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1997 ISSUE


Originally published in the Winter 1997 Virginia Tech Research Magazine.

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Mapping the Future

Rich (nations) get richer ... gaps widen, cultural dissonance looms, environmental threats grow

By Julie Kane
College of Architecture & Urban Studies

Can you imagine flying from Tokyo to Los Angeles in just two hours?

Can you imagine what that might do to commuter patterns and property values in the two cities?

Transportation as we know it will change in the future, bringing some radical changes in the fortunes of some places, according to a new book co-authored by Paul Knox, Distinguished Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech and Sallie Marston, professor of geography at the University of Arizona (Places and Regions in Global Context, Prentice Hall in 1997). “The first generation of smart cars and trucks, with onboard microprocessor-based electronics, is already on the road,” Knox says. High-speed rail systems are already in place in parts of Europe, and are expanding rapidly. Plans for a new Japanese “rocket plane” are on the drawing board. Over the long term, regions having access to the new modes of transportation will prosper, while those without access will be passed by.

Predicting the future has become complicated, Knox says, because we have been in a period of global economic transition for more than 20 years and in a period of geo-political transition since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Unpredictable political shifts and changing geographic boundaries, coupled with the economic and cultural flux of the world, “... mean that we cannot simply project our future geographies from the landscapes and spatial structures of the past. Rather we must map them out from a combination of existing structures and budding trends,” Knox writes. “In some ways, the future is already here, embedded in the world's institutional structures and in the dynamics of its populations.”

World Economics

Overall, Knox believes, the world economic forecast is good. “The global economy is vastly more dynamic, richer, and more productive than it was just 15 or 20 years ago. There is every prospect that, in the longer term, the world economy will continue to expand at a healthy rate.” International companies have positioned themselves to take advantage of the new markets that have opened up in east-central Europe, along with the natural resources and a wide range of skilled labor found there. However, there is a striking disparity between the world's core areas (North America, Japan, and Western Europe) and the impoverished and underdeveloped nations that represent the global periphery. For the future, Knox projects a widening gap. Parts of Africa are among the worst off. For example, in 1995 all of the sub-Saharan countries of Africa had debts so large that they owed more than they produced. Even with the most optimistic assumptions, it will take at least 20 years for personal incomes in sub-Saharan Africa to recover to the levels of the mid-1970s. Compounding these problems, disease has run rampant in some regions. Parts of Africa may today be more dangerously unhealthy than they were 100 years ago.


– Due to the expansion of the world economy and the globalization of industry, the overall demand for raw materials will increase.

– As the periphery is industrialized and its population increases, the global demand for energy will expand rapidly.


Knox's research indicates that by 2010, peripheral and semiperipheral countries will account for more than half of the world energy consumption. Chinese industry currently uses 35 percent more energy per ton of steel than American industry, mainly because it has small, inefficient plants. Years of price subsidies in former socialist states led consumers to use four or five times as much energy as countries of the same income levels elsewhere. Knox reports that the world economy will become increasingly dependent on OPEC governments, which control more than 70 percent of all proven oil reserves, most of them in the Middle East. A technological breakthrough, however, could reduce dependence on traditional energy sources and raw materials. “Such a breakthrough,” says Knox, “would be the occasion for a major reorganization of the world's economic geographies.”

Leading Technologies

According to the U.S. and Japanese governments, the European Union, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the United Nations, the development of biotechnology, materials technology, and information technology is crucial for future economic development.

Knox sees biotechnology as having a profound effect on animal husbandry, industrial production, renewable energy, waste recycling, and pollution control. He predicts that the commercial output of genetically engineered products is almost certain to grow about 10 percent a year for some time. The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment claims that five-sixths of the annual increase in world agricultural production will result from applications of biotechnology by 2000. (See “Can We Feed the World?”)

Materials technologies, which include new metal alloys, specialty polymers, plastic-coated metals, elasto-thermo plastics, laminated glass, and fiber-reinforced ceramics, can replace scarce natural resources, reduce the need for raw materials, and improve the performance and efficiency of many products. (See articles on materials in this issue.) Applications of materials technologies will require an expensive infrastructure of high-tech industry, so the immediate impact will be localized within the core regions of the world.

Although information technologies have found widespread use, research shows that, even in the more developed countries, less than one-third of the benefits will have been realized by the year 2000. Knox explains, “While the world will certainly shrink even further, there will be a marked lag in the diffusion of information technologies to many peripheral regions.”

Changing “Fault Lines”

While capital, knowledge, entrepreneurship, management, and consumer taste will continue to globalize, governments will be locked into their 19th-century quilt of territories and institutions. With the end of the Cold War, the balance of power that stabilized international politics for 40 years has gone. Previously held together by a common “enemy,” many nations are now especially vulnerable to internal economic, ethnic, and cultural divisions. Some consequences are predictable, Knox indicates. “The nation-states of the world-system core, unable to manage national economies and protect their pop- ulations from the winds of global change, will have to cope with severe economic slumps and persistent problems of poverty, unemployment, and homelessness.” At one level, globalization of the language of consumer goods has helped transcend some of the traditional cultural differences around the world. However, the juxtaposition of poverty, environmental stress, and crowded living conditions with the materialism of “Planet Reebok” provides the ideal circumstance for the spread and intensification of religious fundamentalism. This, perhaps more than anything else, represents a source of serious potential cultural dissonance, warns Knox.

The Environment and Development

The world faces a daunting list of environmental threats: the destruction of tropical rain forests and the loss of biodiversity; widespread, health-threatening pollution; the degradation of soil, water, and marine resources essential to food production; stratospheric ozone depletion; acid rain, etc. Most of these threats are greatest in the world's periphery, Knox says. “In the cities of the periphery, poverty encompasses so many people in such concentrations as to generate its own vicious cycle of pollution, environmental degradation, and disease.” Climatic change poses great threats to poorer countries. The heavily populated low-lying delta country of Bangladesh faces extreme hazard from the rising sea-levels anticipated from further global warming. In extensive regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, further drought could prove disastrous. Air and water pollution generated by low-income countries will more than double in the next 15 years. By 2010, China will probably account for one-fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions. All this has given some momentum to the notion of pursuing sustainable development, Knox explains. Sustainable development envisages a future when improvements to the quality of human life are achieved within the carrying capacity of local and regional ecosystems. He believes that those of us in the richer countries have a special responsibility for leadership in sustainable development because our present affluence is based on a cumulative past exploitation of the world's resources, and we have the financial, technical, and human resources that can make a difference. “We cannot do it all at once,” Knox concludes, “but we will certainly deserve the scorn and resentment of future generations if we do not try.”