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Five Questions with Jonathan Salk on Human Evolution and a Sustainable Future

Jonathan Salk with Ron Pernick's picture

Part of a series of insights from leading smart-grid, clean-energy, and utility experts speaking at gridCONNEXT. Questions asked by Clean Edge managing director, author, and gridCONNEXT co-chair Ron Pernick.

Ron Pernick: You first co-authored A New Reality with your father, the late Jonas Salk, nearly four decades ago. What made you decide to rewrite and update the book?

Jonathan Salk:  When it came out in 1981, it sold very few copies. Looking back, it seems that it was well before its time. My father lectured about the ideas until his death in 1995. In the years that followed, it seemed that much of what we wrote about was coming to pass, in both expected and unexpected ways. Then, five years ago, out of the blue, I got a call from a young architect and designer, David Dewane, who had come across the book, read it, and was blown away. Feeling that it spoke directly to him and his generation, he proposed that we revise, update, and redesign the original. I said yes, and we now have the book clearly rewritten, beautifully redesigned, and available to the public.

Pernick: I’m currently reading Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now. Similar to your book, you both provide positive views regarding the arc of human progress. With all the seemingly negative news these days (especially regarding deep societal inequities between the wealthy and the poor), what makes you optimistic about humanity’s future?

Salk: Two things make me optimistic. The first is that, as individuals and as a species, we are social creatures, capable of cooperating and planning in order to achieve societal stability. This capability is as much a part of our genetic make-up as is competition and selfishness and, under the right conditions, the more positive qualities can predominate. Furthermore, the basis for our evolutionary success has been our ability to adapt to a wide variety of environmental conditions, and, when necessary, to shape our environment to our advantage. In migrating out of Africa, we adapted to more diverse climates than any other species – from the arctic to the deserts, from temperate to tropical. Also, in a manner totally unique among living creatures, we have altered our environment, developing agriculture, domesticating animals, inventing industry, creating urban environments, all of which have changed the very landscape in which we live. Throughout our evolutionary history, we have made adaptions, and I believe that we can make them again – only this time on a global scale.

Pernick: In the book you write extensively about how population growth is slowing down and will eventually stabilize at around 10 billion humans. What's the science behind these numbers and why is it so important?  

Salk: The science behind these numbers is hard data of changes that have already occurred in population growth patterns and UN projections of growth through the end of this century. Existing data resoundingly confirm that after centuries – really, millennia – of acceleration in population growth, world-wide growth has been slowing since the last part of the 20st century, and UN projections now predict a plateau in population size at between 10 and 12 billion within the next 80-100 years. The graph forms an S-shaped, or sigmoid, curve. It consists of an upturned portion showing accelerating growth, an inflection point, and a down-turned portion reflecting deceleration leading to a plateau. This change from accelerating to decelerating growth is epochal, and it will necessarily be accompanied by changes in human values and behavior throughout society – including, significantly the adaptation to renewable resources.

Pernick: I like the reference to “epochal.” On a related note, when you first wrote the book, such disruptive technologies as laptop computers, publicly available cell phones, and the Internet didn’t even exist. How have these, and other major tech innovations, impacted your modeling and views of our collective human future?

Salk:  Technology is agnostic and can be used to support a variety of values, political, and economic systems. That said, the development of these revolutionary technologies can dramatically support the changes we have foreseen. They make small-scale and large-scale cooperation and interdependence possible. They all can be (and will be) used in the service of renewable resources and sustainable development. Importantly, they also can support changes in human-to-human relationships, facilitating cooperation and interdependence in the formation of both local and global communities.

Pernick: Your father’s greatest legacy was developing the polio vaccine. As you mentioned earlier, in his later years he focused much of his time not only on studying population growth but researching the move from what he called “Epoch A” (focused on self- interest and competition) to “Epoch B” (focused on species-level interest and cooperation). What do you see as some of the most likely outcomes of Epoch B – especially as it relates to energy use, transportation, and climate change?

Salk: Epoch B values include achieving dynamic equilibrium (as opposed to limitless growth); interdependence; material balance in the distribution of wealth and resources; balance between humanity and nature; and long-term, systemic thinking. In terms of sustainable development, I see a number of critical strategies and goals for both the near-term and more distant future. Energy use will necessarily transition to low- and zero-carbon renewables. Transportation will have to serve large and small communities without depleting resources or adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere – most likely via the electrification of transportation systems. Climate change will have to be addressed, adapted to, and slowed. All of these things will only happen in the context of increased levels of human health, education, and sustainable development throughout all regions of the world. It’s key to remember that the health and well-being of each individual human is tied to the fate of our species and the entire planet. If we acknowledge this and respond to it effectively, I believe we can enter into a new phase in the history of humanity – what I like to call “a new reality.”

Jonathan Salk is co-author of A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future as well as a highly respected adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist.

He will be a keynote speaker at gridCONNEXT 2018 in Washington, D.C. in early December. The conference provides an unprecedented opportunity for utilities, policymakers, regulators, investors, businesses, service providers, end-users, and other stakeholders to explore policies and share best practices on building a modern 21st century grid. For more information, visit