Agenda for the 21st Century... concludes today with an article highlighting some of the themes that have emerged from interviews with 16 leading thinkers. As we try to discern the great issues emerging for the 21st century, we will publish additional interviews in 1987 as well as a selection of readers' responses and ideas.

WHAT'S on humanity's agenda for the 21st century? In a series of Monitor interviews during the past four months, 16 leading thinkers have identified scores of items. Some of the items center on heady technological advances - the robots and electronics and genetics that will reshape daily life in the next century. Others focus on social, economic, and political trends - increased leisure, a heightening of international competitiveness, the burgeoning of the Asian nations, and a host of others. And some call for a higher vision of the heart, soul, and mind of humanity - better arts, finer journalism, sounder governance, greater compassion for the world's hungry and homeless.

But which are the first-intensity items - the ``high leverage'' issues (in former World Bank president Robert McNamara's phrase) to which humanity must devote its full attention and its unstinting resources?

Here, drawn from these interviews, are the six points on the agenda for the 21st century:

The threat of nuclear annihilation.

The danger of overpopulation.

The degradation of the global environment.

The gap between the developing and the industrial worlds.

The need for fundamental restructuring of educational systems.

The breakdown in public and private morality.

The list is not in order of priority - although the nuclear issue appears to rank first. Nor did every item arise in every discussion.

And in some interviews several items appeared under single headings - with population, environment, and the North-South gap packaged into a bundle, for example, or morality and education lumped together.

Most surprising, perhaps, is the absence of two key items from this list: energy resources and international debt. Several of the people interviewed argued strongly for these points. To a number of others, however, they appeared problematic but not intractable.

Why these six? Here, in a nutshell, are some of the reasons. 1Nuclear annihilation There is widespread agreement that, as longtime labor leader Douglas Fraser says, ``the consequences of not doing something'' about this subject could be ``horrible ... beyond imagination.'' Others note that, if this item is not satisfactorily addressed, none of the others will matter. ``Without peace in a nuclear age,'' as West Germany President Richard von Weizs"acker puts it, ``it's not worth [talking] about preserving creation.''

Few see a nuclear holocaust as arising from a calculated, all-out conflict between the superpowers. Rather, the greater danger appears to be from an accident, an irrational reaction on the part of a world leader, or a lashing out by a small nation driven to desperation.

For several thinkers, however, the possibility of a future physical disaster is of less concern than the immediacy of the mental impact. ``Once you've said to people - and we have, to a whole generation - that you live in a world that can end at any moment,'' observes theater director Lloyd Richards, ``it affects their sense of responsibility.''

Or, as novelist Carlos Fuentes puts it, ``the consciousness that nature can disappear along with us ... really shakes your soul.''

Not surprisingly, the discussion of nuclear peril was interwoven with calls for a rethinking of the basis of world peace - not as a standoff among frightened adversaries, but as what philosopher Mortimer Adler calls ``a positive condition'' in which ``individuals and peoples can solve all their problems, all their conflicts, by law and by talk rather than by force.'' 2Population The scope of this issue, unlike some of the others, can be assessed fairly accurately: All the people who will be approaching middle age in the early decades of the 21st century have already been born. Yet the real problem, except in some densely packed nations, is still in the future.

``You can live a civilized life with a much higher population density than we have [in the United States],'' says physicist Freeman Dyson. He adds, however, that the world ``can't go on growing at its present rate for very long.'' Yet size alone is not the problem. What causes the ``human misery,'' as Mr. McNamara explains, is ``the imbalance of population growth rates on the one hand and social and economic advance on the other.''

How serious is the problem? Left unchecked, says former President Jimmy Carter, it will produce ``increased dissension, increased animosity, uncontrollable numbers of refugees, [and an] increased tendency toward revolution or violence.'' In fact, several thinkers see the population problem as the cause of most of the world's ills: third-world hunger, disease, poverty, energy insufficiency, environmental damage, a reshaping of international trade and banking, immigration pressures. 3 Environment ``Every possible [agenda] item you're going to mention,'' said Mr. von Weizs"acker early in his interview, ``has to do with my primary concern - namely, to preserve nature.'' For most of the people interviewed, the degradation of the environment comes second only to nuclear holocaust in its potential for destroying humanity and the natural world.

``This loss or deterioration of the natural world is probably the No. 1 problem,'' says historian Barbara Tuchman. ``I think it's already more with us than is the nuclear.''

While some thinkers raise issues associated with the industrial world - such as acid rain, air and water pollution, and the destruction of the ozone layer - the real concern centers on developing-world problems: the destruction of the rain forests, the erosion of topsoil through poor farming practices, the pollution of groundwater. Many thinkers draw clear connections between environmental and population problems. ``The environment is going to determine, in the final analysis, what population can be supported,'' says business leader David Packard. 4 The North-South gap Here the problem is largely defined as a need to strike a difficult balance between opposing forces. For economist Marina Whitman the challenge is for developing nations to preserve national identity in a global marketplace. For University of Chicago president Hanna Gray, the problem is to ``sustain both a world economy and the hopes for democratic and humanitarian governments ... in the less-developed countries.''

There is broad agreement that the developed nations need to be doing more to help their less-developed neighbors - not simply for altruistic reasons, but because, Mr. Carter says, ``We're all in the same boat.'' Unless such efforts are made, these thinkers generally feel that the problems of the South will spill over into the North. Unfortunately, the gap seems to be growing - ``making the rich richer,'' as physicist Abdus Salam says, ``and the poor hungry man's soul sink lower.''

How can the gap be closed? The group is divided. For some, the UN provides a promising model. Others, sharply critical of such supranational mechanisms, see more promise in a freeing of world markets, a strengthening of the economies in the developed world, and an invigoration of international trade. 5 Education Implicit in many of these discussions was the idea that, if the world is to deal with the first four agenda items, it will need to undertake a strenuous reappraisal of the last two: education and morality.

Becuse the developed nations provide the educational leadership, much of the discussion focused on education in the industrial world. How, then, do these thinkers assess Western-style education?

``Our educational system is absolutely inadequate - not relatively [but] absolutely inadequate - for the purposes of democracy,'' asserts Mr. Adler. He speaks more vehemently than the rest. But most of them touch on the subject, and most see significant changes coming: more developing-world students, older students, more life-long education, more on-the-job training, more leisure time to pursue knowledge, more difficulty finding the bedrock of real wisdom under a blizzard of information. The consensus seems to be that the present system needs serious rethinking.

Dr. Gray says she finds it ``astonishing'' that so many undergraduates major in business - at the expense, she says, of learning about ``basic science and the basic humanities and social sciences'' in a liberal arts program. Michael Hooker, chancellor of the University of Maryland's Baltimore County campus, would no doubt agree. ``I'd educate everybody in the humanities - literature, philosophy, poetry,'' he says, because ``they tell the truth.'' 6 Morality Asked to characterize the present, Mrs. Tuchman calls it ``an Age of Disruption.'' And the greatest disruption, she says, is found in ``the real deterioration of public morality.''

She touches on a theme that pervades these interviews. The failure of public truth-telling, the sale of political influence, the acceptance of illegality in stock-market dealings - such topics appear again and again in these interviews, sometimes prominently and sometimes subtly. For social philosopher Sissela Bok, morality is the central issue for the 21st century: Because she sees ``trust'' as the vital missing ingredient in so many negotiations, she foresees a time when public officials will have to ``take moral principles into account'' in order to develop the trust necessary for negotiating towards solutions.

Closely related are questions of private morality. Dr. Whitman sees, in the 21st century, the values of strong family life. Mr. Hooker warns of a ``growing intellectual and cultural and ethical anomie'' in the teenage population.

To author and editor Norman Cousins the problem goes to the very core of survival: ``We move into the 21st centur without the philosophy or the sociology or the politics that can keep the species going.'' Can humanity cope? THESE, then are the six items on the 21st century's agenda. Can humanity come to grips with them? Few think the road ahead will be easy. ``Things are going to get worse,'' says Adler, ``before they get better.''

Why? Because, according to many of these thinkers, humanity's current institutions are designed to cope only with current problems. The need, voiced repeatedly, is to redesign institutions - of government, education, economics, business, and so forth - to bring them into line with the pace and complexity of 21st-century challenges.

The current structures, many say, are simply not working. ``When [problems] are not in a crisis stage,'' says Mr. Packard, ``no one pays any attention to them.'' Efforts to resolve long-term problems, says Carter, come about ``almost entirely [as] a reaction to crisis.''

Yet beneath the surface of most of these discussions lay a quiet optimism. ``I really don't know enough to be a pessimist,'' says Mr. Cousins, who says he is ``optimistic about the intangibles that could be converted into assets.''

Most of the people interviewed expressed a similar optimism. Richards called it ``perspective.'' Whitman called it ``balance.'' Gray saw it as ``intellectual and personal integrity'' in the face of ``cheap and simple versions of life and history.'' Mrs. Bok thought of it as ``a virtuous circle'' spiraling up out of ``defeatism and passivity.''

All of them expressed a sense of urgency - that the problems were serious, and that there was no time to waste. But most of them shared the conviction that there were ways forward. Perhaps Mr. Fuentes spoke for the group when, in decrying the ``great addiction to materialism,'' he touched on what he called ``the moral rewards of progress.''

``I am not against material progress,'' he said. ``I am against the consciousness that [material] progress will solve our problems.''

Last of a series.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.