Remember the Roadrunner cartoons, where the coyote chases his prize at breakneck speed, finally running straight off the edge of a cliff? He pauses a minute, realizes where he is (and isn't), scrambles his arms and legs in a desperate try to get back - then falls. Everyone laughs, knowing Mr. Coyote will return in the next reel, handsomely bandaged to resume the chase. It's a fine analogy for the nations of the world today. No matter where they are in the race for wealth and security - lagging under the handicap of poverty, keeping up with the pack in international dash, or right out in front with the prize already in hand - they're soon to be coyotes off the cliff, waving good-bye to solid ground. Pulled upright, the sprint becomes a marathon climb up the economic ladder of materialism, its rungs made of politics, power and plenty. Originally, the goal of the climb was called "basic human comfort." Somewhere along the line it went into a computer and came out in modern translation as "More." The Have-nots with their feet barely on the first rung, desperately need it. The Have-somes presume the grass is greener at higher altitudes. The Haves are in the most precarious position of all: their toes have gotten used to the feeling of solid wood, but their arms still flail at the clouds. "More" has not proved enough.
The ladder can be populated by taking a look at the world as it stands today. It's a story of human confusion with individuals and nations striving toward material gain long after their basic needs have been met. Ironically, at the same time there are still many places where natural hardship or political upheaval have kept people from reaching a starting position.
Certainly millions of human beings today are exempt from charges of "materialistic" values. Literally starving to death in their famine-ridden countries, they seek no more than the basic human rights of food, clothing and shelter. But while these nations are hardly able to begin the international climb to over-comfort, within each land of hardship is a microcosm of the larger picture. There are rows of mini-ladders, with some taking steps to reach their ideal of "the good life" while others scrape for the barest level of sustenance.
Already on the United Nation's list of "least developed" countries, Mali, Chad, Niger and Upper Volta have been cruelly joined by nature with two other sub-Sahara nations, Mauritania and Senegal, to face unparalleled famine. A six-year drought, the worst in West Africa's history, has just ended. The area's farmers have been unable to plant at all; in recent years they and their families have had to eat their seeds to survive. The drought hit hardest at the cattle-herding nomad tribes that roam the savannas, virtually eliminating their livestock.
Relief follows the pattern established by time: those who strive for basic existence, and nothing more, must look to those nations that "have." The answer has come in a multi-nation approach, with the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, among others, sending some $135-million in grains. But African government reaction has not always been a welcoming one, and local officials in charge of food distribution, particularly in Mali and Chad, have actually stood in the way of relief efforts. Furthermore, the railroad systems in these countries are extremely poor; food cannot be brought to the interior easily. Airlifts are hampered by lack of planes. The results then, even with relief programs and recent rains, are overwhelming food shortages for many of the area's 24 million people whose horizons have literally been cracked by the sun.
The story is somewhat different in Southeast Asia, where despite more than twenty years of war, the nations have emerged with a possibility of material equilibrium reminiscent of the pre-holocaust years, because of the undeniable influence of China in their future.
Traditionally, the Southeast Asians lived in tribe-like villages, with a supply of rice and fish always available for hard work. Their lives were simple by Western standards, their goals easily met, and their religion strong. Although government corruption in the cities gave wealth to the ruling classes, the people in the countryside remained unaffected and content. Then they became pawns of the French, the communists, and the Americans, falling under their bombs and bullets. Thus the peasant population - the vast majority in these countries - have been pushed to a war-time lifestyle for a generation, not by their own desires, but by those who seek further security in further power. After the wasting of land and life, where do they stand? There will most likely be a long period of post-war rehabilitation. After that, the road is clear.
For decades, China closed itself off from the world to deal with the needs of its immense population and re-establish itself as a major world power. Only recently has information come to the West, evidencing the enormous strides the country has made under the leadership of the venerable Mao Tse Tung. These improvements include a full diet for every citizen and a personal work-share in the growth of the nation. Social benefits such as health care, maternity benefits and guaranteed employment are unequalled even in the more economically advanced countries of the world. It would seem on the surface, that "… to each according to his need" is a practical reality.
Yet even China faces problems which could lead to disaster. Internal political struggles were evidenced at the recent Tenth Party Congress. Although information is characteristically scanty, there seems to be a struggle to find some balance between the military, the incumbents and leftists, the latter criticizing the Mao regime for pushing professional standards rather than ideological values. It is a conflict which began in the Cultural Revolution of 1966-68, and will not be resolved until a successor to Mao, now eighty, is selected.
Even more pressing is the volatile situation between China and Russia, China cannot continue its single-minded policy of internal well-being with its ideological and physical neighbor waiting at the doorstep. And the waiting now takes dangerous proportions: the deteriorating relationship between the two countries has led to major troop expansion along the 4000-mile Russo-Chinese border. Reports say that Russia will not allow a shift in world power coming from China's re-emergence into international politics - particularly its new friendliness toward the U.S. and Japan - nor will it ignore China's production of a 3,500-mile range missile capable of hitting Moscow. With the immense implications of these problems (including the very real possibility of a preemptive attack by Russia), the much-publicized "contentment" of the Chinese citizen takes second seat.
Russia has arrived at a curious position between China and America on the climb toward material gain. Economically it stands firm as an over-producer of many basic goods, building up exports and shuffling back profits into its military complex and space programs. As a whole, the people of Russia have more physical comforts than at any time in their history. Apparently it isn't enough. While the West is criticized for its capitalism, any visitor to Moscow is struck by the people's envy of American clothing, washing machines and any number of luxuries now taken for granted in the West.
Similarly, Japan and the great European powers, most notably Germany, have risen from the ashes of war to a period of astounding prosperity. Each boasts the most stable of currencies; their citizenry enjoys a cornucopia of luxury items. But Tokyo is perhaps the most polluted, overpopulated city in the world. Student uprisings are commonplace. In Germany, the problem of alienated youth has rivaled America's. Even in small factory towns, drugs are the constant companions of young Germans who are caught in an ironic war with the elders who gave them "everything."
If the original theory that happiness is at the top of the ladder were true, people in these affluent nations would be very happy. But in America, where the government can finance a war and a huge space program at the same time, where the farmlands could conceivably feed the entire world, never before in recorded history have so many had so much and still felt the need to search for a fuller meaning to life. It is the one place in the world where an executive who earns more in one month than a Cambodian peasant does in his lifetime, will spend hundreds of dollars on a chair that he sits in when he comes home at night, often contemplating his boredom and loneliness.
The ladder, as populated in this report, excludes many nations which play major roles in the world today. But the pattern is clear. Those who reach the top find their problems have changed: stomachs are full, but emptiness still runs deep. Newcomers follow the path without learning from the mistakes of those who have gone before.
Throughout human history, awareness of the purpose of- human life is a quality that has not come quickly. But today, when everything appears to be moving with the speed of light, time seems to be working on our side more and more. This is the real luxury America and other affluent nations have gained: time. That some people have begun using it to seek alternative ways to self-fulfillment speaks for the entrance of humanity into a new era, one in which Knowledge of the true nature of the self will replace grasping at prizes that only lead to suffering.