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Slouching Toward the Millennium : Prognostications, Prophecies and Just Plain Guesses About What the Last Decade of the 20th Century Will Bring

December 24, 1989|JACK JONES | Jack Jones retired in 1989 after 34 years as a Times staff writer. His last story for this magazine was "Tales From the Freeway."

THE WORLD CHANGED SO DRAMATICALLY in the 1980s, particularly in the past few months, that at times one felt nostalgic about last week. The 1980s saw the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe; the diagnosis of a deadly disease--AIDS--that has escalated into a worldwide epidemic, and the ascendancy of American conservatism. Indeed, so much changed so rapidly in the waning years of the decade that the prospect of contemplating more U-turns in the 1990s makes one a bit lightheaded.

But these are vertiginous times, like it or not. The calendar dictates a new decade, ready or not. We aren't reckless or presumptuous enough to try to label the '90s before they arrive, but we thought it might be wise to ask for help in preparing for the next spin of the wheel of history.

Many of the specialists we queried were ill at ease about trying to gaze into the future. Because events have a way of embarrassing horse-racing handicappers and denim salesmen, the squeamishness evoked by questions about peace, economics and environmental issues is understandable. But, with a little prodding, we came up with a panel of 14 prophets who speculated, wondered, expounded, hedged and warned about the coming years. Two main currents stand out: sweeping optimism and chilling pessimism.

So don't expect a dull decade. And don't blame us if they turn out to be wrong.

THE ENVIRONMENT: DAVID R. BROWER

Brower, a leader in conservation issues for 50 years, is chairman of the San Francisco-based environmental group Earth Island Institute.

THERE HAS TO be in the coming decade a major move toward restoration of the earth. We've got to put back together, as well as we can, the things we took apart since the Industrial Revolution. It was a big party. Now the bills are coming in: global warming, acid rain, holes in the ozone layer, loss of species and loss of hope. We've got to turn that all around. All we can do is give nature a chance. If we continue the worst addiction of all--the addiction to gasoline--nature won't get that chance.

Of course we're going to do it. All we have to do is say that's where we want to go. We can't restore the rain forest, but we can give it our best stab. As for global warming, it's certainly going to be slowed down, and we'd better reverse it. The last moment--or the next to the last moment--has arrived. As somebody said, "The threat of being hanged gets one's attention."

Ironically, it is the pessimism of others that makes me optimistic. The very strength of Bill McKibben's presentation in his book, "The End of Nature," will draw attention. So will the Conservation Foundation-sponsored report on toxic chemical pollution in the Great Lakes and its threat to fish, birds, mammals, reptiles and 35 million people.

There are several great pieces of news: Mercedes is developing a car that burns hydrogen. The Valdez Principles (a code of conduct recently introduced by a coalition of environmental groups, religious organizations and investors) are suggesting what big and small investors in big corporations can require them to do to be socially responsible. The Council on Economic Priorities has put out a booklet, "Shopping for a Better World," telling people which corporations are doing well environmentally and which aren't. We can invest and vote with our purchases every day.

RACE RELATIONS: ALVIN POUSSAINT

Poussaint is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a senior associate in psychiatry at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. He is the author of "Why Blacks Kill Blacks" and co-author of "Black Child Care."

I'M A LITTLE PESSIMISTIC about race relations in this country during the 1990s because of the number of new immigrants, particularly Hispanic Americans and Asians. They will be competing for jobs. We already have animosity between blacks and Latinos. We still have a lot of poverty in black and Hispanic communities. A recent congressional report indicated that 50% of black children in the United States live in poverty. They are more likely than other young people to be involved in drugs and crime or to be killed.

With the general population feeling threatened, all the issues such as drugs and crime are going to come out in racial terms. There will be more segregation. And with the sliding backward of affirmative action and set-aside programs, you leave people in power who were in power before. There is more cronyism and nepotism.

There are disturbing signs that the advances since the 1960s are fading. College enrollment of blacks is declining. In the past 15 years, the number of blacks in medical schools has not gone up.

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