Survival at the “Hinge of History”

By Carl W. Hunt

In 1987, the Library of Congress and the Florida Center for the Book collaborated on the publication of an essay entitled “Reading for Survival” by my all-time favorite novelist, John D. MacDonald. I’ve read my collection of Travis McGee novels by JDM (as aficionados call him) at least four times and I’m even meandering through them once again, slowly and with great relish. Chuck has read them all at least three times.

Together, Chuck and I have quoted JDM and his near-mythical Florida beach bum-salvage consultant hero, Travis, dozens of times in papers and blogs and I even cited a Travis quote in my dissertation!

“Reading for Survival” was probably JDM’s last published work and was the culmination of a project first proposed by Jean Trebbi, Director of the Florida Center of the Book, in 1985. It took JDM a long time to create the timeless insights that all of us can now read in the 30 or so printed pages that compose the final product – he clearly thought long and hard about one of his “final” contributions to the future of America. Chuck and I have read the essay a number of times and still marvel at how much relevant history, philosophy and meaningful prognostication JDM packed into some 7000 words.

Chuck and I both re-read “Reading for Survival” this last weekend. In reading it again, I learned that sometimes you JDM Pic by CWHjust don’t have enough knowledge and experience for sage words to mean what they can…you have to wait until you’ve read another piece of great insight or experience life just a little more before things clarify. That’s what I experienced this weekend.

I had recently read another essay, one from the United Nations Academic Impact site co-written by my good friend and dissertation co-director, Stuart Kauffman and several others, including another friend, Caryn Devins. The essay, “Searching for Transcendence at the Hinge of History”, is one of those pieces that set the stage for understanding and appreciating anew the brilliance of both John D. MacDonald and my friend, Stu Kauffman. But, I had to read both within close proximity to put the pieces together.

Stu and company’s essay reflects the best of what some call nonlinear thinking. This is important because life is not a linear phenomenon even though time seems to pass that way, one moment followed by another, day after day, year after year. Life really isn’t just “one damned thing after another” but rather lots of things happening all at the same time, spread across lots of people and places: life is full of nonlinearity and massive interactions, a major theme of this blog.

The “Hinge of History” essay, something of a spin-off of Thomas Cahill’s series of books of the same name, eloquently raises the possibility “that we are unleashing the largest extinction event since perhaps the Permian, thereby destroying the accumulated living wisdom of thousands of species with no thought that we almost surely cannot recreate what we are losing,” [1] but that simultaneously, humanity’s “hinge of history may be the most staggering opportunity the globe faces.” We’re the problem and the solution at the same time!

How we become the problem and solution simultaneously is both the gist of Stu, Caryn and their co-authors’ essay and it’s a marvelous example of nonlinear thinking. A meaningful way to think about the passage and flow of time then might be found in the UN essay as follows:

“…the past provides ‘actual situations’ that become ‘enabling constraints,’ which at once restrain and encourage the development of the future. In other words, the enabling constraints from the past ensure that we cannot mold the world from scratch, but that we can build on what exists to create novel possibilities.”

In this way, we’re able to think beyond the past and its apparent linear unfolding and create a future that guides rather than forces the next turn of events. This is nonlinear thinking!

Let’s examine one of JDM’s examples in “Reading for Survival” and compare it to the “Hinge” essay. In this passage, JDM is describing the nonlinear, but elegantly “organized” mind of Travis’ great and brilliant friend Meyer. Here’s how Travis thought Meyer’s mind might work:

“When you and I think, it is a fairly simple process. A lot of fuzzy notions bump about in our skulls like play toys in a roiled swimming pool. With brute force and exasperation we sort them into a row and reach a conclusion, the quicker the better. With Meyer it is quite a different process. He has a skull like a house I read about once, where an old lady kept building on rooms because she thought if she ever stopped building she would die. It became an architectural maze, hundreds of rooms stuck on every which way. Meyer knows his way around his rooms. He knows where the libraries are, and the little laboratories, the computer rooms, the print shop, the studios. When he thinks, he wanders from room to room, looking at a book here, a pamphlet there, a specimen across the hall. His ideas are compilations of the thought and wisdom he has accumulated up until now.”

It’s just possible that my friend Stu thinks the same way and that’s why he’s so capable of conceiving these kinds of solutions to global planning problems in such a marvelously nonlinear, bottom-up driven fashion. Who would have thought and proposed what he and his coauthors did: that we could leverage this “Hinge of History” at which point we seem to exist today and seek to solve many of our societal dysfunctions not with new plans and designs but with a “vision of global change through adaptive institutional change at all levels…first and foremost at the local level. It is not a vision of design or command and control or engineering and rational forecasts. It is a vision of enablement. We enable global change by enabling local governance.” I think Meyer would approve!

In the end, we have to ask “Why is this at all important to how we Reconnect to the American Promise?” Well, I’ll take a shot at that answer: we can’t effectively reconnect to something that we can’t rediscover our intent to connect to in the first place…we really have to intend and desire to reconnect.

In their essay, Stu and company borrowed from Alfred North Whitehead’s thoughts on how the “future exerts its influence on the present, in the form of intention.” At the same time, they admonish us to recognize “that our intentions, and the realities they enable, can often create a widely divergent pattern of becoming, much like the evolving biosphere, political systems, and the economy.”

In large part, failure to recognize these divergences, aggravated by the super-connectivity of Information Technology, brought about much of the disconnection we’ve experienced in America since World War II. IT has helped to obscure and diffuse our desires and intentions to cohesively remain connected to our Founders. In finally recognizing this condition and leveraging technology to connect rather than disconnect, we’ll find the seeds to Reconnecting to the American Promise. I think it will help in the quest Stu, Caryn and company seek to fulfill, too.

In the meantime, to reflect nonlinearly how we could think and reconnect to our Founders as Americans of the 21st Century, consider JDM and “Reading for Survival.” You’ll be amazed at how timely Travis and Meyer’s chat of 28 years ago is to our current world and our current disconnections. Read it for America…please!

Originally posted 6/30/2015


[1] See for example: “Earth is on brink of a sixth mass extinction, scientists say, and it’s humans’ fault” for a recent mainstream media version of this report, by Sarah Kaplan, Washington Post, 6/22/2015.

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