In 1988, Kurt Vonnegut Writes a Letter to People Living in 2088, Giving 7 Pieces of Advice

vonnegut drawing

Image by Daniele Prati, via Flickr Com­mons

The mind of Kurt Von­negut, like the pro­tag­o­nist of his best-known nov­el Slaugh­ter­house-Five, must have got “unstuck in time” some­where along the line. How else could he have man­aged to write his dis­tinc­tive brand of satir­i­cal but sin­cere fic­tion, hyper-aware of past, present, and future all at once? It must have made him a promis­ing con­trib­u­tor indeed for Volk­swa­gen’s 1988 Time mag­a­zine ad cam­paign, when the com­pa­ny “approached a num­ber of notable thinkers and asked them to write a let­ter to the future — some words of advice to those liv­ing in 2088, to be pre­cise.”

The beloved writer’s let­ter to the “Ladies & Gen­tle­men of A.D. 2088” begins as fol­lows:

It has been sug­gest­ed that you might wel­come words of wis­dom from the past, and that sev­er­al of us in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry should send you some. Do you know this advice from Polo­nius in Shake­speare’s Ham­let: ‘This above all: to thine own self be true’? Or what about these instruc­tions from St. John the Divine: ‘Fear God, and give glo­ry to Him; for the hour of His judg­ment has come’? The best advice from my own era for you or for just about any­body any­time, I guess, is a prayer first used by alco­holics who hoped to nev­er take a drink again: ‘God grant me the seren­i­ty to accept the things I can­not change, courage to change the things I can, and wis­dom to know the dif­fer­ence.’

Our cen­tu­ry has­n’t been as free with words of wis­dom as some oth­ers, I think, because we were the first to get reli­able infor­ma­tion about the human sit­u­a­tion: how many of us there were, how much food we could raise or gath­er, how fast we were repro­duc­ing, what made us sick, what made us die, how much dam­age we were doing to the air and water and top­soil on which most life forms depend­ed, how vio­lent and heart­less nature can be, and on and on. Who could wax wise with so much bad news pour­ing in?

For me, the most par­a­lyz­ing news was that Nature was no con­ser­va­tion­ist. It need­ed no help from us in tak­ing the plan­et apart and putting it back togeth­er some dif­fer­ent way, not nec­es­sar­i­ly improv­ing it from the view­point of liv­ing things. It set fire to forests with light­ning bolts. It paved vast tracts of arable land with lava, which could no more sup­port life than big-city park­ing lots. It had in the past sent glac­i­ers down from the North Pole to grind up major por­tions of Asia, Europe, and North Amer­i­ca. Nor was there any rea­son to think that it would­n’t do that again some­day. At this very moment it is turn­ing African farms to deserts, and can be expect­ed to heave up tidal waves or show­er down white-hot boul­ders from out­er space at any time. It has not only exter­mi­nat­ed exquis­ite­ly evolved species in a twin­kling, but drained oceans and drowned con­ti­nents as well. If peo­ple think Nature is their friend, then they sure don’t need an ene­my.

You can read the whole thing at Let­ters of Note, where Von­negut goes on to give his own inter­pre­ta­tion of human­i­ty’s per­spec­tive at the time, when “we were see­ing our­selves as a new sort of glac­i­er, warm-blood­ed and clever, unstop­pable, about to gob­ble up every­thing and then make love — and then dou­ble in size again.” He puts the ques­tion to his future-inhab­it­ing read­ers direct­ly: “Is it pos­si­ble that we aimed rock­ets with hydro­gen bomb war­heads at each oth­er, all set to go, in order to take our minds off the deep­er problem—how cru­el­ly Nature can be expect­ed to treat us, Nature being Nature, in the by-and-by?”

Final­ly, Von­negut issues sev­en com­mand­ments — as much direct­ed to read­ers of the late 20th cen­tu­ry as to read­ers of the late 21st, or indeed to those of the ear­ly 21st in which you read this now — intend­ed to help human­i­ty avert what he sees as the utter cat­a­stro­phe loom­ing ahead:

  1. Reduce and sta­bi­lize your pop­u­la­tion.
  2. Stop poi­son­ing the air, the water, and the top­soil.
  3. Stop prepar­ing for war and start deal­ing with your real prob­lems.
  4. Teach your kids, and your­selves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhab­it a small plan­et with­out help­ing to kill it.
  5. Stop think­ing sci­ence can fix any­thing if you give it a tril­lion dol­lars.
  6. Stop think­ing your grand­chil­dren will be OK no mat­ter how waste­ful or destruc­tive you may be, since they can go to a nice new plan­et on a space­ship. That is real­ly mean, and stu­pid.
  7. And so on. Or else.

Volk­swa­gen had asked him to look one hun­dred years into the future. As of this writ­ing, 2088 lies less than 75 years ahead, and how many of us would agree that we’ve heed­ed most or even any of his pre­scrip­tions? Then again, Von­negut grants that pes­simism may have got the bet­ter of him; per­haps the future will bring with it a utopia after all, one where “nobody will have to leave home to go to work or school, or even stop watch­ing tele­vi­sion. Every­body will sit around all day punch­ing the keys of com­put­er ter­mi­nals con­nect­ed to every­thing there is, and sip orange drink through straws like the astro­nauts,” a com­i­cal­ly dystopi­an utopia, and not an entire­ly un-pre­scient one — a Von­negut­ian vision indeed.

via Let­ters of Note/Va Viper

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Kurt Von­negut Read Slaugh­ter­house-Five, Cat’s Cra­dle & Oth­er Nov­els

22-Year-Old P.O.W. Kurt Von­negut Writes Home from World War II: “I’ll Be Damned If It Was Worth It”

Kurt Von­negut Maps Out the Uni­ver­sal Shapes of Our Favorite Sto­ries

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Good Short Sto­ry

Kurt Von­negut Explains “How to Write With Style”

Kurt Von­negut Urges Young Peo­ple to Make Art and “Make Your Soul Grow”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Jeremy Tarone says:

    3. Stop prepar­ing for war and start deal­ing with your real prob­lems.

    If you want peace, pre­pare for war.
    This is not just a pithy say­ing, it’s true. Those that don’t pre­pare for defense get tak­en over by aggres­sive nations. Noth­ing in our his­to­ry is clear­er than that. We don’t like it, but all we have to do is look around our world to see just how true it is. A most recent exam­ple is Putin expand­ing his bor­ders.
    Fur­ther, it takes two nations to have a war, but only one to have a geno­cide. We can want peace, desire peace, but if anoth­er nation does­n’t then the only way to have peace is to enforce it through prepa­ra­tion for war.

    Being a great writer does­n’t make him right on all things.

    Nor does every­one believe sci­ence can any prob­lem with enough mon­ey. On the oth­er hand, I know of no bet­ter method of deter­min­ing how our uni­verse works and no bet­ter method for solv­ing real world prob­lems. If he did, he should have told us.

  • David Watson says:

    The point is that every­one has to fol­low these rules. If that were the case then prepar­ing for war would become a waste of time and mon­ey (as it is any­way) and we could move on to more impor­tant things like mak­ing sure that every­one has enough to eat.

  • Myles says:


    I fear you have missed the spir­it of the mes­sage that is being relayed here. Vio­lence on leads to more vio­lence. Threats only cre­ate more hos­til­i­ty.

    As I see it Amer­i­c­as great­est threat is not anoth­er coun­try, but its own Vio­lent, bulling nature. I sure Hope you are Cana­di­an… (your prop­er spelling and gram­mer leads me to believe you are) :)

    His­tor­i­cal­ly, I come form a coun­try (Cana­da) that Puts almost NO mon­ey into its armed forces, and what lit­tle is invest­ed in the Mil­i­tary is used to focus on “Peace Keep­ing”. We Share one of (if not THE) largest bor­ders with one of (if not THE) most armed coun­tries in the world. The Unit­ed States.
    I do not fear an Attack/War from the US because instead of threat­en­ing each oth­er, we find ways to DEAL with our prob­lems, like Mr. Von­negut sug­gests.

    Canada’s for­eign pol­i­cy is NOT to threat­en oth­er coun­tries, but to work with them to find mutu­al­ly ben­e­fi­cial solu­tions. The same can be said of how the Gov­ern­ment treats the cit­i­zens… As a direct result, we do NOT suf­fer from Ter­ror­ist Attacks (domes­tic or for­eign) Race Vio­lence is quite rare, and school shoot­ings sim­ply don’t hap­pen…

    Mr. Von­negut’s dose not pre­sume to have all the answers,(read the entire speech) nor dose he sug­gest sci­ence is a bunch of “hooey”, what he clear­ly states is that throw­ing a bunch of mon­ey at a prob­lem is not always the best solu­tion…

    Thanks for read­ing that. Sor­ry if I went on a bit..

  • AlbanianMonk says:

    While I agree with most of what Von­negut writes, I see a bit of a para­dox between #1 and #3 of his 7 Com­mand­ments.

    He first rec­om­mends reduc­ing our pop­u­la­tion (#1) while at the same time rec­om­mend we stop going to war (#3). While I am a paci­fist and would nev­er rec­om­mend going to war, it does seem that war (geno­cide, Holo­caust, etc.) has done a good job in reduc­ing our pop­u­la­tion, albeit in a hor­rif­ic way. Notice he does­n’t only say “sta­bi­lize” our pop­u­la­tion to which I would agree. Instead, he first states “reduce” our pop­u­la­tion. I see no oth­er way in doing so but by the ter­mi­na­tion of exist­ing pop­u­la­tions of peo­ple. It cer­tain­ly can’t be abor­tion since that is not reduc­ing pop­u­la­tion but mere­ly pre­vent­ing more pop­u­la­tion (sta­bi­liz­ing). It can’t be euthana­sia since that is mere­ly replac­ing one life with anoth­er by the intro­duc­tion of more births (sta­bi­liz­ing). So, besides war what are oth­er ways in which Von­negut pre­sup­pos­es we “reduce” our pop­u­la­tion?

  • Maria says:

    You just need to make sure that birth rate is small­er than death rate. So birth con­trol, abor­tion will work just fine. It won’t be as quick as war and geno­cide but it’s much bet­ter.

  • Ocho says:

    so… War is Peace?

  • Niklas says:

    Jere­my: Laugh­able! Amer­i­can for­eign pol­i­cy has been bel­liger­ent for almost the 200 years of its exis­tence, and Amer­i­cans dont realise that its because of that, that it got involved in all these wars, which the USA could have stayed out of.

    Case in Point, WW2. Yes Japan attacked Pearl Habor. But Amer­i­cans don’t ask them­selves why. Maybe because the USA attempt­ed to con­trol the sphere of influ­ence Japan was con­trol­ling, the final straw being total embar­go on Japan which reduced its econ­o­my to rub­ble.

  • Jack says:

    Make less chil­dren. It is very sim­ple math. Make the birthrate low­er than the death rate and you’ll have pop­u­la­tion down in one or two gen­er­a­tions. That’s just what Chi­na did for a while, mak­ing it ele­gal to have more than one kid/couple, and it worked.
    Peo­ple die nat­u­ral­ly you know, there’s no need to kill any­one off for that…

  • Zack says:

    “nobody will have to leave home to go to work“…not if high tech com­pa­nies like HP, Yahoo, Google, Face­book, IBM, and so on have any­thing to say about it. The catch phrase of the day is “on-site col­lab­o­ra­tion” or “co-loca­tion”, even though many of these same com­pa­nies were push­ing “dis­trib­uted teams” and work-at-home five years ago.

    Some­times SF writ­ers for­get tech is man­aged and dis­trib­uted not by tech peo­ple, but mar­ket­ing and sales folks. And they make their deci­sions accord­ing­ly; often accord­ing to the man­age­ment fad at the time. And the fad now is to ware­house every­one in epi­cal­ly-loud “open plan” build­ing to improve “col­lab­o­ra­tion”.

    Of course, knowl­edge work­ers in such an envi­ron­ment usu­al­ly pull on head­phones, ren­der­ing “col­lab­o­ra­tion” moot. But hey, the CEOs are hap­py! I guess!

    Kurt would have appre­ci­at­ed the irony of build­ing after build­ing of “col­lab­o­rat­ing” work­ers sit­ting as close togeth­er as seam­stress­es in the Tri­an­gle Shirt­waist fac­to­ry, head­phones on, tunes cranked, doing their lev­el best to ignore their sur­round­ings. He would have loved it.

  • Shadow says:

    This is such a lame point of view and I detest it

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