Home / Culture and Society / An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect: an Overview, Part One

An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect: an Overview, Part One

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Heilbrener identifies three major areas of concern, external danger zones, if you like, which threaten the survival of the species o which, at any rate, are bound to affect the manner of our survival in the foreseeable future.

These are: (i) the proliferation of nuclear arms which, in addition to contributing to a general sense of unrest in the unlikely event of there ensuing a zero-sum, winner-takes-all game, only adds to the climate of global uncertainty at the fringes if such weapons were ever to find their way into the hands of rogue (read: underdeveloped) states intent on leveling the economic playing field, exacting concessions, etc., by resorting to nuclear blackmail and the like (Iran and North Korea come to mind) or, if worse comes to worst, to terrorist organizations, (Al Qaeda. e.g.); (ii) the ever-present danger of population explosion, still not under control, and its most likely concomitants, a worldwide food shortage and energy crisis, both promising to exact their gruesome toll and bring the world’s population to its knees; and lastly, (iii) the indisputable fact that the planet’s natural resources happen to be limited (and therefore exhaustible) if we are to press on with the rate of our expansion and the demands we place on them, mindless of the law of diminishing returns, just so we could sustain ourselves in the lifestyle to which we’ve been accustomed. (Under this rubric, there falls a multitude of environmental concerns and bio-hazards from water and air pollution to the endangerment of the species and the depletion of the world’s resources; for brevity’s sake, however, “climate change” is a convenient shorthand to refer to all of the above and to suggest, in passing, that unless we change our ways, and drastically, we all live on borrowed time.)

Needless to say, although it makes perfect sense to speak of these “danger zones” as though separate and distinct, they’re highly interdependent in that a perceived threat in any one area is bound to have severe repercussions in the other. A spread of worldwide hunger, for instance, due to uneven population growth in the developed and underdeveloped parts of the globe, is likely to trigger blackmail on the part of the impoverished nation-states, a blackmail aimed at redressing the imbalance and redistributing the world’s wealth and resources more evenly. Should the developed nations succumb to these demands, they’d stand to inherit an unprecedented quotient of social unrest and division at home because of stagnated rates of growth, already under pressure due to natural causes. And so on and so forth.

Sustained growth, lest we forget, has always been the one magic formula for keeping everyone appeased and social unrest under wraps, and that’s in spite of the growing disparity in income and wealth between the diverse strata of a typical post-industrial society: it perpetuated the illusion that, however unevenly, all shared in the economic progress of the nation, each and every individual’s contribution didn’t go unnoticed but was rewarded.

Unlimited growth carried the added benefit of perpetuating that illusion indefinitely, forever postponing our rendezvous with history. Well, with economic growth coming to a screeching halt even among the very precursors and champions of industrial development, resulting in what Heilbroner calls “stationary capitalism”, the eventual stage of any post-industrial system, we’re about to experience the kind of leveling never fathomed before: a leveling whereby third-world nations, insofar as the bulk of the population is concerned, would be indistinguishable from the first-rated ones. And if this were to happen, all hell could break loose and none would be the wiser.

It’s not, however, his depiction of the kind of external dangers facing us, graphic and persuasive as it may be, that sets Heilbroner apart from his many contemporaries, but another thing entirely: his unique focus on our capacity to respond as an integral part of the very dangers which confront us. What follows is Heilbroner’s signature statement on the subject:

. . . the gravity of the human prospect does not hinge alone, or even principally, on an estimate of the dangers of the knowable external challenges of the future. To a far greater extent, it is shaped by our appraisal of our capacity to meet those challenges. It is the flexibility of social classes, the resilience of socio-economic orders, the behavior of nation-states, and ultimately the “nature” of human beings that together form the basis for our expectations, optimistic or pessimistic, with regard to the human outlook. And for these critical elements in the human prospect there are very few empirical findings on which to rest our beliefs. We possess little or no “hard” information about the propensities of nation-states to peace and war, about the stubbornness or adaptability of social classes, or about the malleability of individual beings, except for those frail generalizations that we assemble from our real and vicarious life experience – itself biased, as we have said, by our situation within society and our private predilections. Thus, as regards the most important element of an effort to assess the prospect for man, we have no guide but ourselves, and are thrown back, willy-nilly, to criteria that trouble us by virtue of their subjective foundation.

Or to take another, equally illuminating passage:

. . . that list of dangers still does not fully describe the challenge of the human prospect, nor wholly account for the somber state of mind with which we look to the future. For the dangers we have discussed do not descend, as it were, from the heavens, menacing humanity with the implacable fate that would be the consequence of the sudden arrival of a new Ice Age or the announcement of the impending extinction of the sun.
On the contrary, as we have repeatedly sought to emphasize, all the dangers we have examined – population growth, war, environmental damage, scientific technology – are social problems

About The Author

, originating in human behavior and capable of amelioration by the alteration of that behavior. Thus the full measure of the human prospect must go beyond an appraisal of the of the seriousness of these problems to an estimate of the likelihood of mounting a response adequate to them, and not least to some consideration of the price that may have to be paid to muster such a response.

In short, “. . . the elements of danger in the human prospect are by no means all located in ‘external’ threats, but in our ‘internal’ capacity to respond to those threats.” There is a silver lining, however, in that the dangers and the challenges which face us are “social problems,” which is to say, problems of our own making: they’re soluble.

These observations are as relevant today as ever. For indeed, no matter what external threats are thrown our way, past, present or future, ultimately, it always comes down to our internal capacity to respond to those threats both as individuals and as members of a collective: it’s always a matter of our ability to adapt to the challenges facing us, again, both as persons and as members of a community. And since the first-mentioned line of inquiry would invariably lead us to consider the rather murky subject of human nature, dealing besides with responses which, by virtue of being individual and possibly idiosyncratic, are anything but wholesale (there being little payoff in that from the standpoint of analyzing organizational structures as a whole), quite naturally, Heilbroner starts out with the second, the object being to examine the resiliency of our institutions, social, economic and political, to adapt to all manner of challenges facing us, to re-invent themselves, so as to carry the day. Hence the title of the third chapter of the Inquiry, “Socio-Economic Capabilities for Response,” and we shall follow this order of presentation.

It’s rather significant that the political dimension, surely an important aspect of social organization in any day and age, didn’t find its way into this chapter. Oddly enough, we see it smuggled through the back door, as it were, into the chapter to follow, a chapter devoted besides to the vagaries of human nature (“The Political Dimension and ‘Human Nature’”), but more on that later. Needless to say, Heilbroner thinks he has good reasons to relegate the political to the back burner.

In the following segment, I propose to expose the nature of Heilbroner’s bias in having posited the primacy of socioeconomic arrangements over the political ones. By way of preamble, let me state at the outset that the underlying rationale doesn’t seem to follow the traditional Marxist line of analysis in terms of structure and superstructure, but issues instead from the mind of a conservative.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • Cindy

    Amazing, Clav! Usually when they catch it it is too late. I never underestimate attitude though.

  • Clav


    I have a friend who is in her sixth year of survival after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. She received the Whipple Procedure and is still testing negative, six years later.

    Never one to quit, she took her retirement and has spent the past six years traveling the world pursuing her favorite activity, SCUBA diving, and is methodically covering all the world’s best diving spots.

    A very cool lady.

  • Cindy

    Chalk one up for 15 year old brains with a need and desire to know. It’ll beat private industry hands down.

  • Cindy

    Oh, btw, the detection based on his method is early enough to cure about 100% of cases that have always been 100% fatal once detected.

  • Cindy

    Now allow me to present an amazing, amazing thing. Nanotechnology and Google and a special teenager = an early diagnosis for pancreatic cancer never seen before.

    Pancreatic cancer is one, that, once detected means you are dead. There is no cure and it is too far advanced once detected.

    A 15 year old came up with a test for pancreatic cancer that is 100% effective (so far) and costs pennies per test (which could be done at home).

    Watch the video here.

  • Doug Hunter+


    I think capitalism will hit it’s limit long before ‘growth’ does. At some point I think the amount of wealth and amount of general welfare will be so high it will no longer be an effective motivator… an alternative system will need to be developed. I think we’re seeing the start of this in today’s wealthy countries with ‘jobs Americans won’t do’ and I think it will continue on up. As technology replaces labor, intellectual contributions will be more valued and as that bar rises less and less people will be able to contribute while vast wealth and resources will be created by machines. How to distribute is will then be the question.

  • Doug Hunter+

    Heilbrener starts by identifying three major areas of concern… and he’s wrong on two and a half out of three. Chris has already started unraveling the thread of one (and pointing out the silliness of the winner take all, zero sum game statement which could only occur in a low stakes casino or an economics textbook)

    i. Nukes. They’ve likely prevented more deaths in war (and prevented wars from starting) than they’ve caused so far and what would change that? It wouldn’t take one nuke smuggled somewhere to destroy large swaths of an ever increasing civilized area of the planet, it takes thousands. no rogue state is going to build up that type of arsenal in the foreseeable future. It may help marginal states at the bargaining table to have a nuke in their pocket, but the little guys need help anyway. Still, I’ll give him half credit on this as it is an issue to keep an eye on long term.

    ii. Population. Fertility going down everywhere fast, global capitalism and industrialism are transforming nations creating wealth and the need for education, two things that have been shown to quickly lower fertility below replacement rates (at least for Europeans and some Asian societies). Even the poorest areas in Africa and Asia where industry and modernism has not taken hold yet are being softened up by aid and education programs that have had good success. The easiest way to end this as an issue is to hurry up and develop the rest of the planet… of course that calls for the ugly “G” word… growth and is best accomplished by the ugly “C” word… capitalism.

    iii. Malthusian Catastrophe. Not going to happen in this epoch. One day we were worried about how the world would deal with all the horse manure city transportation would require, then we think oil will run out within 20 years of 1970, now it will get expensive and last for a couple hundred years, by that time Chris’s nanotechnology point will be available for harvesting so we’ll have a thousand more years worth, far before any of that happens though we’ll have an entirely new energy paradigm. Every other resource can ultimately be created or destroyed using energy and is hence solvable. People have to this point for the most part utterly failed in predicting the speed and capacity for technological adaptation and change and I don’t see this being any different.

    In light of the fact that the setup of the initial conditions by Heilbrener are fairly shaky it makes me doubt the veracity of his conclusions. I think Chris’s #9 introduces better areas of concern, we need less worry about doomsday scenarios and more thought about how to handle the power we’re handing ourselves with technology… genetics, nanotechnology, robotics, those should be the areas of concern.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Cindy –

    Good question, and I haven’t a clue to the answer. Nanotech is a two-edged sword as are nuclear power and the internet. Hopefully we’ll adapt, but his point is easily understood – one sociopathic mad scientist with enough knowledge and resources could kill much of humanity; indeed, that’s a major premise of my book which is available now on Amazon:


    (attempting to do an end-run around the comment blocker)

  • Cindy

    I wonder if human beings will be capable of overcoming the dangers associated with nanotechnology.

    From the link: Some of the dangers described here are existential risks, that is, they may threaten the continued existence of humankind. Others could produce significant disruption but not cause our extinction. A combination of several risks could exacerbate the seriousness of each; any solution must take into account its effect on other risks.

    Looking at that page, there appears to be little room for error. Perhaps, we could put nanotechnology in the hands of someone who has proven trustworthy with protecting our environment and its inhabitants, like…um…er…

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Chris –

    Does anybody have any thoughts as to what effects the combination of nanotechnology creating literally anything out of anything else at the atomic level and significant human life extension would have on the human condition, poverty and life as we know it?

    Frankly, given what we’ve learned over the years as to how aware (and in the case of dolphins, quite intelligent) animals are, I’m looking forward to vat-grown meat. I love meat, but I’m more and more hating the thought of eating the flesh of something that was aware of what was being done to it.

    But as Feynman pointed out back in 1959, nanotech will change the world in ways we cannot yet imagine. Today’s 3-d printers are but a foretaste – and unfortunately can already be used to make most of the working parts of an assault rifle – but I’d say that nanotech food will be available perhaps within ten years, and certainly within twenty.

  • Cindy

    Just fyi, Dr.D, coincidentally, the link I placed above with the interview of Wolff and Hedges makes all the best arguments in support of this being capitalism’s end game that I have heard.

  • Does anybody have any thoughts as to what effects the combination of nanotechnology creating literally anything out of anything else at the atomic level and significant human life extension would have on the human condition, poverty and life as we know it?

    I think these two literally transformative technologies, which will almost certainly be available before the end of this century – and if I’m lucky, before I die – are going to make almost every aspect of current economic, political and social life unrecognisable, to say nothing of effectively eliminating two out of the three threats mentioned in this article…

  • Dr Dreadful

    I haven’t read Heilbroner, Roger, so I’m not sure which in your review are his ideas and which are yours, but there’s something in your article that strikes me as very odd. He (or you) seems to me to be talking about “a spread of worldwide hunger … due to uneven population growth in the developed and underdeveloped parts of the globe” as if this hasn’t happened yet. It has. But the prediction of impoverished states blackmailing the prosperous ones (how would that work, anyway?) hasn’t come to pass; instead the former have become dependent on the latter in order to remain solvent – laying themselves more open to blackmail than the converse.

    There’s also the assumption (and this one is yours, Rog) that the current global recession is the economic “end game”. While I agree that there must come a point at which the capitalist system, which relies on growth, will hit its ultimate limit, I’m far from convinced that point is now. Every human generation flatters itself that it’s living in some pivotal era: but what’s the evidence that this is in fact currently the case?

    I do agree with John and others that this is an interesting discussion and I look forward to see how it progresses.

  • John Lake

    And our readiness to respond to nuclear proliferation is as relevant today as it was in the 60s. I found nowosielskis interpretation of Heilbroner to be not only interesting, but refreshing!

  • roger nowosielski

    Yep, Cindy, overpopulation gets the bulk of the blame according to conventional wisdom; not necessarily my opinion.

    For all his faults, however, Heilbroner is a tough cookie and has to be dismantled systematically in order to put his kind of argument to rest. That’s what I’m trying to do here, and I believe I’ll succeed, give or take two more “installments.”

  • roger nowosielski

    Good point, Chris. In spite of the intended rhetorical effect, it is a poorly-constructed thought.

  • Is it actually possible to have a “zero-sum, winner-takes-all game”?

  • Cindy

    Is Heilbrener a key economist?

    I just read that he had been a socialist most of his career (life?) then he adopted the position that Capitalism is superior.

    I find it interesting that overpopulation is always blamed for food shortage. As if that fact of it existed outside politics. It strikes me that thinking back to my education, all such problems seem to have been attributed to causes outside the realm of the political.

  • Cindy


    I didn’t know you wrote this. I was looking for an article to leave you this excellent interview with both Chris Hedges and Prof. Wolff called, Has capitalism proven its durability?.

    Be back later to read your piece.

  • John Lake

    O lahd, I get the first comment! [italics mine]
    The comment of which I speak being…
    So don’t just sit there, Heilbroner fans, start examining resiliency!