Monday, May 21, 2018

Q&A with Jonathan Salk

Jonathan Salk is the co-author, with his father, Jonas Salk, of the book A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future, first published in 1981 and now updated in a new edition. Jonathan Salk is a psychiatrist based in Los Angeles. He teaches at UCLA. 

Q: How did this new edition of A New Reality come to be?

 A: It’s an interesting story. The original was published in 1981 to very little attention. I still have copies in my basement. My dad continued to talk about it through his death in 1990, and then it just sat for a while.

Four years ago, I got a call from a young architect, David Dewane. He said it felt like the book spoke to him and his generation, and he wondered if I had any interest in revising and republishing it. The original book was not very attractive. We updated the population data, revised the text, and engaged a wonderful designer, Courtney Garvin. 

Q: Can you talk about some of the changes you made in this new edition, and why? 

A: Aside from the design, there was a lot of population data in the original book, which was requested by the United Nations [Population] Fund. We took out a lot of the data that wasn’t [necessary] for the main message. We rearranged things—there are differences in tone but not in the ultimate message.

Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 were there. [We added] a couple of graphs about the depression generation, the baby boom generation, and the millennial generation. Part 5 is really very different…the original ended up with building a mandala of complexity of human life. It wasn’t a great way to end the book… 

Q: So you said there are differences in tone but not in the ultimate message. What are some of those differences, and what do you see as the ultimate message? 

A: The basic message of the book is a message of hope for a world in transition. It shows where we are, it shows why we experience turmoil, it shows a way out. From accelerated [population] growth to decelerated growth and plateau, there are adaptations we need to make and are making. 

Q: How do the different versions of the book fit into the world now and then? 

A: The other was much more academic in its description of the changes that were happening…There are two main differences in tone. The things we foresaw then come to pass—that more hopeful tone is there.

And the cautionary tone is more strident in this version, particularly with climate change. That was something that wasn’t known in 1981. There’s an urgency in terms of that. We’re seeing open conflict between the two [views]. 

Q: How did you and your father collaborate on the original version of the book? What was your writing process like? 

A: He got a request in the mid-‘70s to apply some U.N. data to a theory he’d put forth in the book The Survival of the Wisest. He put together a kind of slide show in a book. It was not finished at all. It sat for a couple of years. He was over-committed. At the point when I belatedly graduated from college, he asked me to help finish it.

He said, Do what you want. I dove in with both feet and produced a lengthy tome. He said, We’ve got some paring down to do. That was painful at the time, but it was a great learning experience for me. He was a stickler for concision.

Parts 4 and 5 were all relatively new. Part of the process was sitting down side by side going over the text. It really was a true collaboration. The basic concept was his, but we both thought there was enough that I added that it was a co-authored situation…

He got famous [earlier] and was very busy, and we were close but hadn’t spent much time together. I’m really pleased to have had that year with him. 

Q: What do you see as your father's legacy today? 

A: It was the things he said and the things I came to realize. In the later part of his life, he felt he had a way of looking at things, asking questions, that was useful to other people. He wanted people to appreciate how his mind worked.

He really did three major things in his life: the polio vaccine, founding the Salk Institute, where he was involved in the creative design of the buildings, and the writing he did in the last third of his life.

He really embodied the ability to make dreams into reality, to envision things and attend to details so the idea is realized. If people can do that, take creative intuition and put it into reality, you can change the world. For me, that’s his legacy, and he would be pleased with it. 

Q: What are you working on now? 

A: I’m a psychiatrist, and I teach. I want to get back to memoir-type pieces on my life as a psychiatrist, [writing about] some of my ideas about human behavior, the formation of personality and how that intersects with culture. There are ways people’s individual psychology reflects on our broader society. 

Q: Anything else we should know about the book? 

A: I would especially want people to know that there’s a transition we’re going through, a naturally evolving process. The conflict in values we experience is very understandable.

The basic message is that the adaptive values of cooperation, interdependence, response to limits…are so vitally important. We [should] continue to develop these values to survive this crisis and enter into a new reality. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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