Have a look at the future: Humanity, the artful dodger

September 27, 1998|By MICHEAL PAKENHAM

'Humanity finds itself at a remarkable conjunction. Present-day humans have been the beneficiary of a rare syzygy, fifty years of political stability on top of 150 years of good weather that falls into an eight-thousand-year period of relative climate stability. It could be argued that civilized man has never really known true instability, and that the industrial and information ages have flowered in a period of almost uncanny tranquility."

Besides the signal accomplishment of fashioning a sentence that legitimately employs the word syzygy (meaning, roughly, conjunction and opposition, a rare coming together, and pronounced sis-i-gee), this is a profoundly provocative observation. And one that should terrify anyone seriously concerned about the future of the Earth and those who live upon it.

These observations are contained in "The Future in Plain Sight: Nine Clues to the Coming Instability" (Simon & Schuster, 282 pages, $25). The author is Eugene Linden.

How does all this link to the state of affairs both here and abroad? Opportunity beckons. It's all too rare that political leaders manage to put public policy in a global context.

I have spent my working life as a reporter and an editor, mainly covering the formal institutions of government and commerce, in this country and beyond. All that has left me with a powerful impression: It is extraordinarily rare that people of influence - from chiefs of governments on downward - seriously take stock. I have been astonished by indifference of men and women in high places to bedrock questions: What is the institution you serve and control, for? What is the underlying purpose of a legislature? Of a system of justice? And so on.

The exceptions to that tendency of action without reflection have been small in number but extraordinarily powerful in personal conviction. In recent times, I think of Mario Cuomo, who somehow fatefully dealt himself out of history; of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, perhaps the smartest and most decent member of the Congress in my working life, whom the sophisticated say is "too honest" to have been drawn to the presidency.

There have been others: Bill Bradley, who almost mysteriously has failed to penetrate the highest circle. And, like it or not, Ronald Reagan, who made it all the way to the White House with a profoundly confident, personal and generally intuitive sense of the purpose of the state and its institutions, though he had precious little else to bring to the process.

So who is to look to base meanings? Who is to ask what it all means and where are we going and how do we get there? Scholars in general have not done much better than the politicians. Some of this century's better journalists, gadfly skeptics, have had valuable flurries of insight: Walter Lippman, William F. Buckley Jr., arguably a handful of others. There have been epochal books: "Silent Spring," "Animal Farm," name your own others.

Linden's new book is not one of those. It will not precipitate a fundamental change in the way a nation or a global mass of leaders looks upon its planet or its race. But, if nothing else, it is valuable because it does ask - clearly and well - questions that demand taking stock of where we are today.

Linden is a journalist and a generalist, and a good one, who is on the staff of Time and has written no small number of books.

He starkly inventories Earth's increasing economic instability, its population explosion, the runaway increase in the gaps between rich and poor, massive acceleration of migration, the resurgence VTC of ostensibly conquered diseases and occurrence of new ones, middle and long range climate changes, the rise of religious fanaticism and the growth, especially in poorer parts of the word, of both anarchy and tyranny.

It's not a pretty picture.

And then there's the syzygy thing. We - especially those of us in America, history's most fortunate - are fatter than we should be, dumber than we recognize and happier than we deserve. And it's all due to random luck. Why aren't we paying attention? Because, Linden insists, "we are blinded by the glare of the present, by what paleontologists call 'the tyranny of the near past.'"

He writes most authoritatively and compellingly about economic instability and volatility, making a powerful case that the global market is both stupid and impotent: "The collapse of the Southeast Asian currencies exposed the dark underbelly of the 'Asian miracle': cronyism, corruption, lack of honest government regulation, and a stifled press allowed a huge buildup of bad loans."

This pathetically naive belief in miracles on the part of many of the world's leading investors, he chronicles, turned "economic tigers to economic turkeys in the blink of an eye."

He insists "it has also become clear that there is not much governments or financial institutions can do to eliminate such instability." There seems to be small cheer in his belief that "there is still much that humanity can do to moderate the instabilities that lie ahead and prepare for those that are avoidable."

He has little or nothing more cheerful to report about the other areas of concern that he examines equally seriously, if in less detail.

But Linden is not a grump. He'd like the earth and its peoples to survive and even to prosper. Witness his final conclusion: "Over the millennia, humanity has proved to be an artful dodger of fate, a defier of limits, a surmounter of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and a master escape artist from traps laid by nature. Only the very brave or foolhardy would assert flatly that our resourceful species has finally exhausted its bag of tricks."

But, then, there is his final, final word: "Still, it is very late in the game."

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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