insurance policy, too —

JOHN STEINBRUNER: It was an insurance policy.

JAMES MacNEILL: [off-camera] -just like the ones we were talking about for global warming.

JOHN STEINBRUNER: All right. Now, what we’re talking – what we’re talking about is giving people an alternative – a different kind of image, an image of what might happen to the global environment if we do not alter course in some very fundamental ways and think in different ways.

JAMES MacNEILL: I agree with that, the way you’re now putting it, but I think that we have to consider the politics of these different situations. I frankly think that the politics of spending $10.4 trillion on a low-risk probability of attack from the other side-


JAMES MacNEILL: -were all good.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Wait a minute, not low risk. Low probability, high risk.

JAMES MacNEILL: – low probability – were all good. The politics were all good. I mean, politicians could go out, they could promise plants, they could promise jobs and they could promise all of these goodies against the moral imperative of fighting Communism, the great evil. Take global warming. The politics aren’t the same. The threat is there, but we’re talking about the politics of persuading the population to accept energy taxes, to accept regulation, to ratchet up energy efficiency. That will, in fact, produce more jobs, but it’s hard to demonstrate. They aren’t going to be opening plants. They aren’t going to be doing the obvious things that politicians – that the public can respond to. I think that the politics here are much more difficult. We all know that during the past number of years, I think since 1980 in the United States and about the same date in other countries, national contributions to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities has been declining. I think in the United States, you’ve cut if off altogether.

MARCUS FELDMAN: That’s right.

JAMES MacNEILL: Canada has surreptitiously increased its contribution to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, but at the same time, in Canada we are spending billions a year on fertility programs. The politics of fertility programs are very easy. The politics of supporting population programs are not so easy. The imperative is greater. The threat, I think, is there. But how do we make it politically easy, desirable, vote-winning, for your leaders and my leaders to spend a lot more money on the population imperative?

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: What you do in this country is, you unchain it from the domestic abortion debate, for which it has no legitimate connection, but


BILL MOYERS: Very powerful forces in this country say that support of population programs abroad involves the United States government in the support of abortion as a means of controlling population. That’s the politics of it. You can’t uncouple it, given the climate-


JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: I think the president could precisely uncouple it. I think the president could say-

BILL MOYERS: Not the last president. Not this president.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: No, because those two presidents coupled it. It wasn’t coupled before, and that was-

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, because it was politically powerful to do so.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: Well, it was a – no, I

BILL MOYERS: Rewarding to do so.

JESSICA TUCHMAN MATHEWS: It was a – well, what it was, was President Reagan could not deliver on his promise to the right wing on domestic social policies, so he threw this issue as a bone. It was never tied before. It was – its whole history in this country has been bipartisan, strong bipartisan support, started by a Catholic president, for international population activities, and I think it’s – the public support is there and indeed last year, both houses of Congress voted to overturn that policy and the president vetoed it. We – so presidents Reagan and Bush are an aberration on this issue. The public supports-[crosstalk]

MURRAY GELL-MANN: -specified that the money couldn’t possibly be used to support abortions.


BILL MOYERS: See, now you’re talking about reality.

JAMES MacNEILL: You can’t link your models to the polls?

PANELIST: [off-camera] Not in an easy way, Jim.

PANELIST: [off-camera] It’s not clear that that veto is linked to the polls.


JAMES MacNEILL: I think, Bill, that there are a number of other examples. I’d like to give one more. Last year, the oil wars began. The water wars are not very far behind. There is nothing more basic to human survival than water. Eighty developing countries now find that their development is constrained by want of water resources and in some of these areas, the situation is acute and becoming a very real potential source of conflict. There is the Nile, water resources in the Middle East. We know that the competition for water resources in a number of areas is going to become more and more intense and could lead to conflict. This is a clear area where preventive action would be far less expensive than supporting wars later on. There are all kinds of things that we can do to provide additional supplies and also reduce demand in these critical areas, but we are not doing them and we are not doing them, I think – at least, we’re not doing it enough – largely because the politics are not compelling. How do we make the politics compelling? And I think until we can answer that question, we have not resolved the dilemma of getting from here to a sustainable future.

BILL MOYERS: That’s the last word because we are out of time. I want to thank all of you for coming and participating in this discussion of how we might democratically make those choices that would have us acting today as if we, too, cared about the distant future. Thanks to all of you.

Next time on Listening to America

[interviewing] How does the American economy look to you?

ANTONIOS AMERALIS, Jr., Comic Book Shop Owner: Lousy. Very lousy.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think it’s going to get better or worse?

LILY DRAGO, Shoe Repair Shop Manager: I hope it will get better, and I think it will get better. It’s supposed to get better.

GERALD HINDERSTEIN, Pharmacy Owner: I read about signs of recovery, but I haven’t personally seen any.

CINDY SCHNEIDER, Shop Owner: I thought it would be a little easier by now. I did.

BILL MOYERS: How’s business?

You can view more about the Listening To America series on this website.

This transcript was entered on April 8, 2015.

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