Peering Ahead


The Distant Past, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

By Robert Heilbroner

Oxford/NYPL 128pp $19.95

One vestige of the end of the cold war is a loss of familiar context. Combatants can no longer be identified as pro- or anti-communist, and competitors are as likely to be emerging nations as venerable industrial countries. How to explain this new world?

By giving it perspective. That's economist Robert Heilbroner's aim in this thin volume. Author of the classic The Worldly Philosophers, Heilbroner draws on work from anthropology to economics to build a construct within which to view the past, understand the present, and speculate about the future.

He argues that in the "distant past"--from the time of hunters and gatherers until the Industrial Revolution--our ancestors viewed life as static; they had no expectations of change or material gain. Wealth, such as it was, went to the rulers, and poverty was seen as the natural order. "Yesterday"--the period from the Industrial Revolution until about 1950--marked a sea change as technology spurred phenomenal growth. Capitalism, with its promise of material gain, became the dominant social order. At the same time, political will became a new, revolutionary force, manifesting itself in various ways, from democracy in America to communism in Russia.

"Today," technology still fuels growth, but expectations have soured. Heilbroner attributes this to a recognition of technology's dark side--from Hiroshima to Chernobyl-- and the ongoing exclusion of many from capitalism's rewards. But the current anxiety, he says, could give way to an optimistic "tomorrow"--as far away as a century--if human endeavor focuses less on accumulation and people stop viewing progress as a way to achieve heaven on earth.

Any such summary of past and future suffers, inevitably, from oversimplification, and Heilbroner is at his weakest in suggesting what the future might look like. Still, for those of us groping for ways to evaluate what's happening in our brave new world, he makes a worthwhile contribution.

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