AUSTIN, Texas -- As Sherlock Holmes once explained to Watson, the dog that did NOT bark in the night is the key to the case. Our current presidential campaign is the sound of no dogs barking.

Here we sit, complacently listening to the finest minds of our generation (?) tell us that all we have to worry about is whether to include drugs in Medicare and how to fix Social Security, and that building this bonkers missile defense system is a dandy idea.

When the lights go out this summer -- now there's a dog barking in the night -- I suggest that you light a few candles and curl up with Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World by J.R. McNeill (and you can skip the charts and graphs).

One of the nice things about McNeill is that he's quite calm about the following news: The world's population quadrupled during the past 100 years; the global economy expanded 14-fold; energy use increased 16 times; and industrial output went up by a factor of 40. Water use rose nine times, and carbon dioxide emissions went up 13 times. And what may be the most important overall is that humans in the 20th century used 10 times more energy than their forebears during the entire thousand years before 1900.

As McNeill notes in his preface: "Modern environmental writing typically evaluates changes as either good or bad, but it rarely reveals the criteria for judgment. I will refrain from such evaluation in many cases, because environmental changes usually are good for some people and bad for others, and indeed good for some species or subspecies and bad for others."

You'll be cheered to learn that so far, humans, rats and sharks are doing quite nicely in the survival sweepstakes, all of us being gifted at adapting to change. Actually, sharks haven't changed -- they're just geared to eat anything -- but adaptability is the key here because change is upon us.

The long view of history is always consoling, but McNeill is not just reporting on what is happening to the environment. He reaches conclusions, and he has a few quite mild suggestions.

McNeill suggests that "ideological lock-in" -- the intellectual equivalent of the kind of technological lock-in that appears from time to time -- is making efficient changes impossible because of over-investment in less efficient technology. McNeill, no radical, writes, "If one accepts the notion that there is a significant chance that more serious ecological problems lie ahead, then, bearing Machiavelli in mind, it is prudent to address the problem sooner rather than later."

McNeill's chief strategies are "to hasten the arrival of a new, cleaner energy regime and to hasten the demographic transition toward lower mortality and fertility. ... There may be other desirable initiatives, such has converting the masses to some new creed of ecological restraint or coaxing rulers into considering time horizons longer than the next election or coup. These are more difficult and less practical precisely because they are more fundamental."

Starting from where we are now (always a good idea), we could push for the higher fuel efficiency standards already written into law but delayed time and again by the Republicans in Congress as a result of pressure from the automakers. We know they can build more efficient cars -- we've already made them do it -- they just don't want to and would rather spend the money on our legally corrupt political system.

None of this is hopeless. I suspect that the reason we are in such denial about global warming is that we figure there's nothing we can do about it, but we actually have made quite a bit of progress (except in Texas).

As McNeill so often points out, we cannot know the future, but it is already clear that our two biggest problems will be water and energy. We have an economic system premised on growth, which will be impossible without cheap water and cheap energy. Now is the time for all smart humans to adapt.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.