A world of trillion-dollar speculative money flows, gross economic inequalities, refugees by the million, creeping pollutants, vacuum-cleaner fishing fleets and almost complete interconnectedness by telecommunications is a world that demands to be explained. This clutch of books sets out to do just that, from a number of differing but generally liberal standpoints. In a world where the static certainties of the old Oxford Economic Atlas of the World - first published in 1954, its final edition coinciding with the oil shocks of the early 1970s - have ceased to work, how much light do these books shed?
As its price suggests, the Atlas of World Development, edited by Tim Unwin of Royal Holloway College, is the heftiest and most scholarly of the group. It is the least suited to leisure-time reading, and comes in sober black and white. His 53 contributors are mainly from the United Kingdom, but take a panoramic view of a massive range of topics from map projections and decolonisation to climate change, school enrolments, language diversity and the arms trade.
Each subject is treated with a few pages of maps and text, about the right length for a less scrupulous lecturer to garner adequate material for a seminar case study, until the students realise that the book provides one-stop shopping for the model answer.
The book's real strength is that each of its five sections, which begin with an introduction by Unwin, starts global but soon gets local. Population, for example, is covered by overviews on family planning or overall fertility, but soon moves on to residential tenure in Colombia or the spread of HIV in an area of Namibia. Environmental topics run from global geology to erosion in Svosve, Zimbabwe.
Unwin and his collaborators, mainly members of the Developing Areas Research Group, are probably quicker than most to spot a world trend. But the real message of their invaluable book is that big phenomena, from the brain drain to racism, originate and have their effects place by place.
Particularly interesting - in the context of rival views of the world - among the contributions are several by Peter Vujakovic of Anglia Polytechnic University on the ideologies of cartography itself, using examples from the Middle East, the Antarctic and elsewhere to make the point that where reality is represented, ideology is at the artist's elbow.
The Atlas of World Development is a must for serious libraries in politics, geography, development or world economics, and a useful treat for the serious scholar with a good literature budget.
By contrast, the other books in this selection can be bought readily from taxed income or even out of a grant. But even here, there are important differences of approach.
Joni Seager of the University of Vermont, a specialist in feminist and environmental issues, has produced the latest in a series which began in 1981 with the first State of the Environment Atlas. The formula, since applied to everything from health to religion, works mainly by providing a double-page spread world map for each of a wide range of topics. Startling when they first appeared, the books are still striking. The items she covers are well chosen, including food and water, transport and energy, pollution and ecology. But even in a tiny place like the UK, everyone knows that something like acid rain or water pollution is far more of a problem in some places than in others, a problem which the occasional detailed maps cannot solve.
This is a pity because the State of . . . series has been an invaluable addition to political literature, and I would not be without the near-complete set on my own shelves. In any case, good statistical data on green issues are a rarity at the subnational level, especially in the developing world. Certainly every page rubs in the economic inequalities and the environmental costs of the way the world operates in a highly effective way: the series are perhaps the best books one can buy for a green-inclined teenager.
The Open University's Third World Atlas, the second edition of a book first published in 1983, follows a more didactic approach to the subject, with lots of text and graphs as well as the maps. It can also be bought as part of the Working for Development study pack including case studies, a video and a book, Poverty and Development in the 1990s.
The atlas stresses many of the same issues as Seager and even Unwin, but its strength lies in its almost leisurely approach to the problem of what constitutes the Third World (a term which the authors, like this reviewer, still find valuable) and how we should think about it. "Europe's pillage of the third world," (put at a total of £60 billion at 1991 prices for the looting between Columbus and the Chinese opium wars) is soberly catalogued, but other factors like the rise of Islam, are also drawn out. Despite being devoted mainly to the third world, the book often refers to the rich world too, either for comparative purposes or because of its role in economic domination or in other ways, for example as the prime destination of migrants from the third world.
Despite their differing styles and viewpoints, these books all belong to the same school of thought in terms of the issues they consider important: economic inequality, population growth, military spending, pollution, the transfer of resources from south to north, the status of women and the state of healthcare. If there is a common flaw, perhaps it is that the collapse of the Soviet Union and its European dominions has so far affected thinking in economics, development and the environment far less than it must at some point. The third world was originally so named, after all, by contrast with the First World - where most readers of this newspaper are lucky enough to live - and the Second World, the Soviet bloc, even though the schism between the USSR and China, and the rising wealth of the OPEC nations and the Asian Tigers has complicated matters a good deal. While much good economic, political and environmental research has been done in eastern Europe and the former USSR, it has yet to penetrate at the less specialised level, as the problems of the third world have.
A useful place to start looking at the biggest world issue arising from the end of communism - the economic ambitions of capitalist China - is the 1995 edition of State of the World, the annual account of world environmental issues first published in 1984 by the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC. As the foreword says, the book was once published in Romanian because of the interest in it taken by a former Communist Party high-flyer, demoted for dissidence to a post at the state publishing house. A few years later, after President Ceaucescu had ceased to be influential, the publisher in question, Ion Iliescu, himself became president.
State of the World confines its illustrations to the odd graph or chart. This monochrome approach has not prevented State of the World from becoming one of the most cited books in United States university courses on the environment and development. A hefty shelf of back issues is a must for the green library. This year the enterprise has also gone digital, since a disk of the key data from State of the World and the companion volume Vital Signs have become available. The Worldwatch Database Diskette seems pricey at $89, or £60 plus VAT, and should really be an integral part of the book, but it will be useful for those wanting to play their own world environment games with a variety of data on everything from finance to recycling.
One of the toughest tasks for the editors must be setting the balance between new issues and continuing coverage of long-standing concerns. In the 1995 edition, Worldwatch seems to break the habit of a lifetime with an unexpected outbreak of optimism over the energy issue. Renewable energy sources, the authors think, are now reaching the point at which they can compete with fossil fuels on their own terms in many places and for many uses. Add more efficient buildings and materials to the equation - the topics of other State of the World 1995 essays - and there just might be a new, low-impact energy economy around the corner that would ease many economic and environmental problems.
However, the general Worldwatch message is that human beings are continuing to sequester a steadily increasing amount of the world's natural assets. To the British TV viewer, the most striking case might be the Spanish fishermen emptying the waters off Britain and Canada - although the lengthy cod wars between Germany and Britain on one side and Iceland on the other make the point that other people's fish are all too obvious a target for a wide range of maritime nations. Worldwatch summons figures to show that fisheries around the world are coming under the same pressures already being applied to forests, water resources and other critical parts of the earth's living systems.
However, even the present pressures pale in comparison to the problems that are likely to emerge in coming years if poorer countries succeed in matching the living standards of the rich world. State of the World 1995 sets out the figures for China. Here is just one from Lester Brown, director of Worldwatch. The new Chinese economic plan has a figure for increased egg consumption. To meet it would call for the whole grain output of Australia to be fed to hens. Add to that the other grain-heavy products for which increasing affluence builds demand - beer, steak and bread - and it is simple to show that the land and water to support these plans just do not exist.
If you are George Soros, you buy grain futures or even set-aside farmland. However, the figures are so outlandish that they do not point simply to rising demand and prices. Instead they are a reductio ad absurdum, like the famous prediction earlier this century that the whole US Midwest would in a few decades be required to produce leather for car seats. The figures tell us that the world will not follow their prediction, whatever the central planners tell us. The compilers of State of the World know this, as their work on China makes clear. But so far even green economics has made too little progress in setting out the alternatives.
All these publications have one merit in common. Each clarifies, in different ways and at different points on the scale between the scholarly and the populist, the problem of how people, wealth and the earth interact, and the abundance of approaches to making that inter-relationship more equitable and more sustainable.
Martin Ince is deputy editor of The THES.
Poverty and Developments in the 1990s
Editor - Tim Allen and Alan Thomas
ISBN - 0 19 87731 5
Publisher - OUP in association with The Open University
Price - £9.99 (paperback) Complete study pack £53.94
Pages - 421pp