These days I find myself thinking about a lot of “big picture” subjects, like the future of society. (Yup, that’s pretty big picture stuff.) I am deeply concerned about how the coming decades will unfold in terms of economic and environmental sustainability, and I believe that we will have to reassess our relationships with technology, the planet, our workplaces, and each other.
Among those who anticipated this state of affairs many years ago was John Ohliger (1926-2004), an iconoclastic, pioneering adult educator, civic activist, and public intellectual whose work I have mentioned before on this blog. John also was my good friend, and his voluminous writings, many of which were self-published through his independent center, Basic Choices, Inc., have had a strong influence on my thinking.
In essays from the early 1980s, John foresaw the dilemmas over material goods that a modern, “first world” society would face. He drew from the work of other leading adult educators to articulate two competing visions of the future for society. One vision was that of a “technological, top-down, service society” that defined “the ‘good life’ as affluence and leisure with high-tech big technology solving problems which lead to mastery of the environment.” The other vision saw the “good life” as embracing “useful work, peace, self-fulfillment, and appropriate technology leading to harmony with the environment.”
John expounded upon on how that latter vision could unfold:
My picture is of a future where we live more relaxed and more modest lives with an abundance of unmeasurable and infinitely available non-material (or better, trans-material) resources. All the travail and pressure we’re going through right now may be paving the way for that future. This future could be one where we will have a choice of “goodies”; not ones requiring scarce energy, minerals, or dollars; or ones permitting some people to get rich while others go hungry, but choices that we create with our own hearts and heads and hands among people we know and care for.
It’s fair to say that supporters of the “technological, top-down, service society” to which John referred have had their way of things, at least during the past three decades. Against this backdrop, advancing a healthier vision for society is a challenging task, but that shouldn’t dissuade us from pursuing it. In an unpublished autobiographical essay written later in his life, John suggested that a combination of spirituality, personal growth, and social action could be at the core of this transformation. I’d say he was right on target about that.
For more about John Ohliger’s unique public intellectual role, see my book chapter, David Yamada, “The Adult Educator as Public Intellectual,” in Andre P. Grace, Tonette S. Rocco, and Assocs., Challenging the Professionalization of Adult Education: John Ohliger and Contradictions in Modern Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009)