Richard Smith: An open letter to creative friends

Richard SmithDear creative friends,

Might you be interested to try and depict in some way—in a novel, play, series of poems, popular book, or whatever—a sustainable and believable world and how we might get there?

I ask because us scientists (I hesitate to call myself a scientist but will for now) are extremely worried about the future of the species. Climate change means that we are heading for catastrophe and running out of time to do anything about it. For a whole series of reasons the subject has dropped back in the public mind, and yet some scientists predict that without radical change the human species has a 50% chance of being extinct before the end of the century.

That’s a very extreme prediction, but most of you have children and must surely worry about what kind of future they will experience.

My friend Robin Stott, who is chair of the Climate and Health Council and has paid close attention to climate change, believes that we need a clear and preferably exciting and attractive vision of the future—he calls it Act III—to help make the radical change that we need.

He and I are incapable of doing this, but you have the necessary talent.

What we can do and are doing is to bring together the many visions of the future that are already available—only in rather dry, sometimes evangelical books. Something more compelling is needed.

I’ve learnt that three things are essential for change: a “burning platform” (agreement that going on in the same old way is impossible); a vision of a better future; and what we are going to do this afternoon to begin making change happen.

We are asking you to think about contributing the vision and perhaps the route to achieve it.

I imagine that many of you will not be enthused by this blog, thinking—probably rightly—that art as propaganda is usually bad art. I’ve just been reading, however, a biography of Edna St Vincent Millay, once the most popular poet in America, that describes how she wrote a poem in 1940 about the need for the US to enter the second world war. The poem swept across America at a time when the national mood was very much not to get involved. You can read the poem here:

It is not a great poem, and critics were sniffy about it. Millay wrote, however: “If I can write just one poem that will turn the minds of a few to a more decent outlook…what does it matter if I compose a bad line or lose my reputation as a craftsman?…What does it matter now, when men are dying for their hopes and our ideals? If I live or die as a poet it won’t matter, but anyone who believes in democracy and freedom and love and culture and peace ought to be busy now. He cannot wait for the tomorrows.”

Might you be able to have a go at Act III?

Best wishes


P.S. even if you are not interested, might you forward this blog to creative friends who might be?

RS was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.