Everywhere around us these days there is evidence, sometimes unsettling, of sweeping and headlong change. It's as though we are living on a technological, economic, and political fault line, and we're starting to feel tremors.
Examples abound. Personal computers are flooding into the workplace, the schoolroom, and the home, heralding a revolution in the ways people will learn and work - and also raising troubling questions about privacy and security. Despite the encouraging signs of economic recovery, tens of thousands of laid-off workers in America's heartland vainly look for jobs in permanently shrunken smokestack industries. The international financial structure is threatened by possible defaults on multibillion-dollar loans to third-world nations.
That these seemingly unrelated occurrences are actually manifestations of a worldwide upheaval of historic significance is the thesis of a lively and thought-provoking book by Bruce Nussbaum, who covers international finance and business for Business Week magazine. In Mr. Nussbaum's view, the high technology that has burst upon the world scene in the past few years will, well before the end of this century, spawn a new global economic order as a result of which wealth and, in its wake, power will be dramatically redistributed among the world's nations.
The technological breakthroughs identified by Mr. Nussbaum as the detonators of this volcanic process are those taking place in the fields of robotics (that is, the use of robots to perform functions previously performed by people), bioengineering, and telecomunications. He predicts that these technologies soon will supplant labor- and energy-intensive heavy industry as the foundation blocks upon which the world economy is built.
While this evolution would have occurred in due course anyway, Mr. Nussbaum describes how the advent of the new ''energy sipping'' technologies was hastened by the giant increases in the price of oil exacted by OPEC in the last decade. The oil cartel ironically contributed to its own demise by midwifing the birth of a new technological age which will be substantially less dependent on petroleum.
The effects of the economic cataclysm foretold by Mr. Nussbaum will be as far-reaching as the consequences of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century. Just as England rose to world preeminence by harnessing the economic forces unleased by the Industrial Revolution, so those nations that successfully take the lead in the high-tech race (principally the United States and Japan) will enjoy bountiful new prosperity and power, while those nations that lack the skills, flexibility, or political will necessary to adapt to the new order (including, possibly, the Soviet Union and Western Europe) will experience economic stagnation and a loss of world influence.
Drawing another sobering parallel with the Industrial Revolution, Mr. Nussbaum predicts that there may be tumultuous social dislocations within nations as the old economic order grudgingly gives place to the new. He observes that one of the most difficult challenges facing governments in the near future will be to manage the disruptive social and political realignments that will attend shifts in economic activity from industry to industry.
''The World After Oil'' is not without problems. It is written in the slightly breezy, hip style favored by the popular newsmagazines which somewhat belies the gravity of the subject. More important, Mr. Nussbaum's vision seems to be unnecessarily limited by a kind of economic determinism, a resigned acceptance that history is a torrent of economic forces down which mankind is being swept in a nearly rudderless boat. Allied with this is an economic Darwinism; Mr. Nussbaum evidently believes that in the brave new world of high technology, the strong will survive, the weak will perish, and history will be strewn with the carcasses of nations that couldn't keep up. Insufficient allowance is made for the ability and willingness of the world community to find ways to assuage the harsh effects of the cutthroat competition for wealth and power that Mr. Nussbaum foresees.
Despite these reservations, I found ''The World After Oil'' to be a clear-eyed examination of the direction in which the world is hurtling. As Mr. Nussbaum points out, his analysis is not simply an exercise in fanciful futurism. His time horizon remains within the 20th century, and his telling examples - as well as the headlines in each morning's newspaper - suggest that the future depicted by him already is taking shape around us.