I’ve been bewailing the short-term, sound-bite, soul-less way in which the U.S. media greeted the turn not only of a century, but of a millennium. (You know — lists of the top 10 athletes of the century, ads for the soft drink of the new millennium.) Then in from the Internet came welcome news of intelligent life elsewhere on earth.

Japan Times has started a year-long series on Japanese society in the 21st century. Remarkably, the first installment was on the environment. Even more remarkably, every one of the Japanese scientists and bureaucrats interviewed expressed serious concerns.

Jiro Kondo, head of the Central Environmental Council of Japan’s Environment Agency, pointed out that 20th century environmental problems tended to be local, to affect health directly, and to respond to quick fixes. The new century’s problems will be global, long-term, harmful to humans only indirectly and slowly, and very hard to reverse.

Global warming was at the top of his list, indeed at the top of the list of most people quoted, including 200 experts recently surveyed by the U.N. Environment Program. “Without a doubt the most important problem in the next century, both for Japan and for the world, will be global warming,” said Akio Morishima, head of Japan’s Institute for Global Environmental Studies.

Morishima also cited surprises of the century past — ozone layer depletion, endocrine disruption — and said, “It would be surprising if the 21st century is any less surprising.” He mentioned biotechnology as a likely source of nasty surprises, as was the use of pesticides in the 20th century.

More than I have ever seen in an American paper, the Japan Times article followed the environmental story deep into its social and economic implications. Saburo Kato of the Research Institute for Environment and Society said a sustainable society will depend on “escaping from the civilization that gave rise to the cycle of mass production, mass consumption and mass disposal.” Harumi Sada, head of Shimin Undo National Center, speculated that “the government and industry will have to change if civilization is to rise to the challenge.”

The article emphasized the importance of Japan supporting international environmental agreements and instituting green taxes to nudge the market system so it rewards environmentally responsible behavior, instead of punishing it. Amazingly, to an American reader, these policies were not dismissed as politically unfeasible or scorned as ideologically unacceptable. They were discussed soberly as critical tools to bring society, economy, and environment into harmony with each other.

How refreshing!

Even more refreshing was a piece written by a Uruguayan* named Eduardo Galeano, translated from the Spanish by Claudio Schuftan, and wafted into cyberspace via Vietnam. (The Internet is a wondrous thing.) Galeano managed to rise to the occasion of a millennial turn. He looked into the coming centuries with “the never-proclaimed right to dream.” Here is just a small portion of what he had the courage to see:

 

Let’s stare beyond infamy; let’s guess another world.

 

People will not be driven by the automobile, nor will they be programmed by computers.

The TV set will cease being the most important member of the family.

The economists will not call standard of living what really is pace of consumption,

Nor will they call quality of life what is quantity of things.

Death and money will lose their magic powers,

And neither death nor wealth will be sufficient to make an SOB be declared virtuous or a gentleman.

The world will no longer be at war against the poor, but against poverty.

Food will not be merchandise nor communications a business, because food and communication are human rights.

Street children will not be treated as trash; there will be no street children.

Rich kids will not be treated as if they were money; there will be no rich kids.

Education will not be the privilege of those who can buy it.

The Church will come up with another Commandment: You shall love nature, of which you are a part;

The deserts of the world and of the soul will be reforested.

The desperate will be welcomed and the lost will be found.

Every night will be lived as if it were the last, and every day as if it were the first.

 

Whatever people and nations will lead in the next century and millennium, they will need two qualities. First, the ability to face real problems and weigh real solutions without denial and with open-mindedness — as Japan Times did. Second, the ability to cut through the false and unsatisfying substitutes we are sold every day and to articulate and stand for real human values — as Eduardo Galeano did.

*[Correction, 08 Mar 2004: This article originally referred to Eduardo Galeano as a Nicaraguan writer. He is, in fact, from Uruguay.]