Is Something Gaining On Us?

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Maybe they ought to call this the Uneasy Decade. As we move on toward the twenty-first century (and it really is not so far away, when you stop to think about it), we seem to spend a good part of our time looking back over our shoulders. Satchel Paige, the black baseball star, advised people never to look behind them “because something may be gaining on you,” but we are doing it persistently and perhaps we are beginning to understand what Mr. Paige was talking about. Something back there seems to be overtaking us.- Naturally, we are nervous.

Out of this nervousness there has developed an odd resignation. We are being offered a credo that embeds a whole chain of gloomy expectations in a matrix of unrelieved pessimism; it is possible to become fairly ecstatic in one’s acceptance of approaching disaster. These horrors so clearly foreseen are inevitable. They cannot be averted no matter what we do. The only question is which one hits us first.

Consider these articles of faith:

Nuclear fission will destroy us all, and possibly the living globe along with us. This is certain. We can do nothing about it.

The energy crisis is beyond remedy and will cause all the machines to run down and all the wheels to stop turning; at which point the human race, like some immense, demented scorpion.will sting itself to death.

Our pollution of the atmosphere with indigestible gases will create a “greenhouse effect” under which the earth’s temperature will get stabilized at something like 500 degrees Fahrenheit. A pleasant variant is that this will bring on a universal ice age which will be equally lethal. I know people who accept both of these points at one and the same time.

If all else fails, the modern world of push-button electronics and the art of thought control will turn human society into an anthill that ought to be destroyed even if it does turn out to be viable.

It is not necessary to believe all of these things, but to believe none of them—to believe, that is, that we have a future and that we have some control over the form it will take—is held practically equivalent to believing in a flat earth. The enlightened man, we are told, goes around with a litany of disaster in his vest pocket.

Fortunately, the irreverent skepticism that somehow got built into the American spirit a long time ago begins to come to the rescue. People in this country don’t scare easily, and if in the valor of benighted ignorance they try to do the impossible, they now and then succeed in doing it. They have never yet marched under a banner inscribed “It can’t be done.”

In spite of Mr. Paige’s excellent advice, we do need to look behind us. Something is indeed gaining on us, and it is nothing more or less than the unhappy fact that what people have been encouraged to want is somehow a good deal less than what they actually have. On that baffling fact we have got to build our plans for meeting the future.

It points us, that is, in the right direction. The dismaying world we confront was given its vast intricacy and its perilous speed by human beings for the benefit of human beings. The one basic resource we have always had to rely on is the innate intelligence, energy, and good will of the human race. It is facing an enormous challenge, but then it always has; and it meets each one only to confront another. If now we give way to the gloom of the apostles of catastrophe, we are of course in the deepest sort of trouble. The old reliance is at our service. It can bear us up if we put our full weight on it.