Back in the mid 1970’s, when I as in high school, things seemed to be going to the dooms. I think that it’s pretty much been forgotten now, but it seemed like every week a new book or newspaper article was telling us how civilization was going to end and we were all going to die. Then there were the movies. If it wasn’t “Planet of The Apes, with all the humans wiped out or returned to savagery by nuclear war, with the apes taking over, it “the China Syndrome” with nuclear plants melting down, or “Soylent Green” with the world overpopulated, polluted and the evil corporations resorting to systemized cannibalism. It was a miracle that we of that generation didn’t collapse in despair. Then there were the books like “Eco Doom” “Future Shock” and a bunch of others. It’s hard to understand how much of an impact that stuff had in the days before the internet when the media was essentially free to just dump the stuff out without any rebuttal. Frankly I think a lot of the attitude we had came from an “eat drink and be merry because there isn’t any tomorrow” attitude. After all what other sane approach was there if the powers that be in government and media were to be believed? The Global 2000 report represented the thinking of the Carter Administration.
One of the biggest academic and popular studies in the mid 1970’s was the Forrest and Meadows study, the “Limits to Growth.” The study used a computer model to show that it was all over us. Civilization was doomed unless we cut back to a more “sustainable” lifestyle. The computer said so. The popular media at the time would have had us believe that computers were impartial oracles. At the time, that was believable because almost nobody had access to the “limits” model.
Going to high school in one of the richest towns in the country I did get access to a computer and the “limits” model in a science class that was supposed to be a sort of preengineering class. I learned two things from that. One, computers are sort of fun. Two, computer models are sort of garbage in, garbage out. I played with the “limits” model like a computer game and found that even with the rules set by the Meadows team you can beat the model by assuming an increase in technology. Doom was not necessarily inevitable.
I had been an avid reader of Science Fiction in middle school and when I got to high school I discovered something wonderful. A Science Fiction Magazine called Galaxy, edited by Jim Baen. Which had great stories about space, the future and very strange worlds. Jim Baen had very eclectic tastes. So the stories covered a wide variety of perspectives and themes. I loved that Magazine. Better yet the librarian let me take it home every month after the new issue came in. Probably because I was the only one reading it. I had something that proved that the world was not coming to an end.
Galaxy Magazine had a science and technology column, called “A Step Farther Out,” written by one Jerry Pournelle, PHD. This was perhaps the most important influence on my teenage years. Jerry’s columns made the point that even if the worst case scenarios were true we could still beat the Malthusian trap using high technology and space resources. He pointed out how energy was the key and that if a move to nuclear energy was made we would never run out, of anything. Heady stuff for a sixteen year old in 1976.
Later, when Jim Baen became the editor at Ace books, he collected the best of the columns in a book titled logically enough, “A Step Farther Out.” This put into book form the columns that Jerry had written about all the various dooms and how society might find it’s way out. This may have been the most relevant book of the last quarter of the 20th Century that almost nobody read. Certainly the thinking, and Jerry were able to influence people in the Reagan Administration and some of the ideas therein showed up in Reagan policies and speeches. The SDI speech Certainly. At the very least the book was rebuttal for the doom, doom crowd.
Pournelle certainly wasn’t the only trying to overcome the loud drumbeats of the Malthusians. Academics such as Herman Kahn and Julian Simon made an impressive and logical case against the Malthusians and Carter’s malaise. As Jerry reported in Galaxy and later in his book. This was truly light in the atmosphere of despair. he pointed out the serious flaws in the alternative energy schemes and mocked them mercilessly.
Jerry was also a booster of the space program, both public and private. He also worked to demystify rocket science and make it understandable. He was at the forefront of the small computer revolution and speculated where it might lead. He also was not afraid to deal with the fringes of science and reported on the weirdest stuff.
Is “A Step Farther Out” still relevant? Well the doomsters never went away after being discredited by the voters who had had enough in the Reagan Revolution. They are back, replacing the resource depletion, overpopulation and pollution dooms with ‘climate change’ based on computer models that go off the rails. The solutions that the Malthusian crowd wants are the same. The great masses of us will have small boring lives with everything rationed while the glorious leadership jets about from estate to estate to international conference where a compliant media gives them a microphone to tell us how thankful we should be to have them telling US how to live our lives
I’m truly thankful to have had “A Step Farther Out” in my formative years. It was truly a light in the darkness. I can’t thank Jim Baen personally since he has passed away, but I do want thank Jerry Pournelle for bringing that light.