More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

Woody Allen, "My Speech to the Graduates."

THE FUTURE used to be so fabulous. Popular Mechanics in 1950 ran a story on the future with an illustration of a woman hosing off her living room sofa: "Because everything in her home is waterproof, the housewife of 2000 can do her daily cleaning with a hose." So convenient! Everything in the future was going to be fast; the Jetsons, we recall, had a moving sidewalk right in their house, to speed up the trip from front door to family room. And naturally (back in real life) the experimental dream cars in Detroit all looked like rockets, with giant unapologetic tail fins and supercool names like the Lincoln Futura, the Fort Atmos and the Pontiac Stratoflite.

You see, this was when people believed in Progress. Life would inexorably improve. We were headed toward a technological utopia. It was just assumed.

Today, "Progress" is a joke. It's like Manifest Destiny, one of those terms that would be offensive if it weren't so archaic. Nowadays people believe in Regress. The world is going to hell in a handbasket. It is just assumed. "Regress" has long been a tenet of Christian fundamentalists -- between the Fall and the Apocalypse there's a lot of regression -- but in the past three decades it has become the paradigm for the secular intelligentsia.

Recently I was talking to a colleague about this, and I expressed my own belief that the world not only can be saved but probably will be saved, because we are a uniquely adaptable species, because we are rapidly coming to grips with our global predicament, and because good ideas tend to force out the bad. He frowned, as if this was the most hare-brained, maverick assertion he'd ever heard, and he said, "Is there a single credible person, a scientist or something, who believes that?" I felt like a flat-earther.

In truth, it's easy to detect new glimmers of optimism among those who think globally, despite the dire trends. In the past year there have been several bestselling books about simple things people can do to save the world. More immediately, the Worldwatch Institute has just released "State of the World 1991," the latest in an annual series, and though the outlook remains fairly grim, it is by no means hopeless.

First, the bad news:

"All the environmental trends are still negative, strongly negative," Lester R. Brown, the institute director, said last week. Offhand he mentioned a few: "We're losing at least 16 million hectares, close to 40 million acres of forest a year, I think that's almost twice the size of Austria. The concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is continuing to rise . . . . The number of people added to world population last year set a new record, 90 million . . . . The number of plant and animal species that we're losing is increasing . . . . We're seeing whole ecosystems now being destroyed . . . ."

On and on. There's Third World debt. The threat of nuclear disaster. The depletion of fresh water. Salinization of cropland. Spreading deserts. Last year, 6 billion tons of carbon were pumped into the atmosphere, a record amount. It's hard to picture that. But it sure sounds like . . . doom.

Now the good news: There are signs of global enlightenment, a consciousness-raising on a vast scale. The "State of the World" books, for example, have become a huge success, incorporated in curricula at hundreds of colleges and high schools and translated into all the major languages. This latest edition, like the last, is filled with constructive, pragmatic proposals for putting the world on a more stable footing, such as creating an "environmental tax" that would partially replace the income tax. Worldwatch has also argued persuasively against using gross national product as a measure of Progress, since it doesn't factor in the rape of the planet. With GNP we pay attention to the lumber but not the clear-cut forest. The new volume quotes economist Herman Daly as saying, "There is something fundamentally wrong in treating the earth as if it were a business in liquidation." The question, naturally, is whether the global enlightenment will take place fast enough to outpace the trends of destruction. Whether we woke up 100 years too late. I would prefer to be optimistic.

Just consider the fact that 20 years ago "environmentalism" meant being dreadfully concerned about litter. You remember the Litter Crisis. It lasted for about two years, sometime during the Nixon administration if I'm not mistaken. Cars were in their ocean-liner phase, sucking down at least a gallon of gas between every freeway exit. As we drove along drinking a bottle of soda pop, we knew exactly what to do with the empty after we took the last swig: Pitch it out the window. Along with the cigarette butt. Still glowing.

Then came enlightenment. Litter was bad! You weren't supposed to throw bottles on the roadside, you were supposed to throw them in trashcans. What a radical idea.

Nature was quainter then. It was where you found birds and bunnies. If you really cared, you joined the Sierra Club.

Today, we don't even talk much about "nature." Instead we talk about "ecosystems" and the "biosphere." Our dread has gone global. The kind of litter we worry about now tends to be gaseous -- carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons, stuff we can't even see. There is an even more fundamental change, the realization that the planet functions as a kind of organism, one that has been able to regulate itself for hundreds of millions of years but is suddenly afflicted with a cancer called the human race.

What killed the idea of Progress for most people was the realization that technology was a mixed blessing. The nuclear arsenals are the most obvious example; suddenly we not only learned how to devise weapons of global destruction, we actually built the arsenals and poised our finger over the button. Even as technology advances the life span and health of individuals, growing multitudes live in horrifying deprivation, marginalized by urban civilization. It would have been totally irrational to live through the past three decades without severe doubts, or even hysteria, about the future of the planet.

If you had picked up Paul Ehrlich's book "The Population Bomb" in 1968 you would have read that the world's population was doubling every 35 years, and "if growth continued at that rate for about 900 years, there would be some . . . 60 million billion people. This is about 100 persons for each square yard of the Earth's surface, land and sea." He went on to describe one scenario of people living in vast towers, never seeing what was once called "the ground." The future would look less like the Jetsons and more like that city in "Blade Runner." What these visions assume is that humans can adapt to runaway population growth, but only through construction of a loathsome technological dystopia.

At times there has been something like a gloom glut. The Union of International Associations in Brussels came up with a list of world problems in 1986. There were more than 10,000. Not counting dental plaque, I would assume.

Futurist Ed Cornish of World Future Society has said: "The 1990s will likely be the most worry-filled decade that mankind has ever experienced." You need only check the shelves at the bookstore. "The End of Nature" is now in paperback. "The Death of Nature" is also on the shelf. There's even "World on Fire: Saving an Endangered Earth" co-authored by George J. Mitchell, the Senate majority leader, which just goes to show that environmental dread is so pervasive a paradigm that presidential aspirants think they can campaign on it.

Gloom has infested fiction. In "The Last Whales," a novel by Lloyd Abbey published in February 1990, an adult male blue whale suffering from mercury poisoning is grieved by the deaths of all but one of his calves, victims of explosive harpoons. The whale tries to unite with his surviving offspring, but then -- egad! -- the Nuclear Winter hits. The ocean is irradiated, and then, as though we just can't get enough of the gloom, the water heats up to disastrous levels because of the (of course) Greenhouse Effect. Perhaps someday the period from about 1965 to 2000 will be considered a historical anomaly, the Fear Years, a momentary loss of faith in Progress. The obvious truth is that Progress and Regress happen simultaneously. Anyone who would rather be alive 100 years ago is either crazy or a member of the English nobility. Or not human -- true enough, the animals had it better back then.

The irony is that by understanding Regress -- by realizing the mess we've made of the planet -- we've taken a firm step in the direction of Progress. Knowledge is the one thing we've gotten really good at. To believe in Progress it is necessary to assign great importance to human edification, to decide that what happens in the human mind really matters, that there is something truly worthwhile in even the most useless and pointless knowledge. Whether you embrace a positive view of the future or a negative one may depend on how much joy you take in the knowledge that humans have nearly figured out the structure of the universe, the charge of the atom, the hidden genius of the double-helix DNA molecule, the evolution of the octopus's eyeball, and so on. Some of this knowledge will deepen our concern about future problems, but the fact of recognition should make us more optimistic about dealing with them.

Even apart from its utilitarian purpose, it is not a trivial conceit to put a special value on the advancement of human consciousness; without it the universe looks remarkably like a machine, brilliantly designed but strangely purposeless. If the only goal is a sustainable society, human beings are reduced to mere units that intake a certain amount of resources and excrete a certain amount of waste.

The futurist Joseph F. Coates wrote last year in Technological Forecasting and Social Change, "Failure to attend to the broad sweep of human progress will lead to a culture of pessimism, withdrawal, shrinkage, hostility and resignation . . . . If we are not to slow the pace of progress and turn the human enterprise over {to} the pessimists, naysayers, the ignorant, and the intellectually constrained, we must promote a long-term vision of both the inevitability of human progress and the waystations on that path."

Let's look at just a couple of signs of Progress. Last year 93 nations signed a treaty that would stop all production of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons by the year 2000. These chemicals stick around up there for a long time, so ozone will continue to be depleted for many more decades. But at some point the trend will be reversed. Although that's only one battle in a huge war, it signals that the international community is ready to tackle long-term global problems. In another example, last year there was a worldwide ban on the sale of ivory. For elephants, at least, that's Progress.

The Persian Gulf war is a tough call. When the United Nations took concerted action for the first time in 40 years, that was obvious Progress. But even the staunchest patriot must surely recognize the tragic component of the war itself. Even the conventional weapons are frightening; those of mass destruction are almost too terrible to contemplate. Preliminary verdict: It's Progress with potential for Regress.

On a more immediate level, anyone who does research can now use information databases that have been created just in the past few years. It beats the heck out of paging through multiple volumes of the "Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature." A while back I decided I wanted to find out why people don't talk much on elevators. A colleague typed a few words into a psychology database and instantly turned up an old study on that exact topic. Within minutes I reached the professor himself. Now I know that the quiet-elevator phenomenon has something to do with zones of intimacy and nervous-system arousal.

Such knowledge may be trivial. But I sure got it fast. Just like the future was supposed to be.

Joel Achenbach is a feature writer and columnist for the Style section of The Washington Post.