'Nature is Ruthless': Kurt Vonnegut's Advice to the People of 2088

Illustration for article titled Nature is Ruthless: Kurt Vonneguts Advice to the People of 2088

In 1988, as part of a print advertising campaign, Volkswagen asked many thinkers, including author Kurt Vonnegut, to write letters to the people of 2088. Vonnegut's words of advice: Nature is out to kill us all and instead of being overly optimistic, we should submit to its terms of surrender.

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Vonnegut begins his missive by speculating on why "Our century hasn't been as free with words of wisdom as some others," and suggests that out improved knowledge of the world and the human condition has left us paralyzed by "bad news." The bad news with which Vonnegut particularly concerns himself is that Nature is no friend to the human race:

Yes, and as you people a hundred years from now must know full well, and as your grandchildren will know even better: Nature is ruthless when it comes to matching the quantity of life in any given place at any given time to the quantity of nourishment available. So what have you and Nature done about overpopulation? Back here in 1988, we were seeing ourselves as a new sort of glacier, warm-blooded and clever, unstoppable, about to gobble up everything and then make love—and then double in size again.

On second thought, I am not sure I could bear to hear what you and Nature may have done about too many people for too small a food supply.

And here is a crazy idea I would like to try on you: Is it possible that we aimed rockets with hydrogen bomb warheads at each other, all set to go, in order to take our minds off the deeper problem—how cruelly Nature can be expected to treat us, Nature being Nature, in the by-and-by?

Now that we can discuss the mess we are in with some precision, I hope you have stopped choosing abysmally ignorant optimists for positions of leadership. They were useful only so long as nobody had a clue as to what was really going on—during the past seven million years or so. In my time they have been catastrophic as heads of sophisticated institutions with real work to do.

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You can read the entire text of the letter, including "Nature's stern but reasonable surrender terms," at Letters of Note.

Photo by Miserlou Behind The Aperture.

Ladies & Gentlemen of A.D. 2088 [Letters of Note]

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DISCUSSION

You know what annoys me?

People who hit close to the problem yet still miss the mark.

Nature is a mother... with a ton of weapons at her disposal and an always horrid case of cramps. She is also a teacher - she's stern and always in a bad mood.

Now here we are as humans... you'd think we'd learn how to live a more humble existence and treat our environment and nature a bit better. But no - bigger is better. I feel like I'm in Robocop with that 6000SUX commercial playing and nobody getting the irony of the situation.

When you look at what life is, reduced to its basest, most primal nature, it is conflict or share. Those are the two choices. You have the resources you need to live, and you have the actions you must take to obtain those resources to fill your drives. In other words, sometimes its kill or be killed - but more often than not, its share the load and share the kill/harvest. You only reproduce if you live to do so, if you're worthy of the act through your actions and survival. That is life reduced to its simplest form. Our modern society is built to simulate that environment to answer the underlying animal drive in our psyches. We create complexity in that society to hide the idea that our lives are driven this way. And we go to war to take resources we desire away from others.

The whole system falls apart if we ever find a way to eliminate scarcity. Which leaves us with an animal drive and the need to find a new way to satisfy it. Fortunately, I think we'll survive it. :) But it would change the dynamics on so much of our lives and our view of our place in the world and the universe. Who knows, maybe we'll learn how to live with nature and fit ourselves into what the world can support.

Honestly, though, I think Kurt was massively underestimating how much of a human population this planet can sustain. We're a highly motivated people. We can come up with solutions to problems we never knew we had. Should food become an issue, I'm certain we will find a solution. It won't be a popular solution, but it will certainly keep us alive. And if we've eliminated scarcity by then, that solution may become popular over time.

What do you do when you run out of food - make more. Maybe we'll do molecular nano-assembly. Maybe we'll create synthetic protein and fat composites. Maybe we'll come up with vat grown meat. If we orbit enough solar energy collectors and beam enough of that power to Earth, we can produce a lot of things that nature couldn't support because it doesn't have the energy efficiency to do it.

Who knows, maybe we'll do away with the flesh altogether. I doubt it, I kind of like being human, but I like living too. :)