Each publishing season brings a few new titles which address serious issues of social change from a social science viewpoint. Accessibly written for lay readers, these breezy books may achieve fame and fortune for their authors. Works like The Pursuit of Excellence, Megatrends, Future Shock, and The Third Wave make no claim to serious scholarship, but popularize trends in economics and sociology. If successful, they hit non-fiction best-seller lists for several months and their writers soon become guests on syndicated television talk shows.
Occasionally, a different kind of popular book scores well. These are somewhat more demanding, but still accessible to the attentive reader; almost invariably, their message is sombre.
Paul Kennedy's Preparing for the Twenty-first Century is such a book. It shares with the others, both thick and thin, the repute of being much purchased, but little read. It is said to rest beside the bed of Bill Clinton and on the desks of recent contenders for the Conservative Party leadership. If it is good enough for national leaders, is it good enough for us?
If for no other reason than that it may be important to learn what our leaders are reading as they nod off to sleep, the answer is a cautious 'yes.' There is nothing especially new in Kennedy's work. In fact, some of the more distressing news is as old as Thomas Malthus, whose essay on population pained those who were preparing for the nineteenth century. Not only does Kennedy warn of overpopulation but of maldistribution. Even relatively conservative demographic forecasts indicate that the population of the developed countries will grow from somewhat over one billion people to somewhat under two billion in the next century. The underdeveloped states, however, will grow from almost four to almost nine billion. Impossible? Probably, but not because planned parenthood will become more popular; there are more draconian, even apocalyptic, means of population control; some can be seen on the evening news.
Critics of Preparing for the Twenty-first Century are plentiful, and the largest proportion of them sing the same tune. They say Kennedy's analysis is accurate but note that he refuses to spell out solutions. But is that analysis what needs to be questioned? Kennedy identifies four issues that he believes will structure the politicaleconomy ofthe next century: (1) uncontrolled population growth; (2) the increasing inequity and unpredictability of the global economy, especially international investment patterns; (3) innovative biotechnology and robotics; (4) destruction of the natural environment.
No one doubts that these are all serious problems, but they are not, as Kennedy seems to imply, unforced and inescapable aspects of our fate. They are caused. The poor countries are poor, to cite just one example, less because they produce too many children than because of a combination of crushing foreign debt loads combined with domestic maladministration. And matters are likely to get worse. Third-world countries are under increasing pressure to embrace a market economy which, contrary examples (South Korea and Singapore) notwithstanding, undermines what little hope for prosperity they retain. It is true that Paul Kennedy does not provide answers, but more importantly, he cannot.
That is because to do so would mean bringing abstract and ahistorical problems down to earth and setting them in a real-world context. As Geoffrey Hawthorn said recently in the London Review ofBooks, this would force Kennedy to admit that “… the view pressed by the west on the rest is that global liberalism is the solution … however, it's the problem.” But were Kennedy to do that, the Prime Minister of Canada and the President of the United States perhaps would not find this book quite so comfortably at hand.
H.A. Doughty teaches at Seneca College's King Campus, and is Editor of The College Quarterly.