Reviewed 9/18/2011

Which World?, by Allen Hammond

Access to this book courtesy of the
San Jose, CA Public Library
Global Destinies, Regional Choices: Scenarios for the 21st Century
Allen Hammond
Washington, DC: Island Press, June 1998




ISBN-13 978-1-55963-575-2
ISBN 1-55963-575-4 306pp. HC/GSI $35.00

The Brookings Institution, the Santa Fe Institute, and the World Resources Institute organized a study called the 2050 Project. This book is one result of that five-year effort, whose purpose was to develop scenarios for the next half-century in order to better understand the future of human society. Experts can follow trends, and project them ahead to forecast either bane or boon. But, as Allen Hammond points out, trends are not destiny. The future holds both promise and peril in store; our actions in the present will determine which predominates.

The twenty-first century may indeed see an unprecedented global civilization bound together by the Internet and its successors, but it may also see human tragedy on a scale that could make the Holocaust seem modest.

– Page 12

More particularly, the book grew out of a small meeting in the late autumn of 1995. The participants numbered fewer than twelve, but they were very diverse individuals. They included a Latin American scientist, a lawyer from Africa, another scientist from the Netherlands, and a Bangladeshi NGO developer. They came together at the offices of the Tellus Institute in Boston, and, after a year of intense work, settled on three scenarios — Market World, Fortress World, and Transformed World — to frame the most likely range of possibilities for the world of 2050.

I describe those three scenarios here. The words are mine, and I put my own spin on the descriptions.

MARKET WORLD The invisible hand is given free rein in this scenario. Free-market rules hold sway. Think of it as the North American Free Trade Agreement writ large, covering the whole of the globe. The Wall Street Journal and the leaders of multinational corporations are delighted to see the tidal wave of prosperity that results as, finally, a rising tide really does lift all boats.
FORTRESS WORLD Unfettered market forces hold sway in this scenario too. But instead of bringing widespread prosperity, they concentrate wealth in the hands of a plutocrat class. Wealthy individuals and the regions they rule wall themselves off, hoarding resources while the world sinks into destitution and violence. But when resources run out, so does patience. In the end, their walls come tumbling down.
TRANSFORMED WORLD This is a scenario of fundamental and far-reaching social change. The market still operates, but is bounded by laws, treaties and cultural norms that end economic externalities and give all employees a say in corporate governance. Not only is wealth more evenly distributed among the world's population, but the incentive to pile up possessions in conspicuous consumption or accumulate a mint of money has greatly diminished, replaced by a desire for a balanced, higher-quality life.1

Hammond asks which of these worlds will come to pass. He answers himself by projecting a world with elements of all three scenarios. That is the only sensible answer, given the welter of helter-skelter trends. Truly, it is as the ever-quotable Yoda said in that movie: "Always in motion is the future." For myself, I see a somewhat grimmer outcome than Hammond; but, as the ever-quotable Studs Terkel wrote, Hope Dies Last.

"That we can't predict the future is not terribly important. What is much more important is that we can shape the future: that we try to envision the future we want and then set about making it happen. But some strategic thinking is essential. Humanity is no longer just another passenger on planet Earth. The sheer numbers of people and the scale of the human enterprise are now such as to have a lasting, perhaps irreversible, environmental impact; our capacity for destruction and the potential size of the human disasters now possible are equally large. The constraints of a finite planet and of human poverty and ignorance are real. Just as parents struggle to teach their children to think ahead, to choose a future and not just drift through life, it is high time that human society as a whole learns to do the same.

– Page 249

Which World? is well organized, presenting the three scenarios, then examining the separate trends which will influence them — population, technology, resources, and so on — and finally looking in detail at each of the seven regions of the world. (All this is clear from the Table of Contents, linked below.) It is thoroughly end-noted and a worthy introduction to the state of the world in 1998.2 I give the book full marks and rate it a keeper.

1 Could this scenario, if it comes to pass, lead to the kind of world portrayed in the various versions of Star Trek: Earth united and peaceful, with resources so abundant and well-distributed that money becomes unimportant? ¡Ojalá! In such a world, the lack of warp-drive starships wouldn't mean so much.
2 The only shortcoming I noted is that the "hypertext forum" the book mentions as a resource is no longer there. After so long, that is nothing surprising.
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