He's Seen The Future, And It Doesn't Work


By Paul Kennedy

Random House x 428pp x $25

Paul Kennedy calls his subjects "large history." Four years ago, his topic was empire. In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, he argued that the U.S. suffered from "imperial overreach"--that it had more global military commitments than it could pay for. Unless this condition were reversed, America would follow Britain, Spain, and Austria-Hungary into decline.

In the twilight of the Reagan era, the argument hit a nerve. Democrats hailed Kennedy's scholarship. Conservatives pointed to his British heritage and dismissed him as a "declinist." The 677-page doorstop became a best-seller.

Now, in Preparing for the Twenty-first Century, Kennedy peers into the next half-century and predicts a global overpopulation disaster. What lies ahead, he says, are famine, endemic poverty and malnutrition, irreversible environmental damage, mass migrations, regional wars, disease--and no solutions.

How seriously should we take this? It's important to remember that Kennedy is not just a Yale history professor but also a popular pundit. Rise and Fall had a political subtext: It addressed Americans' growing insecurity about their future. Century also has a subtext: It challenges the fundamental American belief that science and technology can solve all problems. But the new book is more the product of assiduous research in periodicals than of scholarship. Believe the worst only if you wish.

Kennedy began Century after a critic asked why his book on empires had caused "such a fuss" when the issues of the day--overpopulation, environmental degradation, technology, and migration--are transnational. "Before long, I was making clippings of newspaper and journal articles. After a further while, I realized I had the makings of a book."

Kennedy's thesis is straightforward. By 2050, world population, if unchecked, will double, to 10 billion. Even if it is curbed, there will probably be a 40% increase, to 8.5 billion. In the past, scientific and technological breakthroughs helped ease the growing global load. This time, we'll be overwhelmed, Kennedy thinks. "Given that our merely human leadership has no chance of doing much...we ought to brace ourselves for a continuation of jolts and jars and smashes in the social life of humanity."

The key tests for this thesis are China and India, which account for one-third of world population. Kennedy foresees them growing to 1.5 billion people each by 2025, despite population-control efforts. Their demand on resources will affect all of our lives. China, he thinks, has the better chance of coping. Its commitment to economic growth in southern China and its authoritarian approach to population control show the Chinese can achieve results, he allows. But he doubts progress will continue. China has already relaxed its goal of lowering population to 750 million by 2050 because of wide resistance. And Kennedy doesn't see the southern China boom expanding fast enough to ripple benefits into the rural north. Thus, a permanent class of some 400 million peasants will scrap over dwindling land and supplies.

Politically fractious India is less able to hold down births and hasn't been able to sustain economic growth rates much above 1%. Both nations have an impressive technology base "about which one might be sanguine." Except, Kennedy asks: "Given their social structures, can India and China take the strain of creating world-competitive high-tech enclaves in the midst of hundreds of millions of their impoverished countrymen?"

The answer, of course, is that's what they're doing. Southern China's growth spurt is already being replicated north of Beijing. Peasants are sent south to train, then return to low-level northern factories, while southern workers move up into value-added tech work. India boasts a middle class of 350 million, many in technology and industry, whose prosperity does trickle down--though by Kennedy's standards, not nearly enough.

What undermines Kennedy's thesis most, however, is his resolve to see all technological advancements not just as double-edged but as equally double-edged, as though markets never adjust. In his view, a genetic breakthrough that benefits Japanese agribusiness is harmful if it forces peasant farmers in Costa Rica off the land. A robotics revolution is bad for India and China because it replaces workers, even though it improves industrial bases. First World progress in drugs, food, electronics, and energy is bad if it increases the wealth gap between the rich north and the poor south. And healthy Third World growth is bad if it harms the environment. There certainly are no winners here.

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Gulf war showed that rich allies would pay for future conflicts, Kennedy's 1988 argument about America's "global overreach" lost its political usefulness. The themes presented here--overpopulation and environmental degradation--aren't so likely to disappear, and Kennedy has deftly avoided the cant of techno-euphorics and zero-growthers. Has he produced another best-seller? Never underestimate the appeal of a scholar preaching apocalypse.

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