THE year 2000 is only 137 months away. If recent history is a reliable guide, it won't arrive unnoticed. It will spark a year-long global bash of parades, fireworks, and television extravaganzas - all bringing us to New Year's Day, 2001, when the new century officially begins. But what will be the real significance of this celebration? What lies ahead for humanity? How can we begin preparing ourselves today for the new millenium? One way is to set goals for global progress. We can imagine a world without nuclear weapons, where water is clean, food abundant, population stable, and ethics as widely practiced as preached. But can we get there by the year 2000? Many forward-thinking people, gauging today's problems, shake their heads.
Then shall we set no goals at all, just muddle along? No again, thoughtful observers say: Though we won't soon reach the summit, we had better at least start up the trail.
But how far can we get by the turn of the century? What are the attainable mileposts?
Those were some of the questions that brought together 35 individuals from 12 nations around a conference table last April. The charge to this group, simple to state, was global in scope: They were to identify a set of reasonable goals for the year 2000 - neither so vast as to be unrealistic, nor so easily reached as to be insignificant. Moreover, they were to focus on the next century's most pressing problems. What characterizes those problems?
One of the conferees, futurist Theodore Gordon, put it this way. ``What matters,'' he said, ``are those things which are irreversible, those issues which put us into the situation of making decisions that cannot be backed out of easily. What matters are those things that are immediate, [since] immediate problems are more important than those that are in the distant future.
``What matters are those problems that affect many people, as opposed to few people. What matters are those issues that are severe in their effects. And what matters are those issues [that are] potentially solvable.''
If those are the issues, what are the goals? How do such goals get set - and, just as important, who sets them?
On one point, the conferees seemed to be in implicit agreement: The goals that most mattered for the future were not going to be set by specialists addressing themselves to their own disciplines. Needed, instead, were generalists capable of comprehending various viewpoints, arguing not for any one set of specialized solutions but for those things that will most benefit all mankind.
Put another way, the need is for a recognition of one of the outstanding facts of modern life: global interdependence. As the world becomes increasingly interlinked, two factors favor the generalist's approach:
The growing relationships among problems once thought to be discrete.
The growing inability of present specialties to provide answers.
A decade ago, the first factor figured strongly in the Brandt Report, prepared by the Independent Commission on International Development under the chairmanship of former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt.
``We are increasingly confronted,'' wrote Mr. Brandt in his introduction, ``with more and more problems which affect mankind as a whole, so that solutions to these problems are inevitably internationalized.'' He called them ``system bridging'' problems.
And last year, the Brundtland Report (presented to the United Nations General Assembly by the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland) had some sober words concerning the second factor. At present, wrote its authors, ``the rate of change is outstripping the ability of scientific disciplines and our current capabilities to assess and advise.''
In a world where the ``rate of change'' demands ``system bridging'' solutions, then, who can ``assess and advise'' on the most pressing problems? Where will the 21st century's solutions come from?
The answer, it seems, lies in an originality of thinking that both builds upon and transcends today's specialties. But originality, by its very nature, breaks barriers and crosses boundaries - which is probably why the American poet Wallace Stevens noted that ``it is necessary to any originality to have the courage to be an amateur.''
To be sure, the 35 individuals assembled at Wingspread were more than amateurs. Specialists in their own right, they included ecologists, sociologists, educators, economists, philosophers, historians, engineers, poets, and lawyers. But they were being asked to behave as courageous generalists. Putting aside their disciplinary hats, they were to look at the future with the amateur's unprejudiced eye and stake out some useful guideposts.
These goals, and an account of the ideas underlying them, occupy the following pages. Each section includes a statement of the current problem and a summary of achievable goals, as drafted and discussed by the conferees. Not intended as definitive statements, they offer stimuli to further creativity. Appended to the goals are some means whereby they might be reached.
Some of these means are politically controversial, like the proposal for a fuel tax. Others would take years to refine, like the gathering of new sets of statistics on third-world nations. Still others seem both essential and inevitable, like the banning of chemical and biological weapons.
All, however, are offered with the intention of moving humanity forward - so that, when 2001 has finally arrived and the fireworks have rumbled away into the distance, we will be further along the way toward solving the issues that really matter.