The Poised Century: On Living Today As If Tomorrow Mattered

By David A. Robinson (Tower Press, 2011) ISBN 978-1-46633-883-8, 240pp, $21.

Reviewed by Peter Schroeder

Most will agree with David Robinson that America is moving in a "frenetic, complex and unsustainable economic social order." This book is Robinson’s contribution to the evolution of a new sustainable era in which the community plays a key role. It is written by a physicist, but it is not a book expressly designed for physicists. There are no equations or graphs. Stories, his and others, feature strongly in the development. Early on, Robinson introduces the physical concepts of work and the laws of thermodynamics, and uses them in a novel way as bases for the transition to his primary and unexpected focus on social issues. For example, he makes much use of an increase in entropy corresponding with the increase of disorder of the system. To restore order, which we do each time we make our beds, work has to be done and energy expended.  Along with the laws of nature he emerges with three laws of life. First Law, Life is Work; Second Law, Work is required to reduce the difficulties of life; Third Law, No amount of work can reduce our difficulties to zero.

Robinson makes a vital distinction between convergent and divergent problems. Convergent problems can be solved by consulting one good specialist, as happens frequently with technological problems. Divergent problems cannot be solved by a specialist in one field, and require consultations between several specialists.  Each has his or her own conflicting personalities and prejudices. These problems frequently involve social and political issues, require compromise, and can only be ameliorated but not completely solved.

Robinson then argues that people are averse to doing excessive work and try to avoid it by taking short cuts, which use more energy than if the task was completed in the hard but most efficient way; or, people avoid work by handing it to a committee where it becomes a divergent problem with the associated compromises. He asserts that today we need leaders –servant leaders--whose understanding is deeply directed by the laws of nature and the laws of life, and who do not offer simple and short term solutions - in contrast with many of our leaders and public who promise or expect immediate satisfaction without obligation to the community and the future.

In Chapter 5, "The New Work," Robinson discusses the continuing need for the third sector - a nonprofit sector, including religious institutions. The work of the third sector is the work of social transformation that builds secure communities through the nurturing and renewing of people. His "challenge of today" is not to produce more things but to transform people and build communities. The servant leaders' task is to direct the required self-organization around the capabilities of the members of the group they represent, by letting each member bring to the task those skills that best match what needs to be done.

The next chapter is a surprising and perhaps unexpected chapter in a book by a physicist. Robinson asserts that "of all the third sector nonprofit organizations in America it is those that bring spiritual consciousness to our communities that are of the most importance and that through the radical teachings of Jesus, the Christian churches of America can be powerful organizations for social transformation." The Jesus he refers to is Jesus the man, and not Jesus the Christ with centuries of embellishments inflicted on him. Robinson himself was brought up in orthodox theology from which he is now far removed into what is broadly known as progressive Christianity. For the next 30 pages he gives a well informed and very readable description of this philosophy and how it applies to today’s situation.  Jesus to him becomes the model servant leader.

Robinson turns back to physics in a chapter titled "The Chaos Paradigm," where we encounter self–organization and "leaderless work" using foraging ants and flocking birds as metaphors. For humans some leadership is necessary, but leadership fails when we give our leaders the responsibility for work that belongs only to us. Given this, Robinson offers three properties characterizing the work of the servant-leader. The most significant is that he or she keep the purpose of the organization visible to each of a network of workers who share common experiences and values, so that the larger goals of the organization emerge from their collective work. Ideally then he should make the organization’s work so self-organizing that his or her leadership becomes unnecessary! In the same section, emerging from a physics background, he talks of fractal life and life on the edge of chaos.

Specific eco-problems, like avoiding the consequences of global warming or mass starvation through overdrawing earth’s bounties, are left to the latter part of the book where Robinson devotes a chapter mainly to the oil situation. He respects the opinion of scientists but, at the same time, rather than constantly looking to the scientist, politician or preacher to bail us out with pain-free solutions, he asserts the need to embrace the reality that our problems will require complex and likely messy remedies that will demand as much from us as of the experts to whom we would like to refer. This brings us back to the suggestions earlier in the book.

The foregoing chapters culminate in chapter nine, "The poised century--abundance or despair." This discusses possible ways ahead, and contains headings like "How much is enough," "The social cost of entropy," "Towards a sustainable economy," and "A last lesson from physics" which is a reminder from the second law that any order which comes to our lives must be at the expense of a simultaneous decrease in the order of the world. Consequently planning a sustainable future for the next generation requires a balance that can only come from valuing the whole as much as we value ourselves.

The final chapter offers "Ten remedies for the poised century" Robinson does not prescribe any panacea, and it is indeed best to look at the book as his contribution to a continuing process that is going to be controversial and messy at times. This is not a book primarily about  physical hardware or economics, but about a transformation of society to a new social order--a much more difficult task. His approach from physics to social science is novel with many interesting stories and ideas and some within 40 pages of notes. It is well worth reading by physicists and non-physicists alike.

Peter Schroeder
Emeritus Professor of Physics
Michigan State University

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.