- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 1999

To get a handle on Earth's next 1,000 years, consider three events from the past 12 months:
In Britain, the aristocratic upper chamber of one of the world's oldest parliaments ruled that a Spanish magistrate has the right to extradite a Chilean citizen for human rights crimes committed a decade ago.
In Seattle, gangs of masked anti-trade anarchists, organized largely through the Internet, made their point about the evils of capitalism by smashing in the plate-glass front of a downtown Starbucks.
And the world's 6 billionth human being was born Oct. 12, most likely somewhere in rural India or China, demographers at the United Nations estimate.
In geopolitics, in climatology, in demographics, in economics, our planet's problems and possibilities will be linked in intimate ways unimaginable during any previous era in human history.
Is the Earth warming? Can it feed its growing billions of people? Can economic growth accommodate cleaner air, purer water, finite stocks of arable land and natural resources? How does government local, national or supernational balance competing claims for sovereignty, prosperity and security?
How things will turn out by the year 3000 is the source of much educated and uneducated guesswork. But experts and the man on the street agree the seeds of coming changes globalization and all its attendant controversies already have sent up shoots visible to close observers today.
"With all the necessary qualifications to the hyperbole about globalization, something important is happening," British Member of Parliament Vincent Cable concludes in a new study.
"What has always driven human history has been the ability of people to interact with the resources they know," says William Woods, the State Department's top geographer. "There aren't any more continents to conquer, and I think what you're seeing is the realization that the world is going to have to make do with what it has."
With the year 2000 just five days away, even the world's most powerful leaders have begun to address the cloudy future and the disquieting forces in play.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, noting the violence that rocked downtown Seattle at last month's failed World Trade Organization (WTO) summit, told a conference earlier this month that "many fear that their customs, culture and even their livelihood are in danger of being lost in a sea of foreign products and ideas. Many sense that their elected government does not have as much control over things as it once did."
President Clinton took on the subject at a Dec. 8 news conference, staking a middle ground between those who foresee a global government coming to dominate the world and those who predict the survival of the traditional nation-state.
Without specifying a time frame, Mr. Clinton said that in the future individual countries "will still be able to make decisions about when they will or won't cooperate worldwide in many areas." But, he added, "if you want the benefits of interdependence, you have to assume the responsibilities."

Change in the weather?

For geologist David Stephenson, a millennium barely registers on the calendar. The past president of the American Geological Institute, now with a consulting firm in Wyoming, notes that 1,000 years "isn't really all that long in our profession."
Barring some catastrophic interference, the continents will continue to pull away from each other on their tectonic plates at a rate of about an inch a century. The youthful Grand Tetons will enjoy another growth spurt, rising a full foot higher above sea level by the end of the next millennium.
But even the geologic forecasts contain some nasty shocks.
"Just in the normal course of things, we can expect some kind of catastrophic event in the Cascade Range [in Oregon and Washington state] on the scale of Mount St. Helens," Mr. Stephenson says. "It could be Rainier, Adams, Mount Hood.
"We're also very overdue for a major West Coast earthquake, one that might shake places as far away as Salt Lake City. And we're probably overdue for another quake like the New Madrid quake."
That 1811 quake, centered near a small Missouri town, briefly caused the Mississippi River to flow north and rang church bells in Philadelphia and Boston.
Simply assuming that the world stays in one piece for another 1,000 years leads to another bitter dispute: humanity's impact on the environment and global climate.
Whether global warming is real, and the extent to which man-made "greenhouse gases" are to blame, long ago ceased to be an in-house debate among tenured climatologists. As with so many of the challenges facing the world on the verge of the new millennium, one's stand on global warming is a complicated mix of scientific fact, political belief and moral values.
"It's a science issue and an environmental issue," says Eileen Claussen, executive director of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, which includes many businesses on its board and is considered a moderate in the raging global-warming wars.
"It's a global issue and a national issue, a technology issue and a fairness issue, a business issue and an economics issue," she says. "It is not likely to go away in the short term no matter what we do; and if we don't do anything, it won't go away in the long term, either."

A heated discussion

Both sides in the debate paint apocalyptic pictures. Adherents of global warming warn of environmental disasters and whole countries disappearing underwater. Skeptics fear the imposition of a costly cure for which there is no proven disease, one that could cripple the world economy.
What is known is that the globally averaged temperature of the air at the Earth's surface has warmed between 0.5 degrees and 1 degree Fahrenheit since the late 19th century. The five warmest years "on record" (dating back only to about 1860) have occurred since 1990, while the world's sea level rose during the same period by 4 to 10 inches.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a worldwide consortium of some 2,000 climate scientists, recently projected that global mean temperatures during the coming century would rise between 2.3 degrees and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit, with the world's oceans rising between 7 inches and 39 inches.
Climate changes are seen as a subtle and complex interplay of many factors, including ocean temperature and currents, gases in the atmosphere, polar ice sheets and fluctuating sunlight caused by variations in the Earth's orbit.
Climatologists caution that their models are extremely imprecise, and can't factor in potential shifts in demand and supply for energy or breakthrough pollution-control devices and procedures.
The doubters say that the link between human economic activity and warmer temperatures around the globe has not been proven, and that much of the recent temperature and sea-level increases could reflect natural cycles.
But proponents warn that time is running out to deal with a species-threatening danger, a "cataclysm unlike anything ever experienced in the short span of human history," as environmental activist Jeremy Rifkin puts it.
These pessimists propose a scenario of massive economic and social dislocation: tropical weather for New York and Boston, Midwestern droughts, increasing numbers of "extreme weather events," obliteration of coastal and forest ecosystems, altered rainfall patterns and the submergence of island chains like the Maldives, the Marshall Islands and the Caribbean.

Running on empty?

The world is on pace to run out of the fossil fuels that powered the Industrial Revolution coal, oil, and natural gas long before the year 3000. But most energy experts say man has the ingenuity to fashion replacement (and replaceable) fuels before then.
Hydrogen-powered, fuel-cell cars already are expected in auto dealerships within the decade. And backers of other candidates solar, wind and biofuels have plenty of time to work out kinks and bring down costs.
Despite a worldwide capitalist revolution, analysts say it could be two or three centuries before the world runs out of key fossil fuels.
Even as demand explodes, supply keeps pace, and new technologies make it profitable to extract natural resources at ever lower prices.
Luis Giusti, former chairman of Venezuela's largest oil company and now an energy analyst in Washington, notes that the world in 1952 was using up 4 percent of all proven oil reserves each year to fuel the global economy. Because of new efficiencies and oil-field finds, after 40 years of explosive growth the world in 1992 was using only 2.5 percent of proven oil reserves each year.
World market prices had to reach $17 a barrel in the mid-1980s to make oil drilled in the North Sea profitable; today, producers can make money from existing wells at a price as low as $5 a barrel.
With the 1997 treaty to limit production of greenhouse gases in the United States and around the world in deep trouble, futurists and energy experts agree that the energy vs. environment dilemma will not likely be solved through international pressure.
Instead, the market may prove more effective in balancing the world's burgeoning energy needs and environmental woes.

The 'good news'

One proposal, modeled on the promising effort to control acid rain, would create an artificial market in carbon emission "rights" that companies and nations could sell to one another. The idea: Give the players an economic incentive to cut their emissions and let them figure out on their own how to do it.
Crude oil will be a "strategic global commodity for a long time to come," predicts Robert Priddle, executive director of the International Energy Agency, adding that the industry already is focused on environmental impact.
Past predictions of global environmental disaster and resource shortages have been almost uniformly overstated. They have grossly underestimated the ability of the market to cut costs, shift among different resources or develop wholly new technologies to power the economy and preserve the environment.
Denis Hayes, an environmental activist and organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970, believes the planet faces major environmental challenges but also concedes that "we in the movement have a congenital aversion to good news."
"And the good news is that we know what to do about the problems we face," he says. "We know about superefficiency, about the potential of solar fuels, biofuels, fuel cells. We know in theory how to do a hydrogen-based economy."
What's needed, he says, "is to forge a new global majority around environmental values. And it can't be an exclusionary movement of the upper and middle classes of the West. Anything that is exclusionary will be fatal to the movement."

Peopling the globe

The debate over long-term climate change may be matched in intensity only by the disagreements over long-term population trends.
The imminent overpopulation disasters predicted by the English cleric Thomas Malthus at the end of the 18th century and by Paul Ehrlich at the end of the 1960s failed to materialize. But demographers are still trying to understand the unprecedented surge in population that began with the Industrial Revolution and peaked in the 1960s.
At an estimated 6 billion today, the world's population has more than tripled in the past 100 years. Historians calculate that global population growth rates never surpassed 0.5 percent per year until the 1750s and never exceeded 1 percent until about 1930.
But with improved nutrition and public health, increased fertility rates and plunging mortality rates, global population growth averaged 2.1 percent in the years 1965-70 and has slowed only slightly to about 1.6 percent today.
As with climate studies, demographic projections are notoriously unreliable. The U.S. Census Bureau's medium estimate forecasts that world population will increase to nearly 8 billion by 2025 and hit 9.3 billion by the middle of the 21st century.
At some point, demographers agree, population growth rates will level off, if only because those rates can't be sustained. For example, if regional fertility rates of the 1990s, combined with slowly declining mortality rates, persisted unchanged through the year 2150, world population would exceed 694 billion.
"The Earth's human population must ultimately approach a long-term average growth rate of zero. This is a simple mathematical fact, not subject to the whims of wars or elections or wish or chance. It is the one irrefutable proposition of demographic theory," writes Joel E. Cohen, head of the Laboratory of Populations at Rockefeller University, in his influential 1995 book, "How Many People Can the Earth Support?"
But demographers simply cannot state either how or when growth rates will level off, with differing date projections leading to wildly differing population levels.

Population trends

The answer will be determined by variables that include relatively small shifts in the rates of fertility, mortality and life expectancy as well as individual choices by millions of families around the world.
Behind the total population number lie some intriguing changes.
Life expectancy reached age 78 for babies born in Western Europe last year; in sub-Saharan Africa, the figure is 49. Still, with plunging birth rates throughout the industrialized world, the Census Bureau projects that 99 percent of world population increases in coming years will come from less developed countries.
Demographic studies indicate that by 2025 the United States and its counterparts among developed countries will see increasingly aging populations, while many developing countries have large numbers of young people just entering the labor force and their childbearing years.
Mr. Woods, the State Department geographer, says settlement patterns promise further stresses on resources.
"The vast majority of the population growth is occurring in the relatively poorer countries, and people are settling in even more dense concentrations in traditional locations in valleys and along the coastline," he says. "History suggests that the buffer for these populations from natural shocks is getting thinner and thinner."
Still, Mr. Ehrlich famously and wrongly wrote in 1968 that feeding a world of 6 billion people was "totally impossible in practice."
Since his book came out, an agricultural revolution sent the price of wheat plunging by 61 percent; the price of corn dropped 58 percent. Even as the rural population of the United States falls, farmers grow enough to feed every American with plenty left over for export.

How many is too many?

Dire predictions of unchecked population growth in even the poorest countries appear overstated. For example, in just 10 years, women in Bangladesh have gone from having an average of 4.9 children to 3.3 children.
"The dreaded population bomb that emerged as a worldwide obsession in the 1960s and 1970s has been all but defused," says Stephen Moore, an economist at the libertarian Cato Institute.
Malthus' England avoided the population calamity he predicted, but Mr. Woods says he believes those warnings still hold true for some places.
"I think there are some legitimate demographic problems facing large parts of the world," he says, "particularly when there remains a very unequal distribution of talent, resources and wealth."
Demographers say there is a physical upper limit to the number of people the world can support, but the more important constraints on population growth more likely will be economic and cultural how many children couples will decide to have once they achieve a certain income and educational level.
"There really is no one upper number, and I wouldn't want to put one out there," says Diana Cornelius, a researcher at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington. "It all depends on what we're willing to live with."
Mr. Cohen concludes that the question of maximum supportable population "cannot be answered using only ecological concepts."
"Human choices influence the Earth's human carrying capacity along with natural constraints," he writes.

Future of the state

The question of human choices brings us back full circle to the debate on politics and government. It is a debate in which the Seattle riots and the legal wrangle over former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet may serve as curtain-raisers to the next millennium's political dramas.
Predicting political trends is notoriously difficult. Consider: Top news events of the year 1000 included the voyage of Leif Ericsson to the shores of North America and the appearance in print of the Old English epic "Beowulf." That means that the country (the United States) and the language (English) that dominate the current world economic, political and cultural scenes were in their developmental infancy when the last millennium turned over.
Still, the raging debates over globalization, the power of multinational corporations beyond the control of any single state, Francis Fukuyama's "end of history," and the challenge posed by both technology and international institutions to the traditional power of the nation-state can be refined into a few recognizable schools of thought.
Some see globalization as a market-driven rewriting of the rules of politics, and embrace it.
"The balance between individuals and nation-states has changed," writes author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in a debate in the pages of the journal Foreign Policy. "So today you have not only a superpower, not only supermarkets … but superempowered individuals."
Others see globalization as market-driven rewriting of the rules of politics, and reject it.
The "principal achievement to date" of the World Trade Organization and other international economic bodies "has been to preside over the greatest transfer in history of real economic and political power away from nation-states and to global corporations," says Jerry Mander, president of the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization.
"Ultimately, the only goal of the WTO is to expand the freedom of corporations to act beyond the reach of any national regulations and to diminish the rights of national governments to regulate commerce on behalf of human beings or nature."

A great experiment and palpable frustration

Foreign policy traditionalists reject the idea that a new millennium will see a rewriting of the rules of power politics and national interest. Having emerged from the Cold War as the world's lone superpower, the United States, they say, naturally faces internal divisions over how to project that power as well as external challenges to its dominance from secondary powers Russia, China, India, even the European Union.
Harvard professor of government Samuel P. Huntington has staked a middle ground, predicting the world's politics in coming centuries will be a "clash of civilizations" among the Christian West, the Islamic world and Asia's Confucian states.
Questions of traditional sovereignty face another kind of challenge in Europe, where states that fought two disastrous world wars this century are embarked on a great experiment in relinquishing national prerogatives voluntarily including the crucial power to issue money to a continent-wide bureaucracy.
The biggest political wild card of all may be the Internet, and the power it gives individuals and small groups to organize against the state or evade regulations and restrictions.
Movements as disparate as the trade protesters in Seattle, neo-Nazi groups in Germany and Sweden, and the Falun Gong sect in China have been coordinated largely in cyberspace, bursting virtually overnight into the public consciousness as well-organized challenges to the local social order.
"I expect to see the overthrow of the U.S. government in my lifetime," senior contributing editor Richard L. Brandt writes in the July issue of Upside, a San Francisco-based business magazine.
The Internet has made local laws "unenforceable globally," he says, and "the lowest common denominator in other words, the weakest laws will win."
Steven Kull shies from predictions on the survival of the United States, but polling done by the University of Maryland's Program of International Policy Attitudes, which he directs, shows a high level of support for international organizations such as the United Nations and the WTO.
"We found a lot of frustration with the traditional nation-state," Mr. Kull says. "Americans generally don't see it reflecting their interests the way they do local government and international organizations. The frustration is very palpable."
But Jeremy Rabkin, a professor of international and constitutional law at Cornell, foresees a battle when Americans realize just how much power has been ceded without their consent to unelected international bureaucracies.
The Pinochet precedent, he argues, could mean the United States someday would have to hand over an American citizen to an international tribunal for trial even for acts committed while in the service of the U.S. government and committed entirely on American soil.
The only reason the clash has not happened yet, he says, is because advocates of global government are too smart to pick a fight with powerful nations like the United States when they can lay the groundwork with cases against weaker states such as Chile.
"Lacking an international legislature or an international executive," Mr. Rabkin writes in a recent ediiton of the journal National Interest, "champions of international law have maintained their credibility by learning to pick their spots ducking out of sight when legal claims are strongly resisted, re-emerging in those settings where issue networks have prepared the way for success."
The practical result: "a selective, inconsistent, bureaucratic sort of law, which has a lot of 'give' along with its occasional 'bite.' "
All the talk of the fate of the Earth's resources, human inhabitants and government leaves aside the question of whether mankind will have moved beyond the planet by year 3000, using unimagined power sources to pioneer growing techniques and forms of political organization in colonies on the Moon or the satellites of more distant stars.
"I have no doubt that they'll be studying the rocks on the Moon and Mars firsthand by the time the next millennium rolls around," says Mr. Stephenson, the geologist.
"I sometimes think I was born 1,000 years too soon."

First of five parts.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide