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How to Save the Human Race

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Until only recently, the whole of human history has been marked by population growth, first gradual and then, in the past two hundred years, a sudden explosion. But in the last decades of the 20th century, population growth began to slow, and eventually, it will plateau or even decline, reported U.S. News and World Report (US).

The moment at which growth goes from accelerating to decelerating, according to a theory posited by Dr. Jonas Salk and his son Jonathan Salk in their book, "World Population and Human Values: A New Reality," is called an inflection point – and would be filled with turmoil and conflict, but also opportunity.

Although Salk is celebrated worldwide as the developer of one of the first successful polio vaccines, the famed virologist spent many of his later years developing this theory on population growth.

Based on observations of biology that show population growth tends to form a sigmoid, or S-curve, Salk predicted that worldwide population growth, accelerating from less than 1 billion in 1804 to 7 billion by the end of the 20th Century, would reach an inflection point and then begin to slow into a plateau.

Salk characterizes the time before the inflection point as Epoch A, and in that period, people were focused on their own betterment and achievement as necessary to capitalize on the potential for great growth. But going forward, after the inflection point in Epoch B, people will need to be more collaborative and sustainability-oriented. This plays out now in issues like climate change, where the world must work together to combat the issue.

The original publication of the Salks' book was met with little commercial success. But nearly four decades on, Jonathan Salk has seen many of the theories posited by his father, who died in 1995, beginning to come true. Salk, now a psychiatrist, recently spoke with U.S. News about the revised book, "A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future," and how this unprecedented moment in human history will shape our future. Excerpts:

Why revise and reissue this book now?
In the years since [publication], I noticed that a lot of the things we had thought about were coming to pass, particularly in terms of adjusting sustainability and global warming, but also in terms of a lot of social and political trends.

The book has a particular kind of resonance and a particular kind of relevance at this moment in time, because we're really seeing the pull between two differing value systems, and making decisions as a species about how we're going to deal with the future. It's always been a meaningful book, but I think it's particularly poignant at this moment in time.

We're passing through a point of inflection where population growth is slowing throughout the Earth and heading toward a plateau. To adapt and survive in Epoch A, Epoch A values – independence, competition, unfettered growth – were advantageous to people. But after the inflection point, in Epoch B, different values of cooperation, of interdependence, of sustainability, take over. At the inflection point – the transition point between two sets of values – is the point at which we're living today. So there's a tremendous tension between moving forward with things like global agreements, interdependence, cooperation internationally, and then there's a whole set of people who want to recruit the values of the past, the Epoch A values.

What are some examples of conflicts that are ongoing that you attribute to us currently being at the inflection point?

The most obvious one, and the easiest one to get your head around, has to do with climate change, allocation of resources and use of human resources. We came from a period of time for centuries where it seemed like resources were unlimited, with unfettered consumption and unfettered disposal of waste. That began to not be so advantageous, particularly in the '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, and there was a necessity to adapt to the limitations by consuming less and by coming up with a concept of sustainability.

Things were moving in that direction, and what we ran into was, there's two differing values systems and two different factions: one wanting to go back to the growth model, and do what was comfortable for centuries before, and the other looking ahead and seeing what we could do to adapt to the fact that there are limits on growth and there's a plateau and a ceiling on how much we can expand.

We're in a situation where we can't continue expanding. We've reached the limits of space and resources on the planet and energy. Our values system based on expanding and growth, which is what we had for many centuries, won't work anymore. We need to adapt to different kinds of social and political and economic models that are adapted to equilibrium as opposed to growth, and that's where a concept like sustainability comes from.

It's clear that if we don't make adaptations, we're going to alter the ecology of the Earth to the point where we may not be able to survive as a species. But at the same time, in order to adapt to that, we have to take a look at the planet as interdependent and from a global point of view. So that we understand that the welfare of human beings in the other part of the planet, particularly in the developing world, will have really important effects on our well being, and that our well being is tied to the wellbeing of people and human beings all over the earth.

Conflict between millennials and their parents' and grandparents' generations has become almost a joke, but you present it as an inevitable result of us arriving at the inflection point. Is this more than just typical intergenerational tension, but instead an example of the shift in values you say will be necessary if we are to adapt to the challenges of Epoch B?

The Depression generation grew up entirely in what we're calling Epoch A, which is a period of growth and expansion. The Baby Boomer generation was at a changeover, at the inflection point from expansion to moving toward equilibrium. So for my generation – I grew up in the '50s – the sky was the limit. In the '60s, '70s and '80s, we began to encounter things like energy crises, and there was an increased awareness that we wouldn't be able grow and that we needed to adapt to limitations. But my generation was sort of split. We grew up in a time where there was unlimited growth and we've transitioned to a time where we see there are limits. And I think that in the Baby Boomer generation, you can see the ambiguity in that, the ambivalence.

The millennial generation was all born after the inflection point and so from the time that they were children, they grew up with the concept that this was a single solitary planet, with the concept that there were limitations to growth, there were limitations to growth and there were limitations to energy. They've really grown up in a different reality.

Part of the adaptation is that in this transition to this new reality, where we're adapting to limits and slowing and decelerating growth, different values are emerging. In Epoch A, in the time before the inflection point, it was advantageous to grow and expand, and so values systems like competition, independence, either/or thinking, constant expansion were advantageous to people, they were what made people survive and do better. After the inflection point, in decelerating growth, which is what millennials have grown up with, there's a need to adapt to that new reality by putting more emphasis on, and more value on interdependence, on cooperation, on both/and thinking, on sustainability. Interestingly enough, those values look more at community, look more at reducing income inequality, look more at what is best for me is what's best for other people in the world, and that overlaps to some extent with what you might be calling more socialist ideas.

Many of the Epoch B values are related to those ideals of socialism, but both socialism and capitalism are products of Epoch A. What is needed, in Epoch B, is for us as human beings to devise new ways of relating economically, politically and socially that incorporate the new values into the conditions of the future. The challenge facing my generation and yours is the development, evolution and design of those new systems.

You mention the Paris Climate Accords as one Epoch B-type action, but more recent political shifts are moving back toward isolationist policies, not only here in the U.S. but around the world. What happens if the shift in attitudes fails?

The sobering thing is the transition that we talk about in the book is not predetermined. It's a pattern and it's a possibility, but how we act now, decisions we make now, tendencies that we have now will vastly effect what the course of the future will be and whether we transition to an equilibrium. And it's not certain at all.

What we're seeing right now, faced with the uncertainty of the future, a large population of people, and some of our leaders, are saying we need to go back and do it the old way, we need to go back to isolationist policies, that we need to think of our country first, and so we're seeing at this moment, kind of a resurgence of those values. We could cling to the values of the past, we could continue to try to pursue an isolationist approach, pursue old models of zero-sum thinking, what's mine is mine and anything that you get is a loss to me. We're using resources that will destroy the planet and destroy the human race, and there's a real danger that if we don't adapt to more cooperative, interdependent world, that the world will fragment.

That will lead to international conflicts, which could explode into warfare or ongoing conflicts about resources and decimating famines and conflicts and uprising by people who are less privileged and who are not being taken care of, and we'll have potentially the collapse of the whole human species, or short of that, real international and global conflict that will decimate the population.

Speaking optimistically, and speaking of what I think will happen, that's probably a last gasp of those old values, in that it's understandable. People are frightened and they don't know and they don't have a vision of the future. One of the things the book provides is a vision of the future and what we need to do to adapt, and that in order to survive, we need to adopt a whole set of values that are part of our nature as human beings but have not been emphasized. And that in doing so, we're not only going to survive, we may actually have a world culture that is much more in line with the highest ideals of generosity, of mutual benefit and of fulfillment of human potential.

It's a tremendously optimistic vision, but there's an urgency to this value change, that is paramount, because if we don't make these changes, we're not going to do well as species.

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