Apocalypse 2050

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CHARLES P. ALEXANDERDon't ever invite Eugene Linden to your party. The author and TIME contributor is a pleasant fellow, but his ideas about the future could have taken the fizz out of even the best champagne. Though Linden writes most often on the environment, he thinks about everything, and his new book, The Future in Plain Sight: Nine Clues to the Coming Instability, is a broadbrush look at life in the 21st century. What he sees is not pretty: if the economic depression and plagues don't get you, the floods and famines will.You have to admire Linden for the courage of his pessimistic convictions. In the summer of 1997, at a time of unprecedented world peace, prosperity and stability, he was perversely working on a manuscript about the coming global chaos. His effort seemed destined to join Paul Erdman's The Crash of '79 and Harry Figgie's Bankruptcy 1995: The Coming Collapse of America on the shelf of prophecies that never panned out. But by the time Linden published his book a year later, he was right on the money. Asian currencies had collapsed, Japan had gone into cardiac arrest, Russia was bankrupt, and El Nino had spread fire and storm around the globe. Even Wall Street was down. Suddenly, The Future in Plain Sight became one of the timeliest tomes at Amazon.com.So what if the markets are jumpy and the weather erratic, you might ask? Hasn't it always been that way? Not like this, Linden would reply. He devotes a chapter to explaining how globalization of the financial system has institutionalized instability on a grand scale. Worse, modern civilization's foundation--the favorable climate humanity has enjoyed for 8,000 years--will turn nasty. Global warming, fueled by the consumer society's relentless production of greenhouse gases, is likely to increase the frequency and power of storms. Changes in polar-ice configurations could affect climate patterns and raise sea levels, threatening coastal areas from Boston to Bangladesh.You've probably read all that before, but Linden goes beyond the familiar warnings to describe a pattern of trends that he thinks will burst the bubble of human progress. Among the causes of future instability that are in plain sight, but often out of mind: the spread of diseases because of overpopulation and climate change; deforestation and the rapid extinction of animal and plant species; the burgeoning income gap between the world's rich and poor; the rising tide of eco-migrants, who are forced off exhausted land; and the march of fanatical religious fundamentalism. All these unsettling developments are likely to accelerate as climate change curbs food production and economic output.PAGE 1  |  
 
Where, then, are we headed? The second half of Linden's book imagines what life will be like in the year 2050 in various places around the world. Consider two of his scenarios:THE PHILIPPINES: In the first half of the new century, most of the remaining forests will be cut down, and as few as 30% of the animal and plant species once present in the country will survive. Mudslides flowing over denuded fields will wipe out countless homes, and the silt that washes into rivers and lagoons will destroy fisheries. A longer, more vigorous typhoon season will play havoc with rice crops, wounding the economy and forcing the nation to import large amounts of food. Guerrilla warfare, disease and hunger will eventually drive down the birth rate, and by 2050 the population will sink to 55 million, 25% lower than it is now. At that point, things may start to improve, as the rain forest begins to reclaim the hillsides and the mangroves return to the ravaged coastline. But, Linden writes, much of the country is damaged beyond repair.NEW YORK CITY: Richer and more resourceful than most locales, New York survives the hard times relatively well, but by 2050 some major changes are evident in midtown Manhattan. The heat is so oppressive that the tall buildings are camouflaged in greenery; shade trees are planted in every available spot, from rooftops to sidewalks. The few people walking the streets wear surgical masks and avoid coming close to other citizens; fear of disease is so strong that standoffish behavior is no longer considered rude. The most popular style of dress, which looks like a monk's robe, is worn for practicality. People know that during periodic epidemics they will often be required to slip off the robe and subject it to irradiation while their skin receives a microbe-killing dose of ultraviolet light.You don't have to agree with Linden's fashion predictions to find most of his visions plausible--and frightening. But he doesn't discount the human race's genius for adaptation and survival. Over the millennia, he writes, humanity has proved to be an artful dodger of fate, a defier of limits, a surmounter of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and a master escape artist from traps laid by nature.Linden suggests several escape routes to a more benign future, including the use of solar technology and clean fuel-cell-powered cars. But such opportunities will not be taken, he warns, unless people recognize the dangers lurking just beyond the turn of the millennium.For now we're muddling along, conducting business as usual. Japan and Russia have new Prime Ministers, and Puerto Rico is welcoming back tourists just months after the devastation of hurricane Georges. Even Wall Street is perking up again. No one wants to believe that the party is coming to an end.  |  2