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AGENDA for the 21st century

WHAT'S on the world's agenda for the 21st century? As the year 2000 approaches, that question is increasingly posed. What are the fundamental issues that humanity must face up to? Which ones are of first intensity, and which others important but secondary? The turn of the century, and of the millennium, is still 14 years away. Yet the market is already flooded with books, magazine stories, journal articles, radio talk shows, and television documentaries with the beguiling and faintly disquieting number ``2000'' in their titles.

Some of them offer barely credible profiles of a super-prosperous ``sci-fi'' age. Others are filled with doomsday forebodings. Many see both gathering clouds and rays of hope.

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Why this upsurge of interest in the future?

One answer is that the ends of centuries, like the ends of each passing year, call forth a kind of societal soul-searching -- a moment for reflection, a time for taking stock of what's behind and pondering what's ahead.

The decades preceding the end of the 19th century saw a similar kind of concern.

In those days, it seemed, there was plenty to be concerned about: an upsurge in Bohemianism, the spread of yellow journalism, the seeping away of religious values, the ferment over the rights of women, the rising tides of nationalism, the challenge to colonialism, industrial monopoly, and scores of other issues.

Yet to us that period may look like a model of stability. What people then could only vaguely imagine -- world wars, weapons of mass destruction, appalling genocide -- soon came to pass. Yet some of the most prominent achievements of the 20th century -- the creation of entire nations of economically privileged majorities rather than minorities, the crumbling of racial segregation, the new sensitivity to environmental pollution -- were not even on the 19th century's agenda.

Nor were the technologies of television and air travel -- which, by shrinking the world into what Marshall McLuhan aptly called a ``global village,'' have perhaps done more than anything else to bring humankind together elbow to elbow.

But listen to what one of the 19th century's most celebrated American astronomers thought about air travel. ``No possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery and known forms of force,'' asserted Simon Newcomb early in this century, ``can be united in a practical machine by which men shall fly long distances through the air.''

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Novelist and futurist Arthur C. Clarke, quoting Newcomb in his book ``Profiles of the Future,'' draws the moral from this story. ``With monotonous regularity,'' Mr. Clarke writes, ``apparently competent men have laid down the law about what is technically possible or impossible -- and have been proved utterly wrong, sometimes while the ink was scarcely dry from their pens.''

Then what's so special about today's concern for 2000 and beyond? Is it any different from the speculations of our ancestors? Does our fascination simply arise from the rolling over of three zeroes following the number 2 -- as though we had hit the jackpot on some cosmic slot machine? Or is there a special reason for our concern?

Is our age, in other words, different?

Yes and no, say the current generation of forward-thinkers.

We are still, of course, capable of going wildly awry in our predictions. Yet never before have the forces of change been so concentrated, the pace so blistering, the issues so world-embracing. Never before, according to a number of today's historians, pundits, and prophets, has humanity appeared to hold such power -- for vast improvement or for utter devastation -- over its own future.

Alvin Toffler, writing in 1970, defined the experience of this power as ``future shock'' -- an ``abrupt collision with the future'' by people unprepared for it. Noting that the last 50,000 years of man's existence can be divided up into about 800 ``lifetimes'' of 62 years each, he observed that ``the overwhelming majority of all the material goods we use in daily life today have been developed within the present, the 800th, lifetime.''

Marvin Cetron and Thomas O'Toole, expanding on this idea in their book ``Encounters with the Future,'' write that ``no matter how old you are in the year 2000, profound change will have been written into your life by the time you start the 21st century.''

Some find the change exhilarating. Social forecaster John Naisbitt, author of ``Megatrends,'' describes our age as ``a great and yeasty time, filled with opportunity.''

But George Gallup Jr., drawing together survey results in his book ``Forecast 2000,'' notes that ``just beneath the surface of our society, a great historical tidal wave is on the move -- a set of monumental political, social, and economic impulses, which are carrying us relentlessly toward a rendezvous with the future.''

``I'm sufficiently convinced that our society is heading in a dangerous direction,'' he concludes, ``that I feel compelled to sound a note of extreme urgency.''

He is not alone in sounding that note. Again and again, in Monitor interviews for this series and in the published writings of the age's forward-looking thinkers, that sense of urgency emerges.

The prospect offered by these thinkers is, in fact, sometimes dark. But their goal is a luminous one: to alert humanity, to awaken thought, to focus attention on the central issues.

The Monitor's series has the same goal. Where promising solutions and potential ways forward emerge, we report them -- although even the most farsighted thinkers concede that, as the 21st century progresses, today's remedies may need serious modification tomorrow.

Primarily, however, the purpose of this series is to help identify, in the swirl of competing issues that shape modern life, those that will most demand our attention. We may not name them all. And we may name some that don't prove lasting. But we do it with the profound conviction that, if the agenda for the 21st century can be properly delineated, humanity will be better able to focus its effort and find the tools it needs for constructive action.

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