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. . . See Today as the Past

Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page B03

Like bulbs lying dormant in the ground before pushing their way to the surface, the forces ready to transform the world by 2020 are all around us, yet hidden. And like the bulbs, those forces already contain substance and direction that we who have planted them cannot clearly discern.

For historians 15 years hence, it will be essential to work backward, from blossoms to roots. And when they do, they will undoubtedly have to sift through the implications of globalization -- whether to interpret it as the seed of a tighter world community or as the root of a profound, more pessimistic shift in the world and in the United States.

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America sailed into world prominence under the banner of progress. Buoyed by decades of material advances, 20th-century historians largely made it their task to explain how the United States became the richest and most powerful country in the world.

Policymakers in the United States assumed then, as they do now, that a uniform human nature inspired all individuals, from childhood on, to strive for more goods. Discounting the crazy quilt of ethnic variety, our leaders have long seen people in all nations as yearning for a free enterprise economy and a democratic government patterned after the United States. So strong has been our sense of this ineluctable march forward that our nation has even resorted to military force to hasten globalization, American style.

With this outlook, it has been easy to miss a great paradox that might be about to unfold: that the closer the peoples of the world draw together through communication, commerce and a shared commitment to human rights, the more they may claim their freedom to nurture distinctive ways. The homogenization of human societies, so evident in the closing decades of the 20th century, could come to an abrupt halt.

That could be a positive thing. Building on sustainable, indigenous economies, countries could find ways to participate in a world community without sacrificing their distinctive customs. Coercion could give way to voluntary interaction; local decision-making could replace national and international centralization. Freed from equally smothering isolation or forced integration, human creativity and individual identity might flower in an era of plenty.

However, historians in 2020 may be forced to explain a grimmer set of unintended consequences of globalization, starting with the plunge of the U.S. dollar, followed by the decimation of textile industries in developing countries no longer able to compete with China. A round of protective legislation restricting world trade could follow. Our innate selfishness, seen earlier as the basis for normal, healthy economies, could be our undoing as we disregard the consequences of our actions on the larger environment. The radiating effects of the vanishing rain forests could alter climates, thus drastically reducing food production. And astronomical prices for oil products might sap demand for industrial goods.

The mutually reinforcing violence of terrorist groups engaged in relentless conflict with militarized, national regimes could make munitions the mainstay of industrial production. International cooperation in science and the arts might abate as fear of terrorists closed off access to the West's universities. And demographic trends will make it hard for Europe and the United States to support their own aging populations, much less provide poverty relief to keep overpopulated, underdeveloped countries from turning into seedbeds of intolerance and xenophobia.

Now may be the time when essential choices are made about these future scenarios. In 2020, what will be essential is for historians to pinpoint the moment when either train of irreversible change -- one optimistic and one pessimistic -- passed the point of no return. They will know the outcome; we can only watch and hope.

Author's e-mail: appleby@history.ucla.edu

By Joyce Appleby, professor emerita of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of "A Restless Past: History and the American Public" (Rowman & Littlefield).


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