Through A Glass, Very Darkly

It will be the best of times and the worst of times. In the opening decades of the next century, science will free humankind from many of its workaday concerns. Biotechnology will produce limitless amounts of food; robots will perform menial and repetitive tasks. But by midcentury, the planet will hold twice as many people as it does now: upwards of 10 billion. More people will mean more pollution; global warming will cause the biggest climate shift since the end of the last ice age. The gap between rich and poor countries will widen, setting off mass migrations of desperate have-nots. The United States will be locked into a slow decline, its leadership waning as its economy sags and its population ages. There will be winners and losers among other countries, but even for the most successful, victory will be won in a wasteland.

So says Paul Kennedy's grim new book "Preparing for the Twenty-first Century." It is one of an increasing number of fin de siecle stock-takings, epitomized by Francis Fukuyama's recent "The End of History." Now noted historian John Lukacs and scholar-scientist C. Owen Paepke have joined the ranks of endgame players. Kennedy's vision, however, is broader and gloomier than most. In his 1988 best seller, "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," the Yale historian argued that dominant nations bring about their own decline by overspending on armaments. In the next century, Kennedy says, the nation-state will slide into irrelevance. It is too large, he writes, to deal effectively with some issues (how to automate factories) and too small to cope with others (bow to stop global warming). Some nations will do relatively well; Kennedy's list of likely winners includes Japan, Germany, Switzerland and perhaps the European Community as a whole. But the most important forces, including economic ones, will be transnational, and he does not believe that regional or global institutions will be able to tame them.

Disaster will be the result of both progress and calamity. In rich countries, new technology will spur productivity. In poor, overpopulated ones, technology will only make traditional farmers redundant and deprive low-wage workers of factory jobs that robots can do even more cheaply. Exploding population is a threat at least as old as the doomsday prophecies of 18th-century British cleric Thomas Robert Malthus, which proved premature. Kennedy says that new technology makes Malthus's theory an idea whose time has come. As he puts it: "A population explosion on one part of the globe and a technology explosion on the other is not a good recipe for a stable international order."

Even in a book as broad as this, whole subjects are left out. John Lukacs peeks under one of Kennedy's unturned stones in "The End of the Twentieth Century." He argues that nationalism-not population or technology-was the strongest force of our century. A Hungarian refugee, he describes the ethnic caldron of Central Europe and worries that rampant nationalism will give rise to a new kind of barbarity. C. Owen Paepke, a lawyerscientist from Arizona, covers different technological ground in "The Evolution of Progress." He says material advancement is at an end, but the perfection of the human species is only beginning. Genetic engineering and neuroscience will vastly lengthen our life spans and increase our intelligence, he cheerfully maintains.

"In predicting the future, everyone has amateur standing," writes Paepke. If your taste runs to premonitions of disaster, you will read Kennedy's book with shudders of delight. Otherwise, you'll be sorry you picked it up. Kennedy's method is to deploy platoons of researchers in fields where he himself usually has little expertise. The resulting survey of conventional wisdom is carefully hedged. Of the American economy, for example, he writes that "it is impossible to categorize it as either hopelessly weak or immensely strong; it is a mixture of strengths and weaknesses." The phrase "It remains to be seen" characterizes all too many of his judgments.

Kennedy's proposed solutions, to the extent he offers any, are equally wishy-washy. He stresses three key elements necessary "to prepare global society for the twenty-first century: the role of education, the place of women, and the need for political leadership." Oh. He concludes that "we face not a 'new world order' but a troubled and fractured planet, whose problems deserve the serious attention of politicians and publics alike." This is less a clarion call than a whimper, one that makes the older reader glad he will not be around to see much of the depressing new century.