Charting our planet's scary future

Monday Book Review

May 03, 1993|By Rufus Griscom

PREPARING FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY. By Paul Kennedy. Random House. 428 pages. $25.

WHILE reading Paul Kennedy's "Preparing for the 21st Century," I drifted into an Orwellian nightmare. In the dream, I was watching the 24-hour War Cable Network on an enormous high-density television set, flipping between vivid footage of different wars around the globe.

In an adjacent, larger room, children were playing on bright green AstroTurf surrounded by paintings of trees and sun. Outside, I could see an arid, treeless landscape.

In fact, "Preparing for the 21st Century," Mr. Kennedy's study of the forces that will reshape the world over the next 50 years, does not portend such bleak scenes, but the book certainly provides fodder for the pessimists among us.

Having only recently discarded Cold War images of nuclear Armageddon, many of us are reluctant to consider the consequences of ballooning consumption in some regions of the Earth and of ballooning population in others.

This is Mr. Kennedy's timely project: to examine the stark aspects and the promising aspects of our global circumstance. His is a lucid, balanced study, both wary of apocalyptic sensationalism on the one hand and of the tendency to dismiss problems too large, abstract or unmanifested on the other. The result is a kind of "state of the planet" address, a sober and sobering account of present international affairs and the emerging demographic, technological, ecological and political variables that will guide developments in the next half-century.

Mr. Kennedy provides a sedulous taxonomy of world changes. The facts jump out of the pages. The Earth's total population will be 8.5 billion by 2025, almost all of the additional 3 billion people generated by developing countries currently struggling to feed and shelter far smaller populations.

By the same year, the atmospheric concentration of carbon, if it continues to increase at its present rate, will have doubled, raising the average global temperature. This, in turn, is likely to raise the planet's sea level enough to displace hundreds of millions of people and cost trillions of dollars better invested in environmental protection.

While Americans berate Brazil for leveling enormous stretches of the Earth's rain forest, they consume 15 times more energy than Brazilians, producing dramatically more emissions (meanwhile resisting proposals for increased gas taxes). But the industrial // juggernaut promises a mixed bag of developments. Rapid progress in biotechnology will increase the Earth's capacity to feed the poorest three-fourths of its inhabitants, but it will also increase the developing world's dependence on Western technology. The move toward a global economy dominated by multinational corporations means more international prosperity but less government control of national economies and environmental abuse.

Of course, these international trends have all been discussed before. What Mr. Kennedy brings to the table (beyond thoughtful organization) is an explanation of the interdependence of these phenomena. His grasp of the big picture is the strength of the book, that which will make it a seminal reference for any student of international affairs.

Of course we all want the answers, the predictions and wait impatiently for a discernible image to appear in Mr. Kennedy's crystal ball. We want to know who wins and the score -- or at least the point spread. Rather, Mr. Kennedy assembles the data, the arguments and leaves the betting to us.

About all Mr. Kennedy offers by way of conclusion is his observation that world leaders long schooled in the art of compromise may not have the backbone (nor the political options) to set into place the kind of long-range planning needed to avert global disasters. Should limited resources be used to stem starvation in developing countries or to invest in their future? Should the autonomy and self-determination of a culture destroying rain forests in order to survive be violated for the broader environmental good? While such questions aren't answered here, we can be sure that they will be addressed by more individuals, and with greater insight, because of Paul Kennedy's timely book. And we can hope world leaders will be among its readers.

A3

Rufus Griscom is a writer in Little Rock, Ark.

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