Planet earth, approaching the year 2000: are we getting richer, more equal, more productive, happier? Or are we using up the earth's irreplaceable resources, proliferating in numbers beyond the planet's capacity to support us and eliminating a dangerously high percentage of our fellow creatures? Which way you look at the near future will determine which of the first two of these books you prefer. But for sheer pleasure, and a useful reminder that the human condition is the one thing that stays the same as our material circumstances change, try the third, which takes a sideways look at our millennial angst by seeing how things were in about the year 1000.
The 1999 millennium edition of State of the World is the most familiar of this batch. It is the 16th volume in an annual series which is an established green bestseller, widely used by activists, and in a broad range of academic courses from politics to biology. In this volume the chapters cover some concerns that are familiar from previous years - climate change, species extinction, water resources, the oceans - and others on which its authors, at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, are building up expertise, including urban issues and warfare. Co-editor Christopher Flavin points out that homo sapiens is becoming for the first time a predominantly urban creature as the third millennium dawns, which means that cities are one of the places where the battle for sustainable development must be won.
On the face of it many of the facts mustered by Brown, Flavin and their co-authors are grim. Most telling is the rate at which water resources are being depleted. This endangers the immense agricultural productivity gains of the 20th century at a time when land development and population growth are combining to reduce the amount of farmland per human being. Cutting population growth and shifting rich food consumers down the food chain - in other words, less steak and more salad - are both vital to success. Most people's food needs are likely to be met - the issues are how and at what price, which could be a lot higher than we pay today; and, of course, the plight of the minority for whom even current prices are unaffordable.
State of the World presents a generally sombre picture of a wide range of problems, but there are exceptions that show progress is possible. For example, the growth in energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy shows that the energy supply issues that seemed so intractable a decade or two back turn out to be soluble. Readers who have not seen an edition for a few years will find that the analysis has got less determinist, more subtle and more interesting.
On the down side, some of the issues Worldwatch takes on have been tackled more effectively by other groups. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, for example, has covered the issues of war and conflict in detail for years and it is hard for Worldwatch to find a new approach to them. The section on the acceleration of time as perceived in the modern era does not refer to Manuel Castells's work on "timeless time". Despite this, Lester Brown's chapter on building the economy of the 21st century is worth the price of the book on its own.
Given State of the World and Next , a reviewer on another planet might well conclude that they refer to two quite different worlds. For Ira Matathia and Marian Salzman there are no resource constraints on the 21st century. Instead, as befits people from the world of market research and advertising, all is opportunity. Their in-your-face style could be annoying, but under the surface this is a work of some insight and charm.
For one thing, the authors have not tried to be too prescient. Many of the trends they point to, such as people's increasing need to assert their local identity in the face of globalisation, are already well established. One that they write about in the future tense, the arrival of the euro, had happened before the book's publication date. Disappointingly, the emergence of new quasi-currencies, such as air miles and supermarket reward points, is not covered, although these authors must have noticed it. In the world of work, they enthuse over the attempt by their former employer, advertising agency Chiat/Day, to abolish office space and hierarchies, although this experiment has already been abandoned.
Matathia and Salzman's view is that of frequent-flyers who not only see big trends such as European and Asian integration but are active in their implementation. Their sections on these subjects, however, tend towards arm-waving and are less enticing than their insights into how people are handling the current onrush of social, economic and political change. The increasing strength of Islam in Europe, the fact that 23 per cent of Americans claim to believe in reincarnation and the growing trend in tourism to "spiritual" destinations all point to ways in which people are finding comfort and making sense of their lives as the millennium approaches.
Ramifying from this are wide-ranging changes in behaviour including more openness about sex and erotica (naughty underwear is taking over Asia, apparently), an emphasis on "comfortable" holiday destinations (Amsterdam rather than Brussels), and an increased enthusiasm for the wonders of pet-keeping.
The authors strike a few false notes by throwaway treatment of major and controversial issues, such as the possible screening of children for potential illnesses. But they are perceptive about topics like deliberate childlessness, and on subjects like the US and European backlash against new lifestyles. This has moved on from protest letters and demonstrations to a new tactic, the boycotting of advertisers whose spots appear during television programmes showing ways of life that are objectionable to particular groups. Also vulnerable are firms that do things that some find objectionable, for example offering benefits to same-sex partners that are taken for granted by those of the opposite sex.
Although Matathia and Salzman do not spell it out, the lesson is that social changes do not happen by means of invisible forces. People and organisations have to get out and fight for them in the teeth of opposition, and still will in the new century. In the United States, religion and right-wing politics are combining against what they see as permissive lifestyles in an especially determined way.
At the same time, the authors point interestingly to novel ways of moderating the stress and worry of the future we seem to face. An example is accountants Ernst and Young, a firm which tries to ensure that its staff have weekends free from email and voicemail. All in all, Matathia and Salzman are insightful enough to merit a read. Enter into the spirit by saving the book for your next long-haul flight.
Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger, by contrast, have produced the perfect companion for a ghastly journey on public transport - a reminder of an era 1,000 years ago when the world was quieter, you knew almost anyone you met, and a group of 50 was a significant crowd. The authors' starting point is the "Julius Work Calendar", a 12-page document describing the year, month by month, as it was lived in England in about 1020. In that era, paper was scarce and printing had not reached Europe, so the book is a rarity, especially because many documents from this era were destroyed later when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. (It is a missed opportunity not to have reproduced the whole calendar in the book.) The authors use this month-by-month format to bring in a wide range of material about pre-Norman England. One constant focus is food. In that era the food people ate may have been earthier and tastier than some of ours, but it was far less varied (no tomatoes, potatoes, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, runner beans or brussels sprouts) and, more to the point, there was far less of it. Fasting at Easter may have been good for the soul, but there may have been little choice in the matter in the period before the harvest came in. As winter approached, working out how to keep eating until spring involved tricky decisions. Sometimes they went wrong, as reports of mass suicides of the starving confirm. The key technologies, as illustrated in the calendar, were the plough and other agricultural implements, and most people spent most of their time using them.
Life then was grim by our standard but far from joyless. There was mead to drink and many convivial celebrations to make life more bearable. For inspiration, people "knew" saints, each with his or her supportive moral, much as folk today "know" soap stars or supermodels. They also knew far more about the near-natural world about them. The spring and autumn equinoxes were important waymarks in the working year, not the curiosity they have become to people who have electric light.
One aspect of life in 1000 that we regard with revulsion is slavery, then a massive European institution. But as Lacey and Danziger tell it, it would be misleading to imagine it in terms of the middle passage from Africa to America. Although the sale of captives did go on, many slaves were people in acute destitution who placed themselves in the hands of local landowners in return for their lives. They were allowed livestock and the use of some land, in a series of complex obligations that worked up as well as down.
With an astute eye on the millennium, the authors are careful to find analogies between 1000 and 2000. One big difference is that the Julius Work Calendar was compiled about 1020. We take it for granted that we do not know what life will be like in 2020, but then 20 years here or there did not mean significant change.
However, England in 1000, when Ethelred the Unready reigned, did have foreign investment (Parisians owning shares in our salt works), European currency union (English silver coins turn up all over), and an advanced social, legal and political system complete with taxation. And there was advanced technology. One remedy for shingles needed the bark of 15 trees, and there was detailed knowledge of body parts and foetal development.
And as Lacey and Danziger point out, the popularisation of our present calendar system by Bede meant that of all the folk in Christendom, the English were most likely to have an awareness of what the year 1000 meant. So perhaps that Dome is not so out of place after all.
Martin Ince is deputy editor, The THES .
Next: The Flow of the Future
Author - Ira Matathia and Marian Salzman
ISBN - 0 00 257041 6
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £14.99
Pages - 319