Josh about to pass his grandpa

Josh about to pass his grandpa
Here, at age three, Josh regularly runs a mile or two with me--and I have to work hard to keep up!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Skill of Envisioning

       In my book The Longest Race, while recalling a momentous ultra I ran a few weeks after the 9-11 attacks in 2001, I alluded to a radical theory I have about human progress.  (After all, when you practice long-distance running, you're practicing how to make progress toward a finish line, and I had long since learned that reaching a finish line and reaching other kinds of goals involve a lot of the same factors.)
       My theory was that one of the key factors in human progress--envisioning outcomes--was one of the earlierst skills the human species ever developed, and was key to our ability not only to survive in a world of far more powerful, fleet-footed, sharp-toothed animals, but ultimately to build civilization and dominate all other life.
       I'd been running for many years, and had also experienced some intriguing success in my own ability to envision, but had never particularly connected those disparate skills--until I became familiar with the "Running Man" theory of human evolution first suggested by the biologists David Carrier and Dennis Bramble of the University of Utah and independently by the evolutionary biologist Bernd Heinrich of the University of Vermont and, more recently, by the evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman at Harvard. 
       The Running Man theory is that humans began their epochal evolutionary journey by learning to outrun all those faster, more powerful, and dangerous competitors, not by outsprinting but by outlasting them.  For decades, scientists had been blinded to this possibility by an obvious rhetorical question: How could running be an evolutionary advantage for a species that was slow?  The scientists had been focused on sprinting speed, which of course is what we see emphasized in all of our popular culture and enteertainment: the speed of touchdown runs, fast-breaks, 100-meter dashes in the tradition of Jesse Owens and "Bullet" Bob Hayes, and innumerable cop chases.
       But around a quarter-century ago, this rhetorical question actually got an answer.  It wasn't the early humans' inferior slow-footed sprinting, but their superior endurance running that enabled them to outlast the faster animals they hunted for food.  In articulating this theory (which eventually got a cover story in the top-tier scientific journal Nature), the scientists' focus was on heat buildup and cooling.  If a human hunter (or band of hunters) chased a horse or woolly mammoth, the quarry would easily get away but would have to stop and rest, and if the hunters caught up and the bigger animal would have to sprint away again--and then again--the big animal would eventually become overheated and have to succumb.  The humans, with their bare skin and higher surface-to-volume ratios, would cool more easily and therefore be able to keep up the pursuit (and their strength) much longer.
      While the scientists' focus was on the humans' superior cooling, my own focus--after half a century of competititve running--was on another question: when the prey sprinted out of sight, how did the  hominid hunter know it was still there (just around the bend or over the hill), close enough to keep chasing?  The scientists' knew the Running Man theory wasn't just conjecture; there were several tribes who practiced that kind of hunting--notably in the Kalahari Desert in Africa and in the vast Copper Canyon of Mexico.  The hunters in those places would chase animals for hours before finally running them down.  Other, nonhuman, predators generally give up the chase much more quickly: Out of sign (or smell), out of mind.
       It seemed necessary, then, to hypothesize that early humans were endowed not only with exceptional physical endurance, but with exceptional ability to envision.  One reason our brains grew bigger was to accommodate our developing capacity to envision the outcome (catching the animal being pursued) that had been out of sight not just for a few seconds but for many minutes--or even hours).  My radical theory: Endurance and mental envisioning of distant outcomes developed together.
       Endurance, as we all now know, is not inborn--even if the capacity for it is.  Although the genetic capacity for learning it may vary among individuals (in their percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers, surface-to-volume ratios at healthy weight, etc.), endurance is primarily a learned skill.  With practice, men or women who have mostly fast-twitch muscles or large frames can still become good endurance athletes.  And a guy with all the ideal endowment for distance running (lean, lightweight, all slow-twitch) still can't run long distances without hitting a wall if he doesn't train.  My inference: If endurance is a learned skill (we're born to run, but only if we practice), then envisioning, too, is a thing that has to be practiced to be effective.
       It may seem a huge leap to see a connection between my personal experience as a runner and my experience in envisioning future outcomes.  But as one of the most experienced runners alive today (I've been running competitively for 56 years without a break), I'd be crazy not to assume those thousands of hours have activated not only the part of my brain that enables the skill of endurance but also have activated the part that enables the skill of envisioning what's around the next bend or over the next hill in the journey of life--whether on the literal trail of a long-distance foot race or the macrocosmic human journey into an increasingly murky future.
       Whatever the answer, I'm aware that over my lifetime, I have envisioned a series of developments to which our culture (and media) at large have been largely blind.  To list them may seem like a kind of bragging, but in this time of growing threats to the human prospect I think it would be a mistake for anyone who has even an inkling of an idea about how to help us find our way out of the growing darkness to hide his light under a bushel.  To be fair, though, I'll point out that the incidents I'll cite are all well documented.  If something momentous happened in 2000 that I envisioned in 1970, I can produce documentation from 1970.  And while the experience of a single individual is what many scientists might dismiss as anecdotal, I'd also suggest that there's too much here to be just a series of coincidences.
       Before I get to the list, one very salient point: If envisioning outcomes is truly a skill for which we humans have extraordinary genetic capability, then the prevailing lack of intelligent envisioning--of the eventual consequences of climate change, overpopulation, declining biodiversity, and protracted war--suggests that our culture, media, and educational institutions have all failed us tragically, whether in America or Afghanistan, red states or blue states.  And now, my list:

1950s: Discovering organic and natural foods:  In the 1950s when I was still a kid, my father and I met a radical doctor who told us of his belief that Americans' health was being dangerously undermined by excessive consumption of highly refined sugars and grains, and by hydrogenated fats (lard, margarine, or Crisco).  The doctor's logic and evidence were persuasive, and in 1954 I adopted his whole-grains, no-preservatives, no-transfats diet--partly for health and partly because I was convinced it would make me a better runner.
       Four decades later, the U.S. government issued its first warnings that excessive consumption of sugar, highly processed foods, and transfat were contributing to heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

1970:  Envisioning cars that don't pollute:  In the 1960s, the idea of an emissions-free electric car was considered by the American auto industry--and the public--to be a long-failed experiment.  But along with a few others, I envisioned a big future for such cars, as documented in a report I wrote under a contract to the U.S. Department of Transportation, titled "The Economic Impact of Conversion to a Nonpolluting Automobile" (1970).
       Four decades later, the first hybrid-electric cars were introduced, soon followed by the all-electric Chevrolet Volt.

1970sMarathon running going big-time in New York City:  In the 1960s, there were a few hundred adult long-distance runners in New York, but I envisioned a time when running would be a liberating passion for city dwellers who lived and worked in confined spaces.  I ran in several obscure marathons staged in the streets of Yonkers and the Bronx in the '60s (there were about 50 participants each year), and when permission was granted to run a marathon in Manhattan, I jumped at the chance.  I thought it might be a watershed moment for urban culture.  The first New York City Marathon was held in 1970, and I ran and finished third.  There were 57 finishers in that first race.
       Four decades later, the New York Marathon has more than 45,000 competitors each year, with tens of thousands more turned away due to limited capacity.

1970sUpheaval of the American auto industry:  In the 1950s and '60s, the U.S. auto industry ruled the world--and was careless about quality control.  General Motors (GM) was the largest, wealthiest corporation in the world, and the company shrugged off criticism by Ralph Nader that its cars had far too many defects.  I had reason to believe GM's complacency would come back to haunt it, and in 1969 I wrote a book, What's Good for GM, warning of that outcome.  The publisher placed an ad for that book, along with Daniel Schorr's Don't Get Sick in America--an early warning that America's health-care system was heading for trouble--in the Wall Street Journal.
       Four decades later:  By the turn of the 21st century, the Japanese and Korean auto makers had seized on the opportunity to sell cars with greater emphasis on quality and reliability and had seized about half of the market share formerly held by the American manufacturers.  A few years later, GM was forced to declare bankruptcy.

1970sNuclear threats: By the late 1950s, Americans were worried about the threat of Soviet nuclear attack, to the extent that many people built bomb shelters under their houses, and school children participated in "duck-and-cover" drills--as if that would offer any protection from a bomb that could almost instantly vaporize both us and the desks we were ducking under.  By the 1970s, a new concern was being expressed by a small group of scientists. The Los Alamos physicist Theodore B. Taylor, who had designed the largest fission atomic bomb ever exploded on Earth (detonated on Anawatak Atoll in the Pacific in 1955), began issuing quiet warnings to the U.S. government and international nuclear agencies that the greatest threat was no longer thermonuclear war between the superpowers, but the risks of leaks, thefts, or hijackings of critical nuclear materials, and the growing dangers of nuclear blackmail or terrorist attacks.  In the early '70s, Dr. Taylor wrote a journal outlining those growing dangers and hired me to edit it.  Envisioning is never a one-person skill, but rather an ability to grasp and expand on the vision of others you work with or who came before you.  Taylor was no doubt influenced by the concerns of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who'd come to regret his role in leading the Los Alamos project that built the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  And I took to heart the hard facts Taylor had compiled.  But the nuclear agencies--and the world--paid little heed to his warnings.
       Now, four decades later, while no nuclear bomb has yet been exploded by terrorists over Washington, DC or New York or London, we are hearing explicit threats from the rogue nation of North Korea, and the even greater dangers of a coup by anti-American jihadists in unstable Pakistan, where extremists could seize a large nuclear capability.

1980s: The running boom in America:  By the mid-1970s, I'd noticed that the population of serious long-distance runners in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania had gone from a few hundred to at least a few thousands.  I felt strongly that an important new phenomenon was getting a foothold (literally!) not only in New York but all across a country that had become too soft for its own good.  In 1960, president-elect John F. Kennedy had written an article for Sports Illustrated, "The Soft American," in which he observed that half of all young men being considered for military service were being rejected by the Selective Service as "mentally, physically, or morally unfit."  He had argued, "If we fail to encourage physical fitness, we will undermine our capacity for thinking, work, and use of the skills vital to a complex and developing America." Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, but by the mid-70s I saw that growing numbers of Americans were taking his concerns to heart--we were bicycling, hiking, and running not just for the fun or competition but for the physical and mental health benefits.  The times were a-changin', as Bob Dylan intoned.  In 1977, I launched a magazine, Running Times, which envisioned an era when running would become a passion for millions of people whose lives would by transformed by it.  At the time, the number of serious runners in the U.S. was in the thousands.
         Three decades later, surveys by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association found that the number of Americans who were regular, "lifestyle" runners had climbed to more than 49 million--more than the number of people playing baseball and basketball combined.

1992Climate change:  In 1992, I was in my second year as a senior staff member at the Worldwatch Institute (publisher of the annual State of the World).  That year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a consortium of the world's top climate scientists, issued a landmark warning that human-caused global warming would generate increasingly frequent and intense extreme-weather events.  As editor of the Institute's magazine World Watch, I wrote a series of essays on what the scientists' warnings might mean for the human future, and especially the future of coastal cities.
       Two decades later: All of the trends the climate scientists warned of, and that I'd tried to help lay readers to picture--record wildfires, record floods, a mile-wide tornado, rogue hurricanes, disrupted ecosystems, and one other kind of catastrophe (see below)--had escalated even faster than the scientists had first projected.

2005: Hurricane Katrina:  In 2000, I was invited to lead a seminar on environmental security at the U.S. National Defense University in Washington, DC.  In my presentation, I noted that the climate changes we were experiencing made it highly probable that, sooner or later, the city of New Orleans would be hit be a catastrophic storm surge which--if generated by a category 4 or 5 hurricane--could wipe out the city.  In 2001 and 2002 I was invited back, and presented the same scenario for new groups. 
       Two years later: Hurricane Katrina, a category 3, hit New Orleans--and delivered a clear message about what would (or will) happen with a more powerful storm.

       So, there it is.  Do I claim to have an ability to predict?  No.  Anyone who claims to be able to see the future is at best naive or deluded, and at worst a blasphemous charlatan.  What I do claim--in accordance with well established scientific principles--is that by closely observing what is happening today and has happened in the past, we can envision what is most probable for the future.  As I've noted above, doing that well is a skill, and no algorithm has yet given us that capability because no real-life phenomenon of major importance is ever the outcome of just one or two quantifiable factors.  Those of us who are skilled at envisioning important future outcomes aren't even conscious of all the factors we take into account, any more than a skilled  basketball player is conscious of all the all the many biomechanical, neurological, emotional, and tactical factors he employs in an off-balance drive to the basket.  But we are at least aware of the need not to be thrown off, in our envisioning of the future, by the sway of sentiment, myths, corporate advertising, political propaganda, publicity, rumor, scapegoating, undiscriminating Google searches, and particularly the appeal of very simple answers, all of which can distract or obfuscate truths that might otherwise be obvious.
       With those caveats in mind, in my next post I will venture to apply my skill at envisioning to the ever-moving target of the next three decades, as seen from the perspecctive of 2013.  If I should be fortunate enough to live to 100 years (not likely, actually), to see how well my forecast turned out, the one thing I'm fairly sure of is this:  How skillful I prove to be at envisioning the world of the 2040s will be closely linked to how well I have succeeded in keeping my mind and body free of the crippling addictions and blinding distractions of the sprint culture.  We were born to run slowly, to persist, to be patient, and to envision with care and clear heads, and right now our civilization is moving far too blindly and fast to be sustained.