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By Paul Kennedy
Random House, 1993, 428 pages

Preparing for the Twenty-First Century is a wide-ranging and intelligent survey of global trends — from population growth and global warming to the revolutions in biotechnology and robotics — and how they are likely to influence, if not dictate, the shape of society in coming years. The book is divided into three parts. The first is largely descriptive and examines general world trends. A chapter each is devoted to the population explosion and shifting demographic patterns; the communications revolution and the rise of the multinational corporation; world agriculture and the burgeoning field of biotechnology; robotics, automation and the changing face of industry; the growing threats to the natural world and the danger posed by global warming; and the decline of the nation-state. Part Two takes a more analytical turn, assessing the regional impacts of these global changes on the developing world, Japan, India, China, the former Soviet world, Europe, and the United States. Part Three consists of a single chapter summarizing Kennedy's conclusions about how societies can best "prepare" themselves for the twenty-first century.

According to Kennedy, population growth represents the world's single greatest challenge today. He points out that when Thomas Malthus made his famous prediction in 1798 that the British population would outgrow the country's resources in short order, three unforseen developments allowed Britain to escape the disaster: migration, increased agricultural productivity, and industrialization. Today the world is facing a dilemma similar the one Malthus described, only on a much vaster scale. The question is whether development can outpace population growth again, as it did in the nineteenth century. Kennedy is doubtful. Almost everyone now agrees, he says, that with our current patterns and levels of consumption, the projected growth in the world's population cannot be sustained. "Unlike animals and birds, human beings destroy forests, burn fossil fuels, drain wetlands, pollute rivers and oceans, and ransack the earth for ores, oil, and other raw materials."

Economic globalization — today's counterpart to the industrial revolution of Malthus's day — has served North America, Japan, and parts of Europe and East Asia. But in much of the developing world, corrupt regimes, excess spending on the military, bureaucratic ineptitude, religious fundamentalism, and other problems have impeded economic progress. Biotechnology may revolutionize agriculture, but it too is a mixed blessing, Kennedy contends. Its primary beneficiaries are not the poor people of the developing world, but multinational corporations. A widespread shift to biotechnology would not only wipe out traditional farming, depriving millions of rural people of their livelihoods, it would also displace agricultural workers and force them into already overcrowded urban areas.

Given that these trends are transnational in scope, the effects are likely to be felt all over the globe. But some countries are clearly better positioned than others to meet the challenges, in Kennedy's estimation. "As we move into the next century," he writes, "the developed economies appear to have all the trump cards in their hands — capital, technology, control of communications, surplus foodstuffs, powerful multinational companies — and, if anything, their advantages are growing because technology is eroding the value of labor and materials, the chief assets of developing countries." The most likely countries to come out ahead are Japan, Korea, and certain other East Asian trading states, along with Germany, Switzerland, some of the Scandinavian states, and possibly the European Community as a whole. What these countries have in common, Kennedy says, are excellent educational systems (particularly for those not attending university), high savings rates, skilled work forces and good retraining programs, well-established manufacturing cultures, high levels of investment in new plant and equipment, fairly consistent trade surpluses in visible goods, and a commitment to producing well-designed, high-added-value manufactures for the global market. Still, he adds, these countries will also need to contend with declining fertility rates, population imbalances, financial volatility, the need to cushion farming communities from increasing obsolescence, and other problems.

Kennedy's prognosis for the United States is less than optimistic. In his view, a steadily declining rate of economic growth, declining per capita productivity, a weak financial system, and a continuing trade deficit are the primary sources of concern. The country also faces considerable social challenges, including widespread drug use, urban crime, and a health care system that costs more and serves fewer people than any other health system in the industrialized world. But despite these problems, he concludes, the United States may "muddle through" and ultimately come out a winner.

Copyright 1995 by Scott London. All rights reserved.