Close to the end of his life, legendary Rear Admiral Hyman G. Rickover of the U.S. Navy said at a lecture: "We should value the faculty of knowing what we ought to do and having the will to do it. Knowing is easy; it is the doing that is difficult. The critical issue is not what we know but what we do with what we know." With his incisive tenacity, the accomplished four star Admiral captured the spirit of the human legacy; overcoming adversity with ingenuity.
The admiral was the longest serving naval officer due to his wealth of knowledge about nuclear propulsion technology and his catalytic role as manager of the development of America's nuclear navy; ending his career when he was forced to retire after 63 years of active duty. During these decades, several presidents noted his wisdom and foresight and his personality was famous in Washington, both at the Pentagon and Capitol Hill. Despite having been such a persistent personality in the government, his warnings have not yet been adopted by the U.S. government. His thinking was of global magnitude and we would be very fortunate today had the world heeded his advice and done the things that "should" have been done.
In 1957 at the Banquet of the Annual Scientific Assembly of the Minnesota State Medical Association he delivered a prophetic speech that recounted human civilization's development. He demonstrated the link between human development and interaction to energy use, and despite his recount of our species' epic innovative capacity, he never failed to weave in to the discussion the other side of the coin: with civilization there is resource depletion and environmental degradation, a condition that can't be ignored.
"Fossil fuels resemble capital in the bank. A prudent and responsible parent will use his capital sparingly in order to pass on to his children as much as possible of his inheritance. A selfish and irresponsible parent will squander it in riotous living and care not one whit how his offspring will fare." he explained. He described the acceleration of energy consumption and population growth, concluding that the future presented an incredible challenge that could only be met and overcome through a complete paradigm change, a redefinition of civilization. In his final remarks he observed: "I suggest that this is a good time to think soberly about our responsibilities to our descendants."
The admiral's speech summarized over 60 years ago what in my view remains society's largest problem today. The dynamics of quality of life and energy use in society are still the same. Sadly our ability to deplete our resources has vastly increased due to the technological boom of the past decades which has made modern life incredibly energy intensive. Consumptive behavior has made the world economies hungry for every resource from every corner of the earth and yet it is hard for us to imagine a world that could operate any differently. We still await a paradigm shift and although ideas and options abound, action is lacking.
The increasing attention that is given to resource depletion, environmental damage and climate change has slowly gained acceptance by people everywhere. In some places more effectively than others. Nevertheless, the notion that our current path is not sustainable is slowly gaining a footing around the world. The emergence of national policies, international treaties and civil organizations organizing to address resource use, environmental conservation and sustainable practices, is uplifting in the context of a stark global reality. Yet civilization's course has not changed with the majority of humanity still in oblivious bliss of the consequences of our rampant resource depletion.
As the storm clouds that he warned us of in 1957 draw nearer, we must consider our own role in the future of our species and the planet. Admiral Rickover's conclusion was that "our greatest responsibility, as parents and as citizens, is to give America's youngsters the best possible education. We need the best teachers and enough of them to prepare our young people for a future immeasurably more complex than the present." However, our legacy to the next generation should not only be awareness about resource depletion and intractable challenges. It is up to every single one of us to challenge the status quo and help begin a new human legacy: handing over a better planet to the next generation.
To read the full speech by Admiral Rickover click here.