Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, Friends

The announcement of the award of the Erasmus Prize came to me as a complete surprise. I am deeply touched and greatly stimulated by the honour and greatly encouraged by it for future work. I would like to express my heart-felt thanks and gratitude to the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation and its leaders, and this especially because of the recognition through me of the kind of thinking which I have been trying to cultivate and which I think is necessary for the evolution of our society in the future.
I myself, I regard myself completely and essentially as a European. I was born in Scotland, later moved to that neighbouring Kingdom of England, undertook a research period in Germany, operated the IFIAS from Stockholm and for many years we have been residents of France. So, I think we feel, my wife and I, and those nearest, very much in this European spirit of that great European Erasmus himself.

It has been suggested that I should take this opportunity to say some words about my own general conclusions from my career, about society and, if you like, life in general, which is impossible in the short period which I have. But I say a few things. Our present society is of course dominated by technology. The consequences of the Industrial Revolution two hundred years ago are not even now fully assimilated, and yet we are in the midst of a second revolution, as Prince Bernhard indicated, towards the information society which is likely to cause still greater changes in the nature of society and in the way in which each one of us lives in the future. Science and technology then shape greatly, very often subconsciously, our experience and thought, but they exist side by side with the rich and deep traditions of the European past, but the two aspects are by no means harmonized. The dichotomy is great and at some times even painful. Even the economic system which relies so heavily on technology has not yet fully come to terms with it. It is implicit and still in the thinking of many economists that new technologies arise essentially in response to the interaction of economic forces and is, as it were, one of the muscles of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. There is, of course much truth in this, however the new technology in many cases arises from discoveries in the science laboratories which could not be foreseen and which lead to changes of the course of direction of society. Now the triumphs of technology have greatly magnified the materialistic preoccupations of our society. As Dennis Gabor, the Nobel Prize inventor of holography and a member of the Club of Rome mentioned: ‘Our present society is based materially on an enormously successful technology and spiritually on practically nothing’. Every step in technological progress from the use of the first flint implements, tools, to the nuclear armed, intercontinental ballistic missiles have added to the physical capacity of the human being both in his struggle to better his physical conditions and, most obviously, in conquest over his enemies. The tragedy of science is that it has done so little to enrich the other aspects of human existence and the imperative needs now are to master technological development in such a way as to contribute to the general well-being of all people and to seek to balance the material advances by cultivating social, moral, artistic and spiritual attributes. For example the new technologies, through automation and the like, will erode the work ethic and greatly increase the lifetime quota of leisure for everyone. But will this merely generate a vacuum in the lives of the majority with a boredom which will be filled with mechanical entertainment and all sorts of trivia, or can it be used constructively to provide fulfilment and development of the individual? In the next decades we shall reach many crossroads requiring decision such as the one that I have suggested.

The relations between science and government were slow to develop. Although many governments had, from the beginning of the century, supported laboratories for particular sectors, it was only in the early sixties that science and technology began to be considered in strategic and policy terms. The concept of science policy, to a large extent derived from our work in OECD, was initially greeted with some suspicion. I remember that when we first announced the intention of the OECD to convene the meeting of science ministers, the Minister of Education of the Netherlands visited Paris to persuade the then Secretary General to cancel this meeting. He argued that science, if it had any policy implications at all, was a minimal element of cultural policy and that to discuss it in an economic context was a sort of prostitution. Things have changed very greatly from that period. Nevertheless much requires to be done and science requires to be regarded on the strategic level in a much broader sense than through technology.

Today however, we are interested in the wider problems, the impact of technology on the world system. The most serious of contemporary problems are global in nature and cannot be solved, as I was already quoted to say, by individual countries in isolation. This small planet is shared by more than 170 individual nation states, each proclaiming the sanctity of national sovereignty and pretending to be master of its own destiny. Arnold Toynbee put it: ‘The cult of sovereignty has become mankind’s major religion. Its God demands human sacrifices’. Yet the reality of sovereignty is increasingly illusory, the more so the smaller and poorer the country. The permeation of technology, the increasingly global nature of the economy, the international transactions of the transnational corporations, innumerable multilateral agreements, these and many other factors represent a de facto eroding of sovereignty. In this said situation and in face of rapid change, increasing complexity and uncertainty, existing institutions, both national and international are proving woefully inadequate. The structures of governments, created for earlier, simpler times simply do not respond to the present challenges. There is need for radical transformation and this is true also for institutions of many other kinds, including corporations and perhaps, more than anywhere, in the educational system. Perestroika must not remain the monopoly of the Soviet Union. But structural changes, structural innovations are by no means the total solution; they must be accompanied by new attitudes in politics and public life. Viewed against the threats and promises of the present situation, many of the antics of politics seem tragically absurd, such as the selection of leaders on the basis of the charismatic level of their television image, or the denunciation of politicians as vacillating and unreliable when they can made to seem to change their views, where and at the same time in reality capacity to do just this in the light of evolving situations should be a mark of statesmanship. Again, confrontation and mutual slanting between party representatives and parliaments appears to dominate parliamentary proceedings in many countries, when a striving towards consensus would seem to be called for in the national interest.

It seems to me that each individual exists in three different but linked environments simultaneously and that a projection of this concept describes the workings of society. There is the external environment of the planet, the internal world of the individual, isolated and hidden and, somewhere between and linked to both, there is a social arena where individuals react and evolve common action for security, prosperity and satisfaction. Little need be said here concerning the problems of the external environment; they are many and difficult and will become increasingly so as world population growth combined with more per-capita wealth increases the extent of human activity with its demands for materials and energy. I estimate that within my own lifetime the totality of human activity has increased between twenty- and forty fold, due partly to population, the increase of numbers, but partly to the increase consumption of each as prosperity and economic growth have been achieved. This of course has a very growing impact on the fragile biosphere.
However, I am convinced that the fundamental problems, both of the individual and of the collectivity of individuals which is society, lies deep within human nature. Egoism, or the life force as the Victorians used to call it, provides the urge to survive, to prosper and to excel; it is the driving force of innovation and progress. But it is also manifested as selfish and anti-social behaviour, brutality, the lust for power, domination over others and exploitation. The struggle between the positive and the negative aspects of egoism is the eternal Faustian drama. For centuries individuals have been disciplined and their negative characteristics kept in check by hope of Paradise and fear of Hell, but with the loss of faith in religion and indeed of political structures and institutions, restraints have evaporated; minorities refuse to accept the decisions of the majority, there is disrespect for the laws and mounting terrorism. These features, projected to the level of the collectivity, operate in the social environment. National egoism can appear as a desirable love of country or can be whipped up as chauvinism, xenophobia, hatred for other countries and finally war. These matters are seldom admitted and, when they are, are generally shrouded in taboo. The low efficiency of the Marxist economies, for example, seems to stem to a large extent from a naive faith in human nature, a presumption that people will give their best in agriculture, industry and elsewhere, without personal incentive; unrealistic. If this diagnosis is at all valid, it would seem that in addition to the traditional approaches, we need to take positive steps, individually, nationally and internationally towards identifying and extending zones of common self-interest recognizing the reality of egoism, its limitations and its possibilities. Living as we do on the edge of the nuclear abyss, in a world of exploding population and ecological threat and in the midst of a new technological revolution, it would seem vital to reassess the situation within all three of our simultaneous environments. Preservation of the external environment in which our biological existence is rooted, demands that our egoism be not limited to our own lifespan, but be extended to include that of our children and grandchildren with whom we can identify, so that we shall strive, selfishly if you like, to secure conditions which will allow a decent and humane life for the succeeding generations. This necessitates not only restraint, but also a much deeper understanding of the workings of the terrestrial and social systems with greater awareness of dangers and possibilities. This demands internal as well as external knowledge. Man is often regarded as a microcosm of the totality of all things. On the arena of human activity, I prefer to invert the concept to regard society as the aggregation of all of its constituent human units, in a conviction that fundamental reform of the life of societies and nations can only be derived from development, both moral and social of the individual to make possible a constructive and balanced use of the egoistic force. Transposed to a religious idiom, this essential need has perhaps been best expressed by the mediaeval Christian mystic, Angelus Silesius who wrote: ‘I must be Mary and myself give birth to God’. It would seem to me that in the last analysis, real progress of the race must come from evolution within. Only through a deliberate cultivation within our separate, private environments, is a society of integrity, harmony and social equity likely to arise. Thank you.