It's a Dickens world. Best of times; worst of times. What could be better than the news that:
* India and Pakistan have agreed to comprehensive peace talks (including Kashmir) as they near the 50th anniversary of their joint birth.
* Hong Kong's much-scrutinized return to China appears to be moving smoothly. President Jiang Zemin's expected attendance at the handover adds official weight to the late Deng Xiaoping's pledge that Hong Kong's booming capitalist system would be insulated for half a century.
* The US economy is running like a well-tuned engine - as President Clinton preachily reminded his European and Japanese summit guests in Denver. Its low-inflation, low-unemployment, steady-growth consistency recalls the post-World War II boom.
BUT, as pessimism emanating from the "Rio+5" global environment conference at the UN indicates, one man's boom is another's gloom. In the five years since world leaders pledged to cut carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000, and to 15 percent below that by 2010, they have instead added emissions. The US is the worst offender; China will be by 2010. There is little doubt anymore that this threatens to affect the planet's climate in mostly unpleasant directions.
Make no mistake about it, the have-not populations in China and India want motorcycles, cars, refrigerators, TVs, and phones. India (population 970 million) is no longer content to produce fewer goods for export than tiny Hong Kong. World fascination with the Hong Kong-China merger stems in part from the assumption that the entrepreneurial seaport and its sibling rival, Shanghai (source of China's top leaders), will continue to leverage rapid growth across China.
Likewise, the US boom will impact Europe's growth and job-creation, despite denials by Continental leaders.
And better relations between India and Pakistan will mean more trade and growth than allowed by the military-distorted economies weighing on both nations. And, if people once believed that Soviet influence on China's and India's systems would benefit their environments, the dismal revelations of Eastern European pollution shattered those illusions.
Given the thirst for the fruits of growth in the two biggest populations of Asia, and in richer nations, how can the Rio environmental goals be met?
Individual restraint and recycling are part of the answer. But by far the largest part will have to come from a vast revamping of manufacturing, building, and transport systems.
Already, many innovative answers are known and simply have to be methodically put into practice. Solar energy research must be speeded. By the time China is ready to start really large scale burning of coal, that must be cleaner burning. When oil and gas are piped from Central Asia to India, that also must burn more cleanly. And both conventional and solar technologies must become available worldwide.
The process will be costly, but ultimately profitable. And there is no realistic alternative.