Earth's prospects for the 21st century: Are massive chaos and anarchy inevitable?

March 17, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Robert D. Kaplan writes lean: "The future steps over the bones of the past before they have been properly buried. A medieval world co-exists with a postmodern one." He is in Cairo, but is addressing virtually the entire nonindustrial world.

That sentence is the lens of "The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century" (Random House. 476 pages. $27.50), the new book by Mr. Kaplan, an established journalist who comes into his own with this volume.

What is an important book? Ideas are important. Some books present ideas that are brilliantly original, products of lone, great minds. Other ideas or bodies of ideas evolve, rattle around, looking for focus, waiting for a distiller. Books that stand starkly, uniquely alone and those that synthesize superbly both bid for importance. This is one of the latter.

With more than 15 years as a foreign correspondent behind him, well aware of the chaos left by the euthanasia of communism, Mr. Kaplan recounts that "My initial goal was to find a paradigm for understanding the world in the early decades of the twenty-first century." Troubled by what former U.N. Secretary General Perez de Cuellar called "the new anarchy," he yearned for explanation, or perhaps just explication.

So in 1994, after immense amounts of preparatory reading and interviewing, he began a land journey from the west coast of Africa through much of the eastern edges of Europe, ranging through Islam and India, ending in Cambodia, with nothing more than a rucksack and notebooks and a clear, skeptical reporter's eye.

Pieces of the planet

He came to view the entire world as one "planetary home" - not out of sentimentality, guilt or do-goodism, but out of recognition that the pieces of the planet are inextricable from each other.

The result: a book that is fascinating, richly informative, deeply disturbing and finally at least tenuously redemptive. If you read one book about the state of the world, about what's likely to happen in global terms in the next 50 years or so, I would suggest this one.

There are other strengths, including its superb sweep of many of the major groupings of peoples - whether you call them ethnic, tribal, traditional, racial, national or geographic. Mr. Kaplan is a fine story teller, and he is an exciting and punctilious teacher as well. With a bit of attention, one can find a consoling understanding of what "Kurd" means - it means many things. One may begin to feel why vast numbers of Armenians raise their children "to kill Turks."

Whole rural cultures are uprooting and massing into appalling shanty cities virtually everywhere that Mr. Kaplan went, people breaking from roots, abandoning traditions and usages and rigidities of millennia, becoming homogenized in slummery. Yet at the same time people are bound by the spiritually and culturally defining influences that engrave deep distinctions between Turkomans, Uzbeks and Uighurs.

From the beginning, the book is hideously grim. Savagery, brutalism, poverty, virtual anarchy pervade. In West Africa, though scrupulously sensitive to the needs and sovereignty of native Africans, Mr. Kaplan's reports the excruciating failures of post-colonial government, widespread decay into violence, tribal warfare, thugocracy.

"Though poverty in Sierra Leone was forcing all kinds of daily challenges upon people," he writes, "in the larger sense, perhaps, the earth here had been too generously abundant to demand the exertions a culture required in order to develop the self-discipline that peoples of less favored climes had been forced over the eons to learn." And then: "Now the abundance was drying up, and few seemed to be aware of it."

There are differences, deep and fascinating, among the cultures and peoples and areas of what used to be called the Third World. But much is the same.

So where does it all lead? Mr. Kaplan works hard never to overgeneralize. The book's greatest grace is the modesty of its prognostic declarations. Respecting that, however, this struck me as his personal view of the next age of earth's future:

Hologram Earth

"Cartography in three dimensions, as in a hologram ... the overlapping sediments of various group identities such as those of language and economic class, atop two-dimensional color distinctions among city-states and the remaining nations, themselves confused in places by shadows overhead, indicating the power of drug cartels, mafias, and private security agencies that guard the wealthy in failing states and hunt down terrorists. Instead of borders there would be moving 'centers' of power, as in the Middle Ages." All this will be further complicated by religious and tribal and corporate influences and interplay.

His vision is particularly compelling because of a kind of frenetic optimism about humankind. He seems unable to escape a cheerful belief in endurance even in the consistent face of grimness. His energy finds the delight of surprise almost everywhere, making the book, among all else, superb travel writing, bringing alive sights, smells, sounds, sensations and providing historical and cultural context that makes places and peoples make sense.

And so, finally, from the threat of anarchy and global chaos, hope emerges: "The long-range future may be bright, but the next few decades will be tumultuous," he concludes. "Bear in mind that the collapse of just a few small countries scattered around the world has overwhelmed policymakers in the West. ... The banal truth is that economic and social development is generally cruel, painful, violent and uneven - and humanity is developing more dramatically than ever before."

This book will help you understand

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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