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THE FUTURE IN PLAIN SIGHT: Nine Clues to the Coming Instability.\o7 By Eugene Linden (Simon & Schuster: 256 pp., $25)\f7

November 08, 1998|MARK HERTSGAARD | Mark Hertsgaard is the author of "Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future," which will be published in December by Broadway Books

Remember the torrential winter storms that pounded California? The fires that devastated Florida last summer? The weeks of 100-degree-plus heat that baked Texas? 1998 has been a year of extreme weather, both in the United States and abroad, and scientists say humanity is at least partly to blame. The Florida fires, for example, were dwarfed by earlier blazes in Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia that were often set by politically connected agribusiness companies. The smoke over the Amazon was so thick, wrote one observer, that "the sun disappeared for days at a time."

Get used to it. To hear Eugene Linden tell it in "The Future in Plain Sight," weirdly unpleasant weather is bound to increase during the years ahead. Global warming, caused mainly by the carbon dioxide released from fossil fuel combustion and forest fires, is already raising temperatures around the world. Eight of the 10 warmest years in recorded history have been in the last decade, and the first nine months of 1998 rank as the Earth's hottest months on record. Because a hotter planet experiences more evaporation, global warming also causes more frequent and severe storms and drought. As 1998 has shown, the costs of such weather to human life and property are enormous.

And weather, Linden warns, is not the only thing that will be more volatile in the 21st century. Linden, the environmental correspondent for Time magazine, argues that human history is on the verge of a major, cataclysmic shift. The last 50 years have been a period of remarkable political stability--without world wars or economic cataclysms--and this charmed era comes at the end of 150 years of climatic stability. But such periods of stability are actually exceptions in human history, Linden contends. He predicts the next 50 years will mark a return to instability.

His thesis: As climates change, population growth and economic globalization continue, the effects will overwhelm financial systems, food production, disease control and other pillars of the social order. Because these trends are all but irreversible in the short run, writes Linden, humans in the 21st century will "be in the position of watching and understanding events that we cannot control, and that will make the coming instability all the more intolerable." Humanity will eventually make the transition "to stable population growth, to an economic system that neither beggars the Earth nor marginalizes the great bulk of humanity, and to a value system that recognizes the limits of materialism, but these transitions will not come about smoothly." Billions may die along the way.

Gloom and doom is a tricky message for an author, but to his credit, Linden does not pull punches for fear of frightening away readers. Nor does he employ the melodramatic tone favored by some environmental Paul Reveres. His voice is urgent but businesslike. He cares about his subject and trusts readers to care too.

After all, who could remain indifferent to the news that 30 of the world's 50 largest cities lie near coasts, leaving them vulnerable to the increased flooding that climate change will produce? When 750 million of the world's 2.5 billion workers are either unemployed or underemployed and rural masses throughout the Third World are migrating in unprecedented numbers to cities that are already woefully over-stressed, who cannot see the potential for social upheaval? Ecosystems are fraying under humanity's weight today, yet Linden reminds us that human numbers are bound to increase because half of the world's population is younger than 26 years old.

These are arresting facts. Unfortunately, Linden doesn't include enough of them, nor explore their implications sufficiently, to do justice to his argument. The problem may lie in the organization of the book, which is divided into three sections. The first section is reportorial and discusses the trends noted above; the second is a "thought experiment" in which Linden speculates in detail about how the world will look in 2050; the third contains a brief conclusion.

Many chapters in this book read like extended magazine articles in Time; they are studded with useful information but lack the nuance and in-depth analysis one expects from a serious book. One wishes that the 96 pages spent on the thought experiment had instead been devoted to expanding the first section of the book.

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