Jordi Serra

Praying (and Working) for Time.  Review of The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History

These days it is quite common that books include appealing remarks on the back cover; slogans like: “a must read!”, “the book of the decade!”, “ an instant classic” and other such variations. I can easily picture some of these messages on Richard Slaughter’s book. It could be something like “a call to our conscience”, or maybe a bit more dramatic, “humanity last chance for a future!”, or focussing on the empirical kind, “an astounding recollection of data and information”. Any of these would be true as many others we could think of, and yet any of these slogans would be extremely unfaithful to the book. For the book it would imply falling into the very dynamics it is trying to identify in the first place.

I will try to explain my position. In part I, Slaughter devotes all required time to expose the deep causes of Earth’s distress. I can only imagine the painstaking process to obtain and assess all required data, the discipline to review systematically every contribution that confirms, or refutes, the working hypothesis, the determination to substantiate the diagnosis beyond any legitimate doubt. It would be like distilling one of those liquors in which you have to invest a considerable amount of resources, time and patience to produce a concentrated nectar. I can picture Richard not being satisfied with preliminary results, looking for additional data, for the newer input, for the last insight. In part II, the futurist returns to analyze the alternatives in front of us, the different options we do have and the implications that go with them. I’ll get back to both parts, at this point I just can say this is an awesome book, not merely for the quality and quantity of the work, but for the energy it inspires. This is truly one of those books in which you can feel the personal investment of the author, the kind of dedication it demands to get through it. In other words, this book is not made to please us, but to make us think; I do hope that it becomes a best seller, but it could not be further removed from the “The Da Vinci Code”.

I have to admit that reviewing this book has been a hard task for me. Being familiar with Slaughter’s previous work, I was warned, he has seldom been easy to read; although I’m not sure if that has been because English is not my mother language (something you are crudely aware of by now), or because I have been lacking the required brains (something I do hope you are not aware of by now). In any case, my guess is that in the competition between rigor and amenity, Slaughter has always opted for the first, meaning that he has always been worth reading but has often demanded a toll for it. Yet that is not the case with this book. This time I was able to read it more easily than any of his earlier works. I would say that he has done an extraordinary in job trying to be as understandable and easy-to-read as possible. When I referred to the hardship of reviewing I meant it left me devastated (especially part I). You see, I consider myself a well-informed person. I’ve read quite extensively on these matters and I am pretty familiar with many of the figures used in the book. Even more, I have been trying to make my own contribution for some years. I rehabilitated my home to make it more efficient. I have significantly reduced my resource consumption (and that of my family) and I certainly would like to leave a livable world for my children. However, after reading part I, I understood that what I do in favour of the planet is insignificant in relation to the many other things that I do (supposedly in an unconscious manner) that harm the Earth. Not only that, reading the book implies shattering this sort of comfortable illusion in which we have placed ourselves so we can happily live in negation, advancing to our self-extinction.

I can imagine that some readers of this piece would think: “another of these doom prophets!” My challenge to them is to read the book and then see if they can keep on dismissing the evidence so easily. Slaughter goes, layer by layer, deeper and deeper, trying to understand why we have decided to be part of the problem instead of part of the solution, why we have chosen to sacrifice the long-term future for short term profit. The answer seems to be: because of self-imposed ignorance and greed. The short version of the diagnosis would be that a perverse combination of economic, social, cultural and political factors have allowed us to break the picture into a myriad of minor parts that, individually considered, reduce the challenge dimension and, more important, provide a source of credible denial for all involved. And yet, there is a striking contradiction with other issues – security for instance. According to the 1% doctrine , a mere 1% probability of a terrorist attack justifies any required measure to stop it. But then why are so many governments reluctant to take measures in relation to a subject whose potential impact is much, much more significant, deep and lasting?

As I have said, this is a tough read because most of us have chosen in one way or another, to fall for the more common deception – to accept that maybe the diagnosis is wrong, that perhaps the data was badly processed, that we probably have more time than they say, so on so forth. I know that in some cases I have ceased, given up and have stopped arguing because it was easier and I did not want to be left out. But don’t get me wrong, the book certainly does not advocate for all of us to become some sort of apostles of the new enlightenment. Rather, it asks us to understand, to uncover, the mechanisms that explain why this has been possible and, then, to react to them collectively. It is a tragic paradox that the more we focus on the short term the more we erode the possibility of having a long-term future. It is what the Spanish philosopher Daniel Innerarity calls as “presentism” a powerful mindset that prevents us from thinking about the long-term future .

Part II deals with the pressing questions, what we could – or even better – should do? Slaughter points to a key question: the need to develop an Integral perspective; that is an outlook that includes science but that also taps in on other forms of traditional wisdom. The goal is to attain what can be defined as “accelerated psychic development” which – in time – could support a further enlightenment, not only based on knowledge but on values as well, that we so desperately need. Actually what Slaughter suggests is very close to the tenets of Post-normal science as defined by Funtowicz and Ravetz ; something that should not be surprising as they also created their theory in part through an environmental outlook. In any case if what Funtowicz and Ravetz have defined is that kind of thinking applicable to situations in which “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decision urgent” we can see the commonality with Slaughter’s work. No matter which perspective you take, the conclusion is basically the same: it’s urgent to develop new knowledge so we can act effectively upon the deep issues that are endangering our own survival.

Slaughter’s main fear seems to be that we may already be too late. At this point some degree of trauma seems unavoidable, yet in the process of going from bad to worse we may lose a great deal more. Hence there can be no excuse for not seeking to move into the right direction. So yes, the song comes to my mind “maybe we should all be praying for time” although from the author’s perspective, merely praying would not suffice unless we back up the prayers with concerted action.

To finish this review I would only add my recommendation: read the book, by all means! If you think that you already know enough, read it anyway because it will provide you with plenty of additional insight and useful data. If you don’t know, do it because we need everybody informed and aware of the challenge. If you want to change things, do it because it may well help to give you a sense of purpose and direction. And if you do not want things to change, do it precisely because not doing anything will result in the greatest change of all.

Jordi Serra del Pino 
Periscopi de prospectiva i estratègia, Barcelona, Spain.