Norman Cousins

The big news of the 21st century,'' says Norman Cousins, ``will be that the world as a whole has to be managed, and not just its parts.'' If a single word could be found to characterize Mr. Cousins' thinking, it might very well be ``wholeness.'' The longtime editor of the Saturday Review is now a professor of what the School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles describes as the ``medical humanities.'' He makes it his business to stand back, take the broad view, and weave together the threads of culture, humanities, medicine, public policy, and international affairs into a single tapestry.

And that, as he sees it, is just what the world must do as it rolls toward the 21st century.

``The division of the human species into national tribes has outlived its usefulness,'' he said in the course of a two-hour interview here in his book-lined hilltop home. The result has brought to the fore ``the most important issue of [our] time,'' which he defines as the need to recognize that the entire world is ``a unit with clearly identifiable problems pertaining to the whole.''

What are those problems? With the assurance of a man who has thought about them deeply, Cousins ticks off four:

Weapons that can ``pulverize the human species.''

Environmental deterioration so severe as to ``threaten the natural balances which are necessary to sustain life.''

World hunger.

``World squalor.''

These, he hastens to add, are not new problems. But they exist, nowadays, in a ``form so heightened that people don't want to think about them.''

It's a sobering list. But a further challenge -- the unwillingness of humanity even to ``think about'' these problems -- is clearly Cousins' overarching concern. Even what he calls the ``saturation of tension'' produced by the presence of weapons of mass destruction -- the issue that many thinkers place at the top of the 21st century's agenda -- is not for Cousins the most pressing one.

``The No. 1 problem in the world,'' he concludes, ``is not the presence of all this destructive weaponry -- or the emphasis on it and the organizations attached to it. That's the No. 2 problem. The No.1 problem is the inability to recognize the No. 2 problem.''

In fact, what occupies Cousins' attention these days is not so much the specific problems facing the world, serious though they are, as the lack of structures through which to deal with them. It is this failure -- the inadequacy of the world's social and political institutions -- to which he returns again and again throughout the conversation.

``The institutions that we have,'' he says, ``tend to pull us back rather than enable us to cope with those problems.'' The reason: ``Those institutions not only are incapable of meeting the need, but actually intensify the need.''

As he talks, examples emerge. Speaking at one point about President Eisenhower's warnings concerning America's military-industrial complex, Cousins calls attention to the influence exercised over defense-spending decisions by the nation's powerful manufacturing interests. He goes so far as to say that ``the threat to American security today is represented not so much by an outside enemy as by the fact that decisionmaking with respect to national security and the programs connected to it is being carried out by people who have no [financial] stake in peace.''

As in the United States, so also abroad. ``The principal threat to the health of the world's peoples today,'' he says, figuratively donning his medical-research hat, ``is represented not by cancer but by the foreign policies of their governments. The failure of those foreign policies will be translated into more death and disease [if there is nuclear war] than all [that our] medical institutions combined can possibly take on.''

Yet even these problems, precisely defined as they are, take a back seat to what Cousins sees as larger instances of institutional breakdown -- related, in general, to the inadequacy of the institution of national government itself.

This problem, for Cousins, shows up in the United States in one clear manifestation: the fact that it is ``difficult to get the attention of government for anything that has a long-range nature.''

``If you talk to a congressman about something that will surface more than two years from now, a glaze comes over his eyes,'' says Cousins, who has had plenty of opportunity to do that sort of talking. ``The term of office, unfortunately, tends to dictate the readiness of officeholders to consider problems.''

``The mainframe of American society,'' he concludes, is ``not constructed to look at or deal with long-term issues.'' The world as a tribe BUT the real difficulty, in his view, lies in the very presence of national governments themselves -- and in the failure of nations to adopt a form of world government.

That, as Cousins well knows, is a controversial position to take -- especially in a nation which, over the past few years, has been experiencing a resurgence of patriotism. So he is at pains to describe his position, and its historical roots, in some detail.

Nations, in Cousins' view, came into being in a natural evolution away from tribes and, later, from city-states. ``The purpose of the nation,'' he says, ``was to protect the lives, values, and the cultures'' of its citizens.

Today, however, ``no nation is able any longer to meet those purposes,'' he says -- no longer capable, for example, of ``protecting its people from war or in war. And yet the nation still regards war as its ultimate challenge and function. And in the very act of attempting to meet the needs of war, paradoxically, we get closer to it, because the instruments of war reach a point where you don't want to be hit first.'' The result, in Cousins' view, is a spiraling arms race that ignores the real needs of national security.

``So we move into the 21st century,'' says Cousins, ``where the entire human race has all the requirements of a tribe. Geographically, it's in a compressed area. Sociologically and economically, it has to interact -- and there are aspects not only of interaction but of interdependence that have to be addressed. But it lacks the adequate institutions to make the unit workable and viable.''

All of which could sound like a recipe for profound pessimism. But Cousins, a patient listener whose manner tends toward the formal and whose humor is quiet and reserved, is no pessimist. ``Let me plagiarize myself,'' he says with a smile, referring to the voluminous writing he has done over his long career, ``and say that I really don't know enough to be a pessimist.'' Admitting to grave doubts about existing institutions, he nevertheless notes that ``I'm optimistic about the intangibles that could be converted into assets or answers.''

What's the basis of his optimism? ``Creating institutions has always been a standard business of the human species,'' Cousins observes. All that means is that ``you recognize that a form has to be provided, competence has to be created, responsibilities have to be fixed, and mechanisms for repair have to be brought into being. That's all a government is. But there are different forms of government, of course. The progress of the people depends on what form of government is created'' -- or, in other words, on ``how they organize their collective life.''

For Cousins, the obvious solution lies in creating supranational institutions constituting a form of world federal government. UN as a model? WHAT about the United Nations as a model? While praising some of its agencies, Cousins is well aware of the UN's limitations. ``The United Nations, like the Articles of Confederation [of the American colonies] from 1783 to 1787, is a reflection of an existing situation rather than an effort to transcend the situation.''

The Articles didn't last. They proved, in Cousins' view, inadequate to the task and were superseded by a Constitution calling on the separate states to surrender some autonomy for the sake of a stronger whole.

The result: the creation of the United States, which Cousins calls ``the most spectacular example of a nation that was designed, designed to meet a certain purpose.'' The parallel to today's world, he says, ``is obvious, both philosophically and politically.''

``The choices, it seems to me,'' he says, ``are whether this gravitational pull, this historical pull toward a world unit, will produce a world totalitarian society, `a la George Orwell, where the natural forces to create the whole will be brought about and governed by force.

``Or will the human intelligence be brought to bear on the problem in order to create a society of the whole which will make progress possible in some degree of human development and decency?''

Needed, he feels, is the will to reinvent the very way humanity thinks. ``We move into the 21st century without the philosophy or the sociology or the politics that can keep the species going,'' he notes.

Then does that mean that the process of reform must begin with individuals? Cousins puts great faith in the educational process. ``If governments by themselves are part of the problem instead of part of the answer,'' he says, then ``education becomes the only means by which you can get people to a point where they make the demand [for reform].''

But time, he feels, is not on humanity's side -- and education takes time. ``We can't wait for a regeneration of the heart of man,'' he says, ``before we can meet the world problems. I think that we have to assume that it's the imperfections that represent the problem. And we don't have to become perfect before we deal with those imperfections.''

How, then, will progress come about? The metaphor he finds most helpful -- the metaphor of healing -- arises from his own researches and his own healings, described in detail in two of his books. These have convinced him, as he says, that ``the body moves down the path of its expectations. There are vast psychological factors at work in health, illness, and the treatment of illness. And these have to be respected.'' He concludes that ``the healing system is tied to the belief system.'' Sense of community `Ithink, in the 21st century,'' he says, ``we're going to learn a great deal more about . . . the human healing system and how to tend to it, nurture it, and evoke it, rather than just to try to repair it.''

And it is here, finally, that the medical professor and the global thinker become one. ``The most neglected field of medicine,'' he says, ``has to do with the knowledge of the human healing system, which is very real. And the same thing is true of nations, which is that the healing capabilities of nations are not well understood, but they're real nonetheless. And both with respect to the ability of the individual to heal and with respect to the nation to heal, we have ample opportunity to enlist some of our finest minds.''

``I think that throughout the entire world,'' he concludes, ``there's a growing sense of human community. There's a growing awareness of a common destiny and common needs.

``I can't conceive of any problem which the human mind can define that it can't also solve. I think that what makes the human race unique is its ability to do something for the first time. And for the first time we're called upon to meet a threat to the survival of the species.''

Next: David Packard, business leader, Nov. 21.

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