Dennis Morgan

Review of Richard Slaughter’s Biggest Wake Up Call in History

Just as global consciousness and global civilization are starting to emerge within humankind, its birth has become complicated – threatened by a crisis that is starting to spiral out of control. This crisis – often known as the global problematique – is not easy to understand, for it is multifaceted and runs deep beneath the veneer of civilization and the soul of man. However, as Richard Slaughter points out, “understanding” is not the only obstacle to meeting this challenge of the future: denial, greed, collective shortsightedness and forgetfulness, and a lack of political will also further complicate an already difficult situation. As a matter of fact, the situation and prospect for humanity’s future is more than just “difficult” – it represents the gravest crisis ever – just at the time of its birth as a global entity; it is, indeed, the “biggest wakeup call in history.”

This “wakeup call” will either result in birth or miscarriage for humanity, depending on our response; thus, it is imperative that “we,” as the people of this planet, not only understand the nature of the crisis but collectively confront it before “time” runs out – a critical factor that Dr. Slaughter brings to our attention poignantly; we are in a race against time, a race that we are currently losing, so “time” is a luxury we cannot afford as we continue haphazardly on a “business-as-usual” path to a questionable future.

Dr. Richard A. Slaughter, a well-known, pivotal figure in the interdisciplinary field known as “futures studies,” is the author of several foundational books in this still emerging and relatively unknown field; now, with the publication of The Biggest Wake Up Call in History, he has consolidated and expanded his prognosis on the predicament of industrial civilization in a masterful way that reaches beyond the field of futures studies to a broader audience. This is a “must read” book for anyone who cares about the future of humanity and our planet, which is currently imperiled by a destructive pathology – the modus operandi behind the unsustainable growth paradigm of this civilization.

The Biggest Wake Up Call in History draws upon a wide range of works within and outside of futures studies, all of which have in various ways spelled out the predicament and perils of the path of unsustainable growth. Slaughter, however, does not merely repeat previous warnings but probes into social psychology to question why it is that these important works have, hitherto, for the most part, either been ignored, dismissed, or unfairly attacked and distorted. One example he gives particular attention to is the Limits to Growth (LtG) research project of the Meadows’ team and the Club of Rome during the early 1970s and in the two subsequent updates since then. Slaughter revisits the LtG studies to determine whether the “overshoot and collapse” conclusion of the report is based on solid evidence and, if so, asks what this implies. In other words, if the research is indeed based on solid evidence, how then are we to interpret the poor reception and unfair attack on its conclusion and overall message?

Upon revisiting the LtG studies, Dr. Slaughter finds its fundamental thesis and science quite intact and still valid almost 40 years since the initial publication. Despite the criticism and rejection it has received, he points out that critics nit-picking over numerical assumptions about the limits of the earth often overlook a “crucial insight” that a combination of “population growth, agricultural production, resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution would lead to the collapse of civilization unless limits to growth were observed before [my emphasis] they became compelling.” In other words, the study was not all “gloom and doom” as it has often been misrepresented; instead, it asserted that humanity has been afforded a window of opportunity to prevent the scenario of overshoot and collapse – the central message of LtG. However, almost 40 years later, the time capital has been nearly spent as the window is closing; now, humanity is very likely already living in the “overshoot” mode.

The time for misplaced faith in technological fixes is over, states Slaughter, for “fixes” serve to only postpone the inevitable overshoot and collapse of industrial civilization; they merely divert attention from the “ultimate problem” – “how to deal with growth within a finite system.” Thus, critics can argue until their faces turn blue about the accuracy of numbers or whether the model “truly” represents the “real world,” etc., but none of that changes the fundamental thesis, its equation and its conclusion.

Yes, the LtG thesis has stood the test of time, and even as Nature herself has validated it since through “developments” in peak oil, fresh water depletion, global climate change, species extinction, overpopulation, and the death of the oceans, the central message of the ground-breaking study was effectively ignored by governments. Dr. Slaughter proffers a couple of reasons for the rejection of LtG. First and foremost, it is simply too mind-blowing and paradigm-shaking for many to digest since it challenges the holy grail of capitalism, the imperative of the economy – its powering dynamic of “growth.” Also, perhaps, the authors of LtG, at least in the beginning, did not fully recognize the personal, social, and cultural implications of the stark, bold truth that they were presenting. Nevertheless, as Slaughter relates, they were neither shrill nor defensive as they stood their ground, unflinching through the years of criticism, “clear about their values and open about their methodology.”

One of the most important lessons Slaughter draws from the LtG series is how vital social foresight is to the survival of civilization; indeed, he writes, it has become “a structural necessity.” A limited time to respond to danger signals and a limited capacity of the Earth to withstand ever-increasing pressures are factors that an unlimited growth-obsessed civilization ignores at its own peril. Delays in response only serve to decrease the time frame and limit the choices needed to change direction and momentum, for systemic changes take decades to implement and realize. Even when social foresight is recognized, its long-term policy recommendations heeded, and major decisions made to change direction of the economic system towards sustainability, these major systemic changes still need decades to shift the momentum of a course that has been rapidly accelerating since the advent of the industrial revolution.

However, if social foresight and the long-term perspective have not yet even been made a player at the table of decision-makers, given the urgency of this civilizational crisis, what is to be done? In response to this question, Dr. Slaughter recommends that we address the institutionalized culture of denial first through the recognition that “overshoot and collapse” is no longer a “distant hypothesis” but is now a “structural reality” of the world we live in. This recognition is not necessarily a “gloom and doom” conclusion but can, to the contrary, represent new prospects for humanity’s future; moreover, since the notion of “collapse” is by no means “monolithic” or “settled,” it represents an area for further inquiry and exploration as a “transitional” period towards sustainability. More importantly, however, in order to comprehensively confront and address the global problematique and civilizational crisis during this “overshoot” period of globalized society, Dr. Slaughter believes that an integral approach is crucial.

The four-quadrant, integral perspective and approach is mostly based on the philosophy of Ken Wilber. Because integral theory is a comprehensive worldview that offers more breadth and depth to one’s perspective, valuing “interiors” as well as “exteriors,” Slaughter believes that it is the best way to address the global problematique and the issue of civilizational transformation, which is not merely a matter of finding economic, scientific, and technological innovations but also involves an understanding of the “interiors” of society too – its “human and social drivers.”

Richard Slaughter realizes that this is a daunting task, for it involves not only scientific, technological, ecological, and economic understandings and breakthroughs but also involves a deeper confrontation of who we are as a people, what we value most in life, and what kind of world we want to create for future generations. This issue of “values” is at the very heart of the problem, and we need to reconstruct our values in order to muster the courage to connect what we know from the science to the political will to act effectively together. We will need to implement radical changes in the design of infrastructure and the rapid deployment of new technologies, yet how can this happen unless we gain deeper insights into who we are as a people and culture? Without a transformation within, social transformation is impossible, and conventional sources do not seem capable of providing the necessary reserves of “courage, energy, and capacity” that are required; however, as Dr. Slaughter demonstrates in “Part II” of the book, the integral perspective and worldview is a promising strategy to meet this challenge.

The Biggest Wake Up Call in History truly lives up to its title and is a book for our time. Its penetrating analysis of our current and future predicament is comprehensive and uncompromising, and its message is urgent. Nevertheless, it does not succumb to “doom and gloom”; instead, it offers an authentic way to social transformation and a transition to a new future. The answers are not easy, as there are no shortcuts to evolution and transformation, but what is sorely needed at this time is a “wakeup call” so that we can begin to recognize the scope of the crisis and work towards authentic solutions that are, at the same time, “interior” as well as “exterior” in nature. The Biggest Wake Up Call in History indeed delivers that “wakeup call,” and it is now up to humanity to respond.

Dennis R. Morgan
Associate Professor, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, South Korea