Missed and Misused Signals of Change

Introduction by Dennis Morgan

 One section of ‘Chapter 2: Conventional Responses’ in R. Slaughter’s book, The Biggest Wakeup Call in History (BWCH), refers to ‘missed and misused signals’ during the past 60 years. Precisely because these ‘signals’ have been ‘missed’ or either ‘misused,’ it is important to review their historical relevance, for many of them still serve as ‘foresight reminders’ that global civilization can only afford to ignore at its own peril. Though the window of time is still open to change course, it is at the same time rapidly closing, and as it closes so goes the options available for alternate/preferable futures.

 Thus, this section is meant to review the relevance/pertinence of these sources in more detail than given in BWCH. Now, in reference to the ‘Missed and Misused Signals’ section, a number of carefully researched works during the twentieth century, particularly during the past 60 years, provided humanity with a wide range of relevant signals about the ‘state of the world’; however, these signals were not only ignored and denied but also, in many cases, they were deliberately undermined and distorted  by ideologues representing the Powers That Be, expressly for the sole purpose of maintaining the present, disastrous course of business as usual.

Dr. Slaughter refers to a number of works from the US and Australia: in 1956, the publication of Hubbart’s Peak – a graph that accurately predicted the peak of US oil production within mainland American by 1971; R. Carlson’s publication of Silent Spring in 1962, describing the impact of pesticides on birds (and other living creatures); P. Elich’s Population Bomb, though overstating the immediate dangers of population growth, nevertheless, drew attention to the long term dysfunctional aspects; Frank Herbert’s anthology for Earth Day 1970, provocatively entitled, New World or No World, dramatically capturing the sense of the fundamental changes needed in the U.S. and, by extension, other developed (or over-developed nations); speeches by Jimmy Carter and his chief environmental advisor, Gus Speth, alerting the impact and dangers of global warming (at a time when it had not yet been fully accepted by much of the scientific community); likewise, Jim Hansen, a respected NASA scientist and well-known environmentalist, who made many valiant attempts to get global warming on the U.S. agenda.

The aforementioned are only a sample of missed and misused signals from American sources that will be reviewed in more detail in this section, as well as others [1] which will be mostly drawn from “60 Years of Insight into the Global System.”[2]


  1. Australian sources include C. Birch’s Confronting the Future, the Australian Commission for the Future (initiated by then Science Minister, B. Jones), C. Hamilton’s ScorcherAustralia 2020: Foresight for Our Future (by M. James of the Parliamentary Library, Canberra), The Canberra Futures Forum, and The Australian Foresight Institute.
  2. “Figure 2.1,” p. 28, in BWCH


Here is a summary of chapter 2 of The Biggest Wake Up Call in History. Click on the link below to read the full chapter.

Conventional responses (to global change)

Chapter two examines conventional social responses to global change. Among the most significant is the reception accorded to significant ‘signals of change.’ The track record of ‘missed signals’ is outlined in two countries – the US and Australia. Evidence is presented that those responsible for wise government and social policy have missed or ignored information that provides vital evidence about global change processes. Overall, the social capacity for detecting and interpreting such information is shown to be inadequate. The issue is also approached through looking at the occurrence of disasters and again, it is suggested that the track record here is problematic. Two other manifestations of ‘business as usual’ are reviewed. One is the widespread habit of looking to new technology to save the day. Another is the rise of consumerism and the deliberate stoking of demand through pervasive advertising. Overall, conventional responses impede progress in understanding and dealing with the world we’ve collectively created.

Conventional Responses (To open click here)

A visual commentary of issues arising in part one of BWCH can be found elsewhere on this weblog. For info, reviews, etc. and to purchase the book in pdf or hard copy form go to: http://www.foresightinternational.com.au/

Dennis Morgan explores The Challenge of Man’s Future by Harrison Brown which was first published in 1954. Since it dealt explicitly with key global variables – including population growth, resource depletion, alternative energy and food production – he sees it as one of the earliest ‘missed signals’ that speaks to our time.

Review of Brown’s The Challenge of Man’s Future (To open click here)

Here’s an excerpt from a memoir by Roger Revelle

“Starting in 1949, Harrison Brown went frequently to Jamaica where he first came in contact with the problems of rapid population growth and technological backwardness in the Third World. From this experience he wrote his most famous book, a monumental survey of the human prospect entitled The Challenge of Man’s Future, published by the Viking Press in 1954 and reprinted in 1984.”

“In this book he contended that the division of human society into a set of industrialized, relatively prosperous nations containing a minority of the world’s population, and a set of primarily agrarian nations containing an impoverished majority, is not only unsatisfactory from a humane point of view but is fundamentally unstable and cannot persist. Either the agrarian nations would become industrialized, he argued, or the collapse of machine civilization would produce a mainly agrarian world of virtually universal poverty and misery. Whether the first outcome would material- ize would depend on mankind’s achieving a stable human population size, a sustainable agriculture and industry, harmony with its environment, peace, and freedom.”

Roger Revelle’s biography of Harrison Brown: http://www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/brown-harrison.pdf

Another individual who took this work forward in Australia is Charles Birch, Professor of Biology at Sydney University. HisConfronting the Future, first published in 1976, is a clear, modulated, articulate and well-researched overview of these same issues but with an added emphasis on their human, ethical and value dimensions. Three items are provided here. First, an outline of the 1994 update; second, an interview I conducted with him in that year; third a short paper that I wrote a few years later. The latter was a forerunner to my later more in-depth treatment of these issues – The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History. The image of Charles Birch is by Spooner from issue 1 of 21C, 1995.

Outline of Charles Birch, Confronting the Future (To open click here)

Interview with Charles Birch (1994) (To open click here)

Later Than You Think (2006) (To open click here)

Overshoot and Collapse Bibliography (2012 draft) (To open click here)

Beyond the Threshold of Climate Change was published in the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice (JITP) 4, 4, 2009, pp. 27-46. To open click here

This edited summary of the paper was produced by Yvonne Curtis, Wellington, and published by the New Zealand Futures Trust in Future Times, vol 4, 2010, pp 7-10.

A mid-19th C example (courtesy of Josh Floyd):

Marsh, George Perkins. (1864) Man and nature: Or physical geography as modified by human action. New York: John F. Throw & Co.

The opening line of the Preface reads: “The object of the present volume is: to indicate the character and, approximately, the extent of the changes produced by human action in the physical conditions of the globe we inhabit; to point out the dangers of imprudence and the necessity of caution in all operations which, on a large scale, interfere with the spontaneous arrangements of the organic or the inorganic world; to suggest the possibility and the importance of the restoration of the disturbed harmonies and the material improvement of waste and exhausted regions; and, incidentally, to illustrate the doctrine, that man is, in both kind and degree, a power of a higher order than any of the other forms of animated life, which, like him, are nourished at the table of bounteous nature.”


Leave a Reply