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Future sheds light on present

Journalist sees signs of worldwide upheaval

By Leigh E. Rich

The Future in Plain Sight: Nine Clues to the Coming Instability
By Eugene Linden
Simon & Schuster

The new millennium approaches, and with it all the soothsayers and prophets predicting what our near future holds. While most of these diviners sell us half-cocked ideas about Hollywood trysts and looming natural disasters, science and technology writer Eugene Linden has far more serious things to say about the year 2000 and beyond.

As the title suggests, The Future in Plain Sight is more about the present, and the clues to future trends towards instability already within view. Critically examining modern economics, ecology, disease and population demographics, Linden skillfully makes the case that, while humanity has enjoyed a relatively stable political environment for the past 50 years and a relatively stable worldwide climate for that last 8,000 years, this “uncanny tranquility” is swiftly coming to an end.

As with any system, entropy is the order of the day. In order to visualize this fate, one need not consult a cryptic crystal ball: The signs are right there before us, but we’ve been too comfortable to recognize them.

Linden cites nine examples, though he doesn’t pretend to have exhausted the list. He begins with the rise of “hot-tempered markets,” illustrated in economic crises like the devaluation of the Mexican peso in 1994, and the Thai baht (and other Southeast Asian currencies) in 1997. “The U.S. got a taste of this in 1987, during the October crash, when the New York Stock Exchange’s Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by 22 percent in one day.” The U.S. quickly recovered and “the bull market that had begun in 1982 resumed its unprecedented march upward.” But the current economic boom cannot continue unfailingly due to the globalization of market economies. Homogeneity and interconnectivity underlie the world’s monetary systems. And who will be able to bail out the U.S. when the bottom falls out of the dollar?

Another trend worldwide, especially in developing countries as more and more people migrate into cities, is urbanization. According to UN statistics, the “percentage of population living in cities in the richer countries increased by about 37 percent between 1950 and 1995, but the percentage of urban dwellers more than doubled in less developed nations during that same period, and more than tripled in the least developed nations.” While urbanization has a tendency to discourage birth rates, the swelling urban sprawl creates megacities with problems of their own, including increases in violence, crime, disorder, pollution and disease. The poor are particularly at risk, being more susceptible to infectious as well as chronic illnesses.

Linden also discusses the resurgence of infectious diseases like cholera and tuberculosis; the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor; the narrowing limits in food supply, fresh water and clean air; the ecological changes in climate like global warming and ozone depletion; and the loss of biodiversity and the breakdown of natural habitats.

This last item is particularly harrowing since many ecosystems have already spiraled into chaos. In Africa, for example, he writes that, “logging is driving chimp bands into neighboring territories, setting off fierce chimp wars in which as many as four out of five animals die in hand-to-hand combat.” Moreover, the destruction of tropical rain forests unleashes new pathogens on humanity while simultaneously reducing our ability to find drugs to combat them.

Taken to heart, The Future in Plain Sight becomes exceedingly sobering. Linden is knowledgeable and effective in his task; he’s no prophetic charlatan to be brushed aside. Though more pessimistic than some, he’s feasibly correct in stating it’s too late to reverse these trends. To whatever degree, the first years of the next millennium promise greater instability than human history has yet experienced.

This theme is explored in the second half of his book: Comparable to an Einstein-inspired “thought experiment,” he paints a picture of what the world might look like in 2050—a mere 52 years from now. Though not as convincing as the first section of the book, Linden’s creative theorizing has some merit. In spite of the hokiness of some parts, Linden crafts a fantastic future rife with horrifically plausible scenarios: Oaxacan peasants migrating from overcrowded Mexico City back to liminal villages; Filipinos struggling to increase rice production; the invincible California Redwood inexorably dying away; African wildlife skewing out of balance; and New Yorkers and Kansans alike forced to deal with an ever-present threat of contagion.

The only thing missing in The Future in Plain Sight is a third section, which might offer ways to alleviate the consequences of a growing world, if not outright solutions to our planetary misconduct. (“Though nature is readily converted into capital, the reverse is not so easy to accomplish,” he merely states.) Then again, Linden is a journalist—and a good one at that—not a politician. Perhaps in reporting the grim facts, he’ll inspire other individuals to take action.

The Future in Plain Sight may well be among the most important books of the decade. While it should have been published 50 years ago, back in the ’50s and ’60s—the height of stability—scientists who raised the types of issues revisited here by Linden were brushed aside as doomsayers and “Malthusians.” It was then, however, that we may have been able to forestall the social, biological and environmental problems now looming around the bend.

Rich, L. E. (1998). Journalist sees signs of worldwide upheaval. [Review of the book The Future in Plain Sight: Nine Clues to the Coming Instability by Eugene Linden.] Rocky Mountain News, August 23.

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