The line, “trusts the dawning future more,” from “As Tranquil Streams” (#145 in SLT), was written in 1933 during the bad times of the Depression and Dust Bowl. But the sentiment sounds out of place in Unitarian Universalist circles today. Who can trust a future fraught with the dangers of climate change, frankenfoods, and pandemic superbugs? Pessimism, especially eco-pessimism, has become fashionable, nay politically correct, in liberal and Unitarian Universalist circles.
The trend began just after World War II, with books like Our Plundered Planet by Fairfield Osborn and Road to Survival by William Vogt, published in 1948, Spaceship Earth by Barbara Ward in 1966, and The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich in 1968, and Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome in 1972. These books all contended that too many people are using up too few resources.
Unitarian Universalists bought into the Malthusian mind set implicit in these works. At the 1970 General Assembly, they cited two hundred UNESCO scientists from fifty different countries who in 1968 had come to the conclusion “that within a period of approximately twenty years the life process on earth will be seriously threatened if not in fact dead, unless major changes are made immediately.” As we noticed, life was still flourishing in 1988.
The 1970 UUs were “convinced that man’s survival as a species is imperiled by his mushrooming technology and his excessive breeding rate.” They claimed “many distinguished ecologists believe that environmental problems are not ultimately solvable by mere [sic] science and technology.”
The 1970 UUs didn’t understand that technology and ecological carrying capacity are inversely related. For instance, the Green Revolution saved a billion people who would have starved without its technology. According to Vogt. “It is obvious that fifty years hence the world cannot support three billion people.” Maybe the world couldn’t have supported three billion people with 1948 technology, but with better technology it supported seven billion people sixty years later with a smaller fraction of them in poverty than in 1948. Life expectancy has increased; infant mortality and family size have decreased.
Instead, the UUs claim, to solve environmental problems: “A new religious emphasis is needed which includes a deep reverence for the diversity of life and understands people’s dependence on the planet’s life system. Such an awareness would lead to a new life style which is balanced ecologically.” How this would play out is unspecified. On a practical level, UUs were supposed to bear no more than two children, as well as campaign for more environmental legislation and support the UUSC in its population control efforts.
Small Is Beautiful by Fritz Schumacher in 1971 advocated small local economies to address environmental problems. Forty-five years later UUs believe the economy should be local based rather than world based even though we have an historical example of local based economies. These local economies were called the Dark Ages for good reasons: famine, illiteracy, violence, and religious wars. Belief in the food mile fallacy (buying local saves fuel) is rampant in UU circles despite the math that shows big trucks can transport more pounds of food per gallon of fuel than the family car traveling to a family farm.
Books predicting imminent catastrophe continued to be published by such authors as Al Gore, Bill McKibben, James Hansen, Vandana Shiva, and David Korten. These doomsayers have been so persuasive that a cottage industry to cure environmental despair has emerged, for example Joanna Macy’s Active Hope groups. However, in these groups the participants are not confused with the facts of decreased poverty and infant mortality, increased wealth and life expectancy since 1970.
History shows Unitarian Universalists could have trusted the dawning future in 1933 and in 1970. I believe the future can still be trusted in 2015.