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Twenty-first Century Blues

Preparing for the Twenty-first Century

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

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 Washington may not, Kennedy writes, mean a change for the better:

Ironically, this time around, we could see Washington more willing to assist poorer countries while many of the other OECD countries drag their feet. With the ruling parties of Japan and Italy in a state of collapse and the governments of Germany, France, Britain, Canada, and many others experiencing record levels of unpopularity, they are probably incapable at present of implementing generous, far-sighted policies to aid our global ills. But if little or nothing is done, won’t we and our children all pay a far higher price for that neglect in the future?

That last anxious question sets the tone of the book. Another striking feature of Paul Kennedy’s account of our global plight does much to explain the uncertain note he strikes. Kennedy writes of the policies that “we” ought to adopt, but he knows that we are not one but many, not united but divided. When we look to the high price we are going to pay for inaction, we know that some of us stand to pay a higher price than others, some of us face far worse problems with far fewer material and social resources than others of us, and solidarity between the better off and the worse off is in short supply. Talk of “our future” suggests a common fate and common incentives to grapple with that fate, but ours is in fact a world of social, cultural, ethnic, racial, economic, religious, and political division.

Many societies, Kennedy argues, will have a much worse time than the prosperous few after the year 2000—Somalia, Ethiopia, China, India, the former Soviet Union, much of Latin America, and many Arab states will have great difficulty in dealing with the population growth, environmental degradation, political dissension, and an unfavorable position in the world division of labor. Kennedy gives a convincing account of all this,2 adding to a great deal of commentary along similar lines. What we are more anxious to know is whether more favorably placed societies—the United States, Japan, the member states of the European Community, and the other advanced European economies—can take control of global change in the next decade. And that is the question Professor Kennedy does not answer.

I say this uncomplainingly. It is an achievement even for Kennedy to raise the question as an urgent one when the United States, the European Community, and Japan are so largely preoccupied with their own internal affairs—the US with its industrial competitiveness, financial stability, and ability to provide its citizens with health care, the EC with the indigestion consequent upon instituting the “single market” in the middle of a prolonged recession and hard on the heels of German reunification, and Japan with averting financial and commercial meltdown.

Not everyone will be impressed by such difficulties. Environmentalists interested only in global issues may still find Professor Kennedy too distracted by these domestic concerns. His discussion of the problems facing the US, in particular, is a continuation of the discussion of “imperial overstretch” from The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers rather than the question whether America’s world leadership in military matters can be refashioned for other purposes. Kennedy has added to the plot some somber reflections on the self-destructive qualities of American culture, but the question his chapter “The American Dilemma” raises is “Can Americans be saved from themselves?” rather than “Can Americans save humanity?”

American readers who objected to Kennedy’s implication that the US faces decline in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers might even think that Professor Kennedy wants to show that the US will remain “Number One” as the creator of environmental hazards—with 5 percent of the world’s population, we emit 18 percent of the world’s “greenhouse gases.” They may claim that Professor Kennedy is not interested in what the US can contribute to their solution; but that would be unfair. Rather, he finds it as hard as anyone else to visualize just what stimulus it will take to make the developed countries act together to preserve the global human habitat while helping growth in the underdeveloped world.

Nobody doubts that the US will find it particularly hard to lead such a movement. American politics are driven by the efforts of particular interests and regions to frustrate national goals and policies; it is hard to imagine legislators who have prospered under such a system changing their ways and adopting a national, let alone a global perspective. Western senators have just forced President Clinton to withdraw plans to charge market rents and royalties on public grazing lands and mineral claims. These would have done even more for the environment than for the deficit. Can we imagine them voting for energy taxes for the benefit of foreign countries? American politics may not remain gridlocked until global warming has turned Kansas into a desert and put New Jersey under the Atlantic, but how and on what provocation we might turn from being the world’s supplier of military hardware to being the supplier of environmentally delicate technology is a speculative question.

Preparing for the Twenty-first Century begins with the nightmare that has plagued the sociologically minded for the past two centuries, the problem of overpopulation. The Reverend Thomas Malthus stalks Preparing for the Twenty-first Century much as he stalked the imagination of nineteenth-century economists. Malthus was famous for the claim that population grows geometrically, while the means of subsistence grow only arithmetically; while the food supply grows from two to four to six thousand bushels of corn, the population will grow from two to four to eight thousand mouths, and while we add the next two thousand bushels of corn we shall also add eight thousand more mouths.

Kennedy takes surprisingly seriously what is by now acknowledged to be a mere figure of speech. Malthus’s precision was spurious. He had no basis for his calculations, and wrote his Essay on the Principles of Population (1798) to attack William Godwin. Godwin promised a world where property would be abolished and good sense would make us so invulnerable to the hazards of everyday life that we would live for ever and think about better things than breeding. Malthus gave a mathematical turn to a polemical point: in essence, that the sexual drive was too strong for restraint of the sort Godwin had in mind. Population was checked by “war, misery and vice”—“vice” meant birth control, and “misery” meant famine.

Kennedy looks at the history of nineteenth-century Britain, not, as many demographers have, as a refutation of Malthus—the British population rose from rather less than 10 million in 1800 to about 41 million in 1900, but output rose fourteen-fold and life expectancy doubled—but as something to be reconciled with Malthus. Kennedy finds the reconciliation in the migration of 20 million people from the British Isles to relatively uninhabited places like the United States, and in the exploitation of cheap food supplies from the American and Canadian prairies. The implication for ourselves is obvious. While Britain could export its surplus population to the US, Canada, and Australia, the countries that today suffer excessive population growth can do nothing of the sort; airlifting food to Somalia is one thing, but opening the US or Europe to hungry Somalis is quite another.

Nor is there a source of food like that which the British drew on in the nineteenth century. The developing world seems to have got what benefit it can from the “green revolution” of the 1970s, and to be suffering diminishing returns. India has salination problems in the heavily irrigated areas, and almost universally output of both cereals and other food crops has since 1984 suffered from “overuse of fertilizers…, attacks by new diseases, the deterioration of soil quality, and the fact that there was less suitable land available for further planting.”

Population may seem to threaten trouble only to the developing countries that are experiencing explosive growth without a corresponding increase in food supplies, clean water, or employment opportunities. This would be a naive view. The surplus population of one country, as Kennedy points out, becomes the refugee or illegal immigrant problem of another. In this population growth resembles the second of the global challenges that Kennedy concentrates on: environmental degradation, represented most acutely by the potential problem of global warming. Kennedy says sobering things about other hazards, too—the ozone layer and radiation damage from the sun, for instance; and he laments the way the destruction of the rain forest and other tropical environments deprives us of animal and plant species whose potential usefulness in breeding disease resistant crops or aiding nonchemical pest control we can guess at from past successes but cannot intelligently estimate in advance. But the physical damage and economic disruption threatened by global warming certainly seem to him to pose the greatest dangers.

  1. 1

    Financial Times, March 27–28, 1993, pp. 1, 8.

  2. 2

    Much of it nicely summarized in his “Preparing for the Twenty-first Century: Winners and Losers,” The New York Review, February 11, 1993.

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