BOOK REVIEW / The chattering classes' guide to the Apocalypse: 'Preparing for tHe 21st Century' - Paul Kennedy: HarperCollins, 20 pounds

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The Independent Online
PAUL KENNEDY progressed from the relative obscurity of academic history to the bright lights of stardom with his last book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Kennedy, an Englishman at Yale, had produced exactly the kind of book that fires Middle America's dinner parties - a big, erudite read with a strong angle. The angle was simply that the American Empire was about to go into decline. This was big history with a big message.

Preparing for the Twenty-First Century is an obvious attempt to repeat that performance. Again this is big history, anatomising the condition of the entire globe, and again it has the soothsaying frisson. What the new work glaringly lacks, however, is an angle. As a result, after 350 exhaustively researched pages, the reader is left without the faintest idea of what this book is about.

The problem seems to be Kennedy's passive receptivity to the glamorously huge pile of research he has assembled. Indeed, in the acknowledgement he admits to having been 'overwhelmed by the sheer mass of literature upon the subjects I proposed to cover'. To help him cope he took on five research assistants. Then, confronted with an oceanic database, Kennedy simply dived in.

He re-emerged clutching this summary, guide or macro-travelogue. All the big, familiar themes are covered: population, global warming, biotechnology, the rise of the South-east Asian tiger economies and so on. And they are all carefully balanced with due deference to the various interpretations. But nothing ever quite happens; no flame of originality burns on the page.

The one dominant issue is population. This is not only a problem because of the gross world figure, but also because of the immense disparities of population growth between the developed and the developing world. In 1950, the population of Africa was half that of Europe, by 2025 there will be three times as many Africans as Europeans. Even if the poorer countries achieve economic growth - and in Africa, at least, history offers little hope of that - it will be hopelessly diluted by the teeming new generations. Aids might seem to provide one particularly grim solution, but in reality it just decimates the most productive section of the population.

Attached to this central vision of potentially apocalyptic overcrowding are the developments in communications and finance, agriculture, technology, the environment and the changing form of the nation-state. The first part of the book is a careful run-through of these developments, and Kennedy then moves on to specific national case studies, again carefully balanced, but at least here providing the occasional gleam of dramatic effect. On the bleak subject of Africa, for example, we learn the startling fact that the total GDP of the sub-Saharan nations' 450 million people is less than that of Belgium's 11 million. At the other end of the scale, the genius of Japan appears unstoppable. On standard IQ tests the average Japanese student scores 117 compared with the 100 of Americans and Europeans - this I find one of the most eerie and baffling revelations of the book.

One could go on - as, indeed, Kennedy does - but really all such stuff is merely dramatic decoration for a mass of routine predictions and analysis. His conclusion, at least, takes on some life, as here he gives us an answer in the shape of three specific therapies: educational improvement, transformation of the role of women, and the need for political leadership.

The book closes with the pious affirmation that 'it may still be possible for intelligent men and women to lead their societies through the complex task of preparing for the century ahead'. Such earnest piety is hopelessly undermined by the obvious point that such a sentiment could be expressed with equal validity about any historical moment - this is history as Hallmark card caption.

Yet, for the alert, buried in this book are hints of the really big stories that Kennedy has missed. Speaking at one point of the relative decline of the West, he remarks that this raises questions about the survival of Western values 'in a world overwhelmingly peopled by societies which did not experience the rational scientific and liberal assumptions of the Enlightenment'. And on the issue of education, he accepts that the process of inquiry that must be instilled into the world population 'cannot be value-free'.

With such brief, blithe references Kennedy detects, but does not take seriously, the real conflict of the future. For how we deal with anything from population to global warming depends absolutely on how we deal with the confrontations of value - between, for example, Islam and the West, African nationalism and the West, Asian feudal capitalism and the West.

These are the issues, the rest is just a bland sifting through the anxieties of the dinner table in a condition of over-researched blindness.