1600 Scientists: A Jeremiad

In Winter 2024: Climate Crisis, Commentary by Glenn Schiffman

1600 Scientists: A Jeremiad
Photo by Giordano Aita on Adobe Stock
“A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”
Albert Einstein

AT THE BEGINNING OF THE LAST DECADE OF THE 20TH CENTURY, 1600 scientists, including 100 Nobel Laureates, signed a “letter to humanity” which concluded, “We the undersigned, senior members of the world’s scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”1

One of the 1600, Robert Ornstein, went further. He called for a “new ethics,” a “new story,” a “new mythology,” an “evolution of consciousness.”2 Psychologist Robert Ornstein won dozens of awards, including ones from the American Psychological Association and UNESCO. His research of the human brain advanced understanding of how humans think. He concluded in his second book, The Evolution of Consciousness: “Within all of us is the potential to ... develop an innate perceptive capacity, one that’s been called higher consciousness – a new level of understanding reality, and a new altruism, in which everyone can take part.”3 Dr. Ornstein believes we urgently need to develop this innate faculty to solve the problems to which the 1600 scientists referred. In other words: “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”4

 This Jeremiad asks: Do scientists want to be the definers of a new story, possibly even new myth? Myths to me are creation stories. They attempt to explain to the ancients how energy moves and works. For me, the Big Bang is inhale and then exhale, i.e. a breath I liken to the Pale Blue Dot – the photo of the Earth taken in February 1990 by Voyager 1 – to the Garden of Eden. And by the way, if the Universe is expanding and that expansion is accelerating, is the Universe creating what it’s expanding into? Ashley Hammer in the Online Discovery Magazine says, and I paraphrase: Think of it as a balloon both finite (it has an edge), and infinite, (the expansion never ends). Maybe it’s a Mobius Strip folding back on itself quite endlessly? Now, that’s a creation story.

Stories fill a human need. This is a fact. Every society, democratic or autocratic, matriarchal or patriarchal, agricultural or industrial, forest gatherers or fishers of the sea, peaceful or warmongering, has a wealth of stories and storytellers. Through stories we travel across distance, space, or time into other worlds, other people and even other dimensions. It’s an established fact that stories improve our capacity for empathy and can change people’s behavior.5

All stories teach, lead, test, and amuse. Children learn how to be members of a culture from its stories. Language is code. Grammar is the cipher. Stories are keys. Literature instructs. Literacy is a measure of our ability to unlock ancestral knowledge and timeless wisdom. Without stories, without those keys, that instruction, a society would be witless, isolated, and its population would be uninformed and fearful of changing its myths.

Since signing their letter, very few of those erudite 1600 have come up with any follow-through, outside publishing in science journals and forming a nonprofit.6 In other words, they haven’t taken to the streets. Are they afraid, maybe, of losing EPA grants? Or is it their misunderstanding that they think ethics, ethos stories, myths, and consciousness are products or results of some kind of linear, historical, social engineering? When they get it that each story and myth is a state of being and each is an emergent of and for the Intelligence of Being, then maybe I’ll cut ‘em some slack in this regard. I mean, you don’t get ethics by adding up all past ethics and deriving a better formula for ethical behavior.

Recently, I was sitting in my car at a four-way stop by a high school in Burbank, California. There were no fewer than ten waiting cars in each inbound lane of the four-way intersection and a river of students crossing each intersection. There were 2500+ students in that high school, and 800 of them were navigating those crosswalks that 3:15 P.M. on a Tuesday afternoon on a pleasant January day. Not one of them looked up from their self-absorption on their I-phones, I-pads, earbuds, and/or skateboards to observe the lines of waiting cars. I can’t be sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a student crossing south to north was texting a student fifty feet away crossing east to west.

The generation I was watching from my waiting car is known as the “Plurals Generation.” Basically, that describes a generation that has grown up completely with and in the world of their electronic, digital devices and in a society of diverse ethnic and sexual identities. They know no other reality. They were all birthed onto this planet in the 21st Century.

Believe me, I realize, the Plurals have to learn it on their own. Every new generation believes that it must confront the consummate stupidity of the preceding generation, while the preceding generation struggles relentlessly to protect its mysteries and knowledge from which their integrity and identity springs. I understand that dynamic, but I can’t help but perceive alarming signs emerging.

Plurals engage less in civil discourse. They show little willingness to cooperate. They contentedly accept misinformation by exhibiting only casual curiosity about the truth. Implausible superhero, comic characters – not legendary heroes – have captured their imaginations. I worry that Plurals’ particular addictions to their short-term, dopamine-driven, digital feedback loops will be destructive to how the old stories and myths hold our society together. I want some of us Elders to point out the underpinning archetypal mysteries, which can be found in the old people’s stories, and I want us all to question the Plurals’ addictions to a freaking technology that is numbing their minds into unconsciousness.

Alice Thompson wrote an article titled, “Help Kids to Kick Social Media Addiction” published in The Times of London in March 2018, the original text of which read as follows: “The philanthropist Melinda Gates told me the same. Her children don’t have smartphones and only use a computer in the kitchen. Her husband Bill, the Microsoft co-founder, spends hours in his office reading books while everyone else is refreshing their homepage.” The article goes on to report: The most sought-after private school in Silicon Valley, the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, bans technical devices for the under-11s and teaches the children of eBay, Apple, Uber and Google staff to make go-karts, knit and cook. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg wants his daughters to read Dr. Seuss books and play outside rather than use Messenger Kids. Steve Jobs’s children had strict limits on how much technology they used at home.” Thompson concluded: “It’s astonishing if you think about it: the more money you make out of the tech industry, the more you appear to shield your family from its effects.”7

I’m told that teenagers these days don’t read books. That can’t be all true. They take classes, don’t they? They’re taught how to use a library, aren’t they? Please don’t tell me everything they know is on their smartphones. Or if that’s so, maybe when parked at that intersection I should have opened a window or two and shouted, “Whatever else you’re doing, download and read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited. That’s Huxley with an ‘X’, not a ‘CK’. Oh and learn to spell. The letters ‘R’ and ‘U’ are not a verb and subject.”

If I did that, there’s no chance any of them might care that my life lessons, including what I know about addiction, could teach them something. Most of them, if they did look at me, would in their minds simply see a grey-haired, not-cool dude in a ten-year-old car. From where and whence comes the idea that I can assist them in their future choices by describing the constructs and the destructs my experiential story has done for and to me? Why should they trust that I am not trying to promote my own agenda, but rather that I seek to not add to the confusion on this planet by helping them become aware of and adjust to the great, decisive, underlying, archetypal forces that will shape the Plurals’ collective psychology?

Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what we think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what we pay attention to and to choose how we construct meaning from experience.

In 2013 my poet-friend, James Mathers, (RIP) who was both a Navy and Air Force veteran, wrote a one-page essay that began: There’s some movement. I smell change. I’m in my 70s so I remember change. You young ones out there don’t recognize change because you’ve never seen it. So lemme tell you what it looks like. But before I do that you have to know what’s going on right now. We got constant warfare on every continent on this planet, and we got a police state here at home.8

The United States of America is at a crucial crossroads. And yes, I am deliberately using the word “crossroads” allegorically, since one of the initial braids of this “essay” began with me sitting at a crossroads.

Behind me is behind me – my story, my past, and our nation’s history to this day. As a writer, I use our nation’s history, as I know it, to interpret the past in order to profile the present. I use my personal story to characterize how my personhood responds to and shows up in the present.

To my left at my allegorical crossroads are people who believe human rights should prevail over property rights. To the right, same judgmental slant, are people who feel property rights should trump human rights. That’s the divide; those are the two camps, as I see it. Commoners are the majority. A selected few (the one-percent) have most of the property and money, which also means they have the military and the police on their side. Simply put, the way the laws are written, property rights trump human rights. This fact is why, I believe, James Mathers sensed we live in a police state.

Certainly, our nation is polarized left and right. The divide is not gender specific, but it is gender evident; women are now the leaders of most of the organized human rights demonstrations because women more cleverly cognize and epitomize human rights. Males, particularly white males, are galvanized to the notion that possession is 90% of the law. Given that for the first 100 years of our nation’s history, only white male property owners could vote, and for the next fifty years only the literate (as tested by white property owners) could vote, it is easy to understand why.

To me there’s a clear distinction between human rights and civil rights. The right to vote, the right to protest, the right to own or rent property that is not redlined, free speech, freedom of religion, a free press, petition, assemble, a fair trial are all civil rights written into the Bill of Rights and the 14th and 19th Amendments. When they are violated, when those rights are abused, we get angry, but we survive.

Human rights are more fundamental; they give us access to certain undeniable necessities, which means they are about survival. Clean water, air, sustainable farmland, nontoxic food, health care, prenatal care, education, and sexual orientation are necessities of organic life – in other words, they are Human Rights.

Human Rights cross borders. Clean air and clean water know no boundaries. The human sexual-preference genome knows no boundaries. Examples of this are in the thousands, but the most obvious is the biosphere’s changing climate. Those changes profoundly affect, and may indelibly mark, every living being.

Again, I quote James Mathers: People run to Congress or the President and say, What the hell, what’s going on, education is our right, clean water is our right, health care is not a privilege but a right, and the Speakers/Leaders/Presidents say:

“No, it’s all property. You want clean water, you have to buy it from Coke or Pepsi or Nestle. You want health care; you have to pay for patented, overpriced pharmaceuticals and insurance premiums that provide minimal coverage but pay exorbitant executive salaries. Education? Sorry. Education is a privilege, not a human right. So, you give us one dollar, we’ll give you thirty cents worth of education in return. Wait, you got a problem with that? Don’t you realize – it is through the public educational system that we built and now maintain a permanent underclass?”

Yes, there is movement. Millions of Americans now want the amoral thugs out of Congress and clear of the White House to prevent condemning the next generation of Americans to stupidity, unhealthiness, and mind-numbing service jobs that has no bootstraps and no productive future. Millions of Americans want a political narrative based on a mythic story that places certain inalienable (all created equal) human rights above the constitutionally engrained laws (i.e., 3/5ths of a human being) property rights.

Why? Let me take you back, not to 1600 scientists in 1992, but 67 years ago for an answer. In 1957, two University of Illinois professors studying the population explosion and working with the proportional rate of increases of the previous century predicted that the suffocation point for human society from both pollution and over-population would come in the year 2025. That’s less than two years from when I write this.9

Yes, there is movement, but it needs to grow into mass resistance, into rage against the machinery of the consolidators of property, or we are all going to suffocate. The Millennials and Plurals need to lead, yes, but we artists, musicians, writers, poets, teachers, preachers, Elders and wise, non-warmongering civil servants (not propertied lobbyists) must stand up and teach them to lead by showing them the mistakes we made.

I know something about demonstrating and about resisting, and if demonstrations and resistance are going to save Human Rights and Human Lives in this country, I am willing to stand and tell you what to do because I speak today as an Elder and from experience.

First, every demonstration in this country today, even purportedly for a Human Right such as clean water, health care, a woman’s right to choose, or education, is actually a demonstration against the property-right(s) laws of owners, corporate boards, banks, and churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques. Fifty years ago, women did not have the right to choose thanks to religious property issues; one hundred years ago, women were still legally the property of their fathers or husbands. Today, thanks to #MeToo, we are finally learning that every unwanted advance from a hug to rape is an assumption of proprietary rights over the humanity of the victim, with the vast majority being male lording it over female.

Second, violent resistance doesn’t work, not in a police state, because the police are on the side of the owners, corporate boards and banks. Gurdjieff, an Old Russian Elder once said: “If you want to get rich, make friends with the police.”

Third, boycott the misinformation and disinformation online feeds. "The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist," Hannah Arendt, author of The Origins of Totalitarianism wrote, "but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

We must be clear in our minds about right and wrong, and we must have a passion for a cause that comes from our hearts, not someone else’s mouth. Understand that truth is a trunk with two branches. One branch is what’s logical; the other is what’s cultural. Neither one is necessarily accurate. The trunk is what’s accurate. The trunk is the accurate truth.

 Chairman Mao said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” That’s politically logical. Napoleon said, “God fights on the side with the best artillery.” That culturally resonates. The Golden Rule is found in all religions. The Essene Hillel’s addendum: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow . . . the rest is the explanation.” The Golden Rule is the accurate way to behave.

A fourth strategy: know “where and when” the movement is collectively headed. Establish the long game by plotting sequences, subsequences and consequences. Understand that knowing “where and when” is as much about purpose as knowing “why and how.” Knowing “why” gives purpose seriousness and knowing “how” gives movements momentousness. “Where and when” give it all gravitas. And perhaps more importantly, knowing “where we are going” sustains faith, which, as the Nazarene said “can move mountains.”

We are living in a time of the convergence of multiple cataclysmic forces: runaway anthropogenic climate disruption, chronic wars, and the most grotesque economic inequality ever witnessed on Earth. And all are worsening by the day. We must not give in to the past or the future. We must remain entirely present.

In order to “inherit the wind,” that is, the Spirit of the Great Mystery, (which Robert Ornstein described as that “which weaves us inextricably into the tapestry of interbeing with all Creation"), we must trust that the strategies we need to succeed are found in the accurate history books, in the old, how-not-to-live archetypal trickster stories handed down through the generations, and in the lessons and advice of those who have “been there, done that” in previous civil and human rights movements. Yes, in the ‘60s and ‘70s we succeeded in bringing down Johnson and Nixon, we helped end a war, and we engendered enforceable clean water, voting rights, and civil rights laws. But we did it with tactics. We didn’t have a coordinated strategy. Tactics are short-lived. People today must draw from the embers, not from the ashes of the past.

In my day we feared and demonstrated against a world described by George Orwell’s 1984. We paid no attention to Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, even though Modern Library ranks it fifth among the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th Century.

Like Orwell, the Leftists in my generation feared those who would ban books, deprive us of information, restrict free speech, conceal the truth, and make us a captive culture. The Right went to war because they were told, and some believed, the communists would make us a captive people.

No one “8 to 80” living in the U.S. during the years 1963 to 1975 avoided the upheaval, change, challenges and choices of those times. The legacy of that decade of dishonor that began with the assassination of Kennedy and ended with the resignation in disgrace of Nixon and the fall of Saigon, which 58,195 American servicemen died trying to prevent,10 was as searing a decade to my generation as the Depression decade had been to our parents. And, ALL OF US were seared, pro and con, so we ALL created embers, nuggets of wisdom for the future.

Today’s world, Huxley’s prescient world, is almost the opposite of the world we feared. Huxley did not dread that books would be banned; he realized no one would want to read any! He feared that those who strategized creating abundance, rather than living humanely, would reduce us to passivity, egoism and the sin of silence. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance, that we would become an inaccurate and thereby trivial culture, preoccupied with feeling good, looking good, smelling good, while being distracted by the thrills and amusements in lotteries, games of chance, and gladiator-style blood sports, and nowadays – influencing – a word which from the Latin infleure means specifically, “the flowing in of ethereal fluid affecting human destiny.”

Huxley remarked, “The civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.”11

In 1984, Orwell posited that inflicting pain would control people. In Brave New World, inflicting pleasure controls them. “Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Are the Plurals googling Aldous Huxley? They are not. I do believe that the youthful leaders of the Plurals know they are standing at the crossroads of a mortal universe and a parallel, digital universe, and because of the power of social media, it’s possible the parallel, digital universe is the road ahead – the future. Do they realize their parallel universe also has have’s and have-nots; and therein the haves are gleaning artificially intelligent seeds from the digital embers of the past, thus controlling the future.  The have-nots are left with the meaningless algorithmic chaff in the ashes?

If nothing else, I ask them to stop and ponder just how much the initial conditions and thus direction of the Internet was influenced by the perspectives of nineteen, twenty, and twenty-one-year-old, well-off, entitled, self-absorbed preppy white boys. Will that fact be in Sociology Curriculums forty years from now? Will the fact that the biggest players – Amazon, Facebook, and Google (Alphabet) – have deliberately purposed their self-styled, social, entitled algorithms to a morphed addictive, persuasive artificial intelligence?

As I write this, it’s late December in the year 2023 – eleven years past the tipping point the 1600 scientists predicted, and less than two years to the time the Illinois professors said we would suffocate in our own pollution and overpopulation. The year 2023 means there are young men and women, i.e. the “Plurals Generation,” graduating college and entering the work force who were born in 1997, and there are graduate students whose first possible memory of a presidential election is the one decided by one vote in the Supreme Court. These are the youth who need, yes need, to pay attention to the lessons from the Elders because it is logical and cultural to posit that the next decade will also be a searing one because of pollution and overpopulation worldwide.

For me to be wrong, the Millennials and the Plurals have to make choices now, since pollution and overpopulation do not have the luxury of time. Only what is good in the hearts of the youths’ leaders, artists, teachers, inventors, and programmers will save us. If technology can save them, so be it. But so far, I don’t see technology taking to the streets. I don’t see technology righting the imbalance. I don’t even see technology cleaning out the billion tons of plastic suffocating our oceans. Instead, technology is misinforming with out-and-out mendacity because technology is personal and intellectual property, which needs to be protected – and this is where I call out the 1600 scientists – before the truth and humanity need to be protected.

Resistance to the reactionaries and corporate owners will take both integrity and audacity. During World War II, a young Quaker who applied for Conscientious Objector status appeared before his draft review board. After the Quaker made his case, the head officer, a reserve colonel, fumed:

“Where do you think you would be if you were in Hitler’s Germany?”

“I’d be dead or in a concentration camp,” the young Quaker answered. And then he asked, “And you, Colonel, Sir, where would you be if you were in Hitler’s Germany?”12

The time has come to be that audacious. Humans need an inhabitable earth for their children. Real human beings, the old people said, will save us; Real Human Beings who know the old wisdom stories and who follow their hearts.

How do we know who is, or who is not, a real human being? How do we know the accurate truth? How do we know what is in our hearts? I hunt the answer to these questions in the central themes of the cultures of indigenous Earth people – Real Human Beings – the “Humble” in the Nazarene’s “the humble (not meek) shall inherit (derive the benefits of) the earth.” Real Human Beings are the “righteous,” as in “Those Who Hunt Accurate Truth (hunger and thirst for);” and they are the “peaceful,” the “merciful,” the “pure in heart,” the “Children of God.” I hunt, not just seek, because hunting is about survival. Nor do I accept without questions good book commands. As the author Phillip Pullman remarked, “‘Thou shalt not might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once Upon a Time’ to reach the heart.” I never have an idea that no one else has had. Ideas, great or otherwise, exist in the sphere of mind, the Intelligence of Being. That said, I write not from ideas, but from my experiences in both the mortal and mystical worlds, and I have had experiences in both worlds that no one else has had. Experience is the “how” of knowing.

I say the 1600 Scientists need to explain, as “new storytellers,” exactly how their red-shifting, discriminative-judgment, big bang facts will save us? Otherwise, so what? If the 1600 Scientists’ new stories don’t accurately teach us how to be a Real Human Being, nobody is going to give a rusty corkscrew about quasars, dark matter, Langrangian densities or Grand Unified Theories as little as two years from now, when the haves are all suffocating in their own pollution, and the have-nots are starving to death from overpopulation.

James Mathers ended his essay with the plea, If we’ve got any poets out there, the time has come to step up and tell their stories. To that I add, if there are any other Elders out there, our time has come to be heard, read, seen ... again, no matter the opposition, no matter the judges, no matter how audacious we have to be – because the sin of silence is an act of cowardice.

1 Union of Concerned Scientists’ “Warning to Humanity,” signed in 1992 by more than 1600 leading scientists, including more than 100 Nobel laureates, issued this appeal in November 1992. The World Scientists' “Warning to Humanity” was written and spearheaded by the late Henry Kendall, former chair of UCS's board of directors.
2 Dr. Robert Ornstein, The Evolution of Consciousness, NY, Simon & Schuster, 1991, chapter 26, pages 32-36.
3 Ibid, p. 36
4 Atomic Education Urged by Einstein, New York Times (25 May 1946).
5 A 2013 Emory University study looked at the brains of fiction readers and those who listen to stories told orally. Readers and listeners of stories tend to be more aware of others' emotions. In the study, empathy was only apparent in the groups of people who read or hear stories, because the same psychological processes are used to navigate story relationships. Stories are not just a simulator of a social experience; they are a social experience.
6 Ucsusa.org
7 Disclosure: Yes, I am writing this on a Mac using Word and will email it to various publications via Submittable© when available.
8 James Mathers, Essay, “An Innocent Man Is Hard to find, Returning Soldiers Speak, An Anthology of Prose and Poetry, compiled by Leilani Squire, 2013, Bettie Young Books, pg. 95.
9 Notation on a 3X5 card inherited from my Protestant Minister father’s sermon notes.
10 In 1995 Vietnam released its official estimate of the number of people killed during the Vietnam War: as many as 2,000,000 civilians on both sides and some 1,100,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters. (Britannica)
11 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, 1985, Penguin Books
12 Sermon notes inherited from my father.
About the Author

Glenn Schiffman

Glenn Schiffman is co-founder of Western Gate Roots and Wings, a non-profit counseling program for at-risk youth, uninitiated adult men, and veterans suffering with “Soldier’s Heart” which counsels using indigenous ceremonial settings in collaboration with Native Elders. His novel “The Way I Was Taught” (self-published) was a 2014 Eric Hoffer Fiction Award finalist and his short stories have appeared in “Quill and Parchment,” “The Write Launch,” and the anthology “Returning Soldiers Speak.”

Read more work by Glenn Schiffman .