THIS IS A REMARKABLE BOOK, made more remarkable, I would judge, by its origins. Barbara Ward, sometimes Barbara Ward Jackson, is a onetime editor of The Economist, a onetime Columbia University professor, for two or three exceptionally agreeable years my colleague teaching economic development at Harvard, a prolific writer of books on economics and politics and in recent years a member -- life peer -- of the House of Lords. She has also, for a long time, been in exceptionally poor health. Instead of surrendering to tedious pain and reading Trollope, she accumulated and read every recent government and United Nations document and every recent book or research publication in accessible language on energy, nuclear energy, recycling of wastes, the environment, food, agriculture, post-Keynesian economics, the modern city and its problems, housing, the bitter basks and prospects of the poor countries and a half-dozen other equally urgent subjects. She then wrote this book, selecting and summarizing from this information and giving judiciously, sometime too cautiously, her own view.

By all accepted standards of scholarly and political discussion, it is a terrible thing that she has done. No one, it is held, can speak competently over such a wide range of knowledge. Also she writes on deeply technical matters in clear English without jargon. This does not inspire confidence. Obscurity, besides obscuring incomplete thought, often suggests that the thought was quite deep.

Worst of all, Barbara Ward retains an absolute conviction that by social and cooperative effort and by intelligent resort to government, people can solve in a reasonably prompt way most of the problems by which, in fear or reality, they are oppressed, including those of energy supply, air pollution, urban living, adequate nutrition and economic development. She has often in the past been criticized for this kind of optimism, but she had not learned. It strikes an especially odd note at a time when so many are proclaiming so ardently the virtues of self-centered individualism for an increasingly interdependent world and when the really sophisticated politicians are joining the revolt of the rich against the poor. Certainly the author gets no marks for timing. No book could strike a more bizarre note in this year of Arthur Laffer, Milton Friedman and good old Howard Jarvis.

Accepting the risk of eccentricity, I found both her information and her faith quite wonderful. It had not previously occurred to me that solar energy (with some geothermal support) now raises the indoor temperature of our house in Cambridge from minus 240 degrees centigrade to within a few degrees of a livable level even in the middle of a New England winter and that I rely on the Carter energy management only for the minuscule fraction that remains. I do doubt that it is yet "a nagging concern in open societies . . . [that] stock options, business expenses, the 'three-martini lunch' are added to the basically still feudal differences in levels of pay, say, between a black doorman and the head of General Motors." But I think it should produce more nagging than it does in a time when efforts are being made to restrain wages and cut back on welfare. And I hope there will be a lot of nagging if we are to have, as my conservative friends will not wish to call it, a socialist bailout of Chrysler while leaving Lee A. Iacocca's pay and extras for the next two years for discovering the virtues of big government and the poor condition of Chrysler at around five times what we pay the president of the United States and 20 times what goes to Hamilton Jordan.

On various other matters I also think Barbara Ward is too sanguine. She sets much store by public and community initiative and cooperation in the poor countries. I'm persuaded, as was Marx (coincidentally, of course, I hasten to explain), that economic development is itself an education in social cohesiveness and cooperation. In consequence, the poor lands -- China with her ancient experience in government being a possible exception -- are deeply handicapped for most forms of joint and public effort. This is the problem, often made more difficult by the large administration tasks of social and socialist experiment, of what Gunnar Myrdal called the "soft state."

However, though I'm not as optimistic as Barbara Ward, I would be ashamed, after reading her book, to think that I am more cynical. I hope that thousands of others will read it and be similarly improved.