Twenty-first Century Blues

Preparing for the Twenty-first Century

by Paul Kennedy
Random House, 428 pp., $25.00

Paul Kennedy
Paul Kennedy; drawing by David Levine

The old cliché defines history as “philosophy teaching by examples.” A historian studying the examples provided by the past few years might come to very desperate conclusions about what philosophy has been telling us. Euphoria at the end of the cold war has given place to alarm at the horrors unleashed by ethnic rivalries in the Balkans and Armenia, by Hindu fanaticism in India, and Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt. Gloom at the depressed economic condition of the US, Germany, Japan, and most of Europe is deepened by the knowledge that when the depressed economies revive, their destructive impact on the environment will pick up too.

In the developed world, medical advances are adding handicapped children to the burdens of the social services as well as more nonworking elderly people to those dependent on the working population; in developing countries they add more mouths to those the farmers already cannot feed. Those who fear that history’s message is that every silver lining has a cloud are much in need of a sensible account of what the recent past can tell us about the fairly near future. They will find it in Preparing for the Twenty-first Century, but it is not cheerful reading.

Paul Kennedy is a very accomplished historian, and Preparing for the Twenty-first Century has all the virtues that made The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers such a success. Its reach is global, and the questions it asks are large and pressing. Its essence is quickly summarized: the world faces three potentially unmanageable threats, at least to social and political stability and at worst to bare survival—the population explosion, environmental degradation, and runaway technological innovation. They pose an obvious question: Can we manage these changes rationally and humanely, or shall we find ourselves at their mercy as we traditionally have?

Professor Kennedy’s book—two long extracts have recently appeared in these pages—is, however, better at synthesizing vast amounts of very diverse information than at coming to conclusions. Shall we find the twentyfirst century exceedingly dangerous if we do not prepare for it? The answer is plainly yes. Are we prepared for it? The answer is plainly no. Can we prepare for it? Professor Kennedy seems unsure. It rather looks as if he thinks we cannot, but hardly likes to say so. A recent article by Kennedy in the Financial Times1 sets out a list of virtuous policies that the developed world ought to pursue to assist environmentally sensitive, demographically restrained development elsewhere—among them, for example, saving forests by equipping third world villagers with solar ovens, transferring the results of biotechnology without charging patent and user fees, encouraging contraception, and promoting education for girls and women; but he offers every reason to think they will not be carried out. Last year, President Bush sabotaged the Earth Summit in Rio, but the arrival of the environmentally minded Gore and Clinton in…

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