IT is ``easy and sometimes tempting to get bogged down in prophecies of doom,'' says Jim MacNeill. ``But it really doesn't accomplish anything.'' Mind you, the former secretary general of the World Commission on Environment and Development didn't hesitate to toss out some of the scary facts that seem almost commonplace now: Since 1900 the world's population has more than tripled. It could double again, from 6.2 billion to 12.4 billion, in 50 years, within the lifetime of today's 20-year-olds. To meet that population's basic needs and minimal aspirations will require a five to 10-fold increase in economic activity. But the world's environment already suffers badly from the 20-fold expansion of the world economy since 1900, with the consumption of fossil fuels growing 30 times.
``We live in a period of such rapid change that the past and the future are hardly on speaking terms,'' Mr. MacNeill told a group of philanthropists and foundation executives marking last week the 150th birthday of John D. Rockefeller at the family estate north of New York.
MacNeill hopes the foundations can act as catalysts to develop approaches to issues like deforestation and diminishing biological diversity. He would like them to encourage the development of national accounting systems that not only measure the output of goods and services but also losses to the environment resulting from that production. A favorite phrase of the World Commission on Environment and Development (often called the Brundtland commission after its chairman, Mrs. Gro Harlem Brundtland, then prime minister of Norway) is ``sustainable development'' - economic progress that doesn't further damage the environment.
When that commission of 22 ``eminent persons'' reported to the UN General Assembly in 1987, the report received far more attention abroad than in the United States.
MacNeill, a Canadian, says the report continues to have ``quite an impact worldwide.'' Entitled ``Our Common Future,'' it is now published in 17 languages. Its subject of sustainable development could become the ``overarching issue'' for the next century, he says. ``We may be living through one of those rare `hinges of history', with unprecedented opportunities for policy and institutional innovation.'' MacNeill sees such change as necessary to prevent great environmental and human tragedy.
The assembled philanthropists shifted between modesty and optimism in assessing their own capabilities as change catalysts.
Some noted that the total annual spending of US foundations amounts to only $6.1 billion, tiny compared to the needs for remedying poverty in the world. Peter Goldmark Jr., president of the Rockefeller Foundation, calculates that the assets of the 10 largest American foundations amount to $25 billion. These 10 will spend some $1.25 billion this year, of which around $100 million to $150 million will go for international good works. That international spending could double in 10 years, he says. But it would still be small relative to the need.
Others recalled the enormous contributions to world welfare that foundations have already made and anticipated similar such gains in the future. The Rockefeller Foundation itself provided much of the money for the research behind the ``Green Revolution,'' that is, the introduction of new productive strains of rice and wheat that have prevented massive famines in Asia.
Waldemar Nielsen, who has written a book critical of foundations, estimates there are 1,000 Americans today with sufficient wealth to create foundations of $100 million or more. That is a greater number than ever in history.
Despite such hopes for philanthropy, Mr. Goldmark maintains that governments with their vaster resources must tackle these survival-of-the-planet issues more seriously and intelligently. He talks of a modern Marshall Plan for that purpose, perhaps involving the creation of a new World Bank-type institution - ``something of that magnitude'' - to help finance global balanced development. He envisages a series of ``bargains and accords'' between the 12 nations or ``geocenters'' with two-thirds of the world's population (US, Soviet Union, China, India, European Community, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Brazil, Mexico, and Japan) on environmental and economic issues.