The World Ahead: Our Future in the Making
by federico mayor and jerome binde
London, Zed Books, 2001. 511 pages
Paperback: UK £16.95
In their new book, The World Ahead: Our Future in the Making, Federico Mayor and Jerome Binde spell out several of the crises facing our planet, and give recommendations on how to promptly address them. The work is up-to-date and utilises the most recent data available on social and environmental issues. Mayor is the former director-general of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) and former European parliamentarian. Binde is the director of UNESCO’s analysis and forecasting office, and it is therefore not surprising that at times their book reads like a primer for work at the United Nations. Their credentials certainly add depth and breadth to their analysis on the numerous problems facing the global community, but they also give the work some biases that are difficult to ignore.
The book covers a litany of problems that face the world: overpopulation, poverty, sustainable urban development, transportation of the future, the status of women in all societies, drug trafficking, water and food shortages, energy consumption and climate change, racism and other forms of discrimination, the role of education, the prospect of peace and global security, the role of new communication technologies in solving some of these problems, and also a self-critical look at the future of the United Nations system, including its shortcomings as well as potential. Sprinkled throughout the book are also inset boxes that highlight experimental solutions to social and environmental problems: desertification, bio-ethics, linguistic rights, solar energy, a ban on landmines, and “The Manifesto 2000 for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence”.
The authors begin the book recognising that the social, economic and political process of globalisation is the outgrowth of the third industrial revolution. The mid-eighteenth century produced the transformation to an industrial-based economic system of global capitalism, followed by the mid-twentieth century Fordism of the second industrial revolution, whereby industrial production mass-produced a middle-class standard of consumption and the modern welfare state. We are currently witnessing yet another, third, wave of dynamic change:
Built on the cyber revolution and on the order of codes—computer codes today, genetic codes tomorrow—the third industrial revolution is shaping the society of material production into a new, immaterial empire, into the world of signs of a “programmed society” … If globalization today primarily concerns computers, telecommunications, financial markets, the media scene and networks, this is because globalization is first and foremost the outcome of the third industrial revolution. (P. 2)
These twin processes are, according to Mayor and Binde, dividing the world into the one-fifth of the planet who benefit from globalisation, and the four-fifths of the world who are buffeted by its economic dislocation, social division, lack of democratic empowerment and social instability. Much of this global segregation is a result of “educational apartheid” where privileged classes around the world have access to modern education, while masses are unable to tap into the “knowledge economy” (p. 3). While at times the authors drift toward hyperbole—“Should we quickly relegate the twentieth century to the surplus store of history? Must we sell it off in the flea-market of oblivion?” (p. 6)—they also acknowledge progress based on many social/economic indicators: growth of democracy, the increase of life expectancy in developing countries, the decline in infant mortality, and the rising rate of literacy among adults (especially among women).
The book is premised on the authors’ notion that there exist four major challenges to humanity surviving in the coming century. The first is peace. The idea that Immanuel Kant’s “perpetual peace” would emerge from the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was foolishly naïve. In addition to the three-tiered hierarchy of states in the current world capitalist system (the industrialised nations, the developing nations and those states in transition), a fourth has emerged: countries at war or emerging from violent conflict. Frequently these conflicts are “civil wars”—involving genocide or ethnic cleansing—beyond the scope of the current UN system to address effectively.
The second challenge is poverty. The problems of poverty are twofold: the untold human suffering, and the social divisions and exclusion it creates, both of which threaten the idea of public space, global civil society and global democracy. With the authors’ base in UNESCO’s analysis and forecasting office, one takes it for granted that their wide-ranging data on global poverty and suffering is accurate: eight hundred million people are either starving or under-nourished; one-third of earth’s people suffer from nutritional deficiencies; 1.4 billion people have no direct access to drinking water, and 80 per cent of the world’s population have no access to basic forms of telecommunications, upon which the modern global economic system depends are just a few of the sobering facts highlighted in the book. Most important, however, is the authors’ point that there exists a connection between high rates of poverty and the erosion of democracy, which has the potential to undermine modern society. They emphatically state that laissez-faire market policies alone will not conquer poverty, and argue that it is the maturity of transnational state-centred organisations which provide the greatest help in establishing forward-looking policies. This may be where the authors’ greatest bias lies: positing a dualistic choice between laissez-faire markets and global bureaucracies. While the authors seek a balance between the two, what is left inadequately explored is the voluntary sector of global non-profit organisations or non-governmental organisations.
The third major challenge facing humanity traced throughout the book is environmental. As stated in the introduction, “it would require three Earths for the entire world to attain the degree of development and the current consumer lifestyle of North America” (p. 11). They point to ecological disaster, global warming, desertification, deforestation, population pressures, air and water pollution, biodiversity, and the transition from fossil fuel dependence as just a few examples of the pressures threatening our global climate. The state of affairs continues to worsen toward a turning point, despite international conferences. The authors admit: “The commitments made by the international community at the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development organized in 1992 in Rio [de Janeiro, Brazil] have had few practical repercussions up to now; the situation in the field has continued to deteriorate” (p. 162).
Finally, the fourth challenge for humanity around which the book is organised is the need for nation-state governing officials to recognise that international problems require international solutions, which necessitate new forms of political organisation (such as an empowered, reformed United Nations) to provide vision and planning. They state:
[F]orward thinking should focus on prevention and the invention of “political vaccines” on the only scale on which the illness can be checked, the global scale … The major conferences that were organized by the United Nations during the 1990s, such as the summits at Rio, Vienna, Cairo, Copenhagen, Beijing or Istanbul and the Kyoto Summit on the Reduction of Greenhouse-effect Gas Emissions, represent the first steps forward. (Pp. 12–13)
The solution proffered throughout the book to these four global challenges is a new social contract that binds individuals to local, national and global institutions that produce positive change. The authors state, “The third industrial revolution and the globalization that accompanies it have not yet found the new social contract that they require. The societies of the twenty-first century will have to invent it rapidly, because the contract of the second industrial revolution and of 1945—Fordism, or mass production, in the economic sphere and the welfare state in the social—continues to disintegrate before our very eyes” (p. 17). The book posits four new social contracts to form the pillars of global democracy and development. The first is a social contract that re-establishes social solidarity through the eradication of poverty. The second is a natural contract that unites science, technology, economic development and environmental preservation. The third is a cultural contract that focuses on the twin goals of “lifelong education” for all planetary citizens as a basic feature of democracy, as well as resisting the McDonaldisation of global culture by preserving cultural pluralism and cultural diversity. The fourth is an ethical contract whereby global democracy is rooted in basic human rights (and epitomised by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
Overall, this is a valuable work even though it functions more as a data sourcebook and call to action than as a blueprint for solutions. However, as the authors frequently point out, humanity must know where it stands before charting a course for the future. And for Mayor and Binde that future course should be charted by following the example of organisations such as UNESCO:
“To save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” is the solemn commitment introducing the Charter of the Untied Nations. This, too, is the meaning of UNESCO’s Constitution, which seeks to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science, and culture. (P. 469)