Each quadrennial political campaign reminds us how little relevant to our long-term interests and inflated rhetoric, extravagant promises, and dire warnings of the candidates really are. Insofar as they address real problems at all, and not merely phantoms conjured up to confound their opponents, these are symptomatic problems of the moment -- inflation, unemployment, imports from Japan, Soviet aggression -- not the fundamental problems which will most determine our national health and welfare during the 1980s and 1990s.
Yet we have no excuse to be unaware of these more fundamental problems. Experts have been repeatedly warning us of them during the past decade. The United Nations has assembled great international conclaves on population, food, the environment, natural resources, the human habitat, the status of women, and the welfare of children, all gravely endangered by unforeseen side effects of the progress we have enjoyed since World War II. Commonsensical people are constantly deploring the folly of nations spending annually $450 billion for arms, while more serious problems are neglected and forgotten.
There was issued in Washington only two weeks ago a document entitled "The Global 2000 Report to the President," the purpose of which was to project "what will happen to population, resources and environment if present policies continue." "Barring revolutionary advances in technology," the report warned, "life for most people on earth will be more precarious in 2000 than it is now -- unless the nations of the world act decisively to alter current trends."
Last December the so-called Brandt Commission, an international body of "wise men," submitted to the UN a comprehensive series of recommendations for dealing with the problems of which we are speaking. "The world economic system of the last three decades," said chairman Willy Brandt, "has ceased to work effectively." "Urgent and drastic steps must be taken," he went on, to reduce growing conflict and share wealth, technology, food, and national resources "to avert impending catastrophe."
In addressing the UN General Assembly last October Pope John Paul said: "The United Nations organization has proclaimed 1979 the Year of the Child. In this perspective we must ask ourselves whether there will continue to accumulate over the heads of this new generation of children the threat of common extermination, for which the means are in the hands of the modern states, especially the major world powers. Are the children to receive the arms race from us as a necessary inheritance?"
In regard to another fundamental problem -- that of the impending shortage of oil, steadily rising prices imposed by the oil cartel and huge debts being accumulated by many countries to pay for oil imports -- US Assistant Treasury Secretary Fred Bergsten recently said: "A worldwide problem of enormous dimension is feeding back into the domestic and foreign policies of the US and many other countries." One of his colleagues, Robert Hormats, deputy US trade representative, warned at the same time: "Globally I can't see things becoming better until late in this decade. The real question is whether they will become only moderately worse of dramatically worse."
The president of Radcliffe College, Matina Horner, recently remarked: "The 1980s is certainly going to be an age of second thoughts."
As the above quotations indicate, technical experts, even political leaders in their soberer moments, are already having "second thoughts." They have not yet, however, been able convincingly to convey these second thoughts to electorates and thus to make these new perspectives, as they should be, the centerpieces of the contemporary political process.
There seems no way short of catastrophe to prevent world population from exceeding 6 billion by the year 2000. There are, however, measures that could be taken to ensure that population is later stabilized at about 8 rather than 10 , 12, or 15 billion, which would constitute such an ecological burdenas to jeopardize all lilfe on the planet.
Similarly much could be done, nationally and internationally, to conserve nonrenewable natural resources like oil and to ensure their distribution at prices which are fair to both producer and consumer and which would prevent "things becoming dramatically worse" during this decade.
Much could be done to alleviate world hunger by substantially expanding food production in developing countries. Much could be done to limit the desertification of arable land, the diminishing of essential water supplies, and the destruction of forests.
If all this is to happen, however, peoples and governments will have to concentrate far more of their attention on these issues and less on those sensational scenarious of power politics which drain away resources from essential needs to artificial demands generated by irrational passions and fears. The United States, for example, will have to recognize that its national security is better served by devoting at least .7 percent of its GNP to these international imperatives, as it long ago committed itself to do, rather than the paltry .2 percent it now grudgingly contributes.
The supposed requirements of "national defense," in its traditionally restricted sense, are likely by the year 2000 to be dwarfed by pressures on basic human needs for food, air, water, energy, and space. The next decade will be either one of a drastic reordering of man's priorities or one marking a significant decline in his ability to cope with the real world.