Can the North Carolina of the 21st century adapt to the economic realities of a global world as successfully as it did to the changes of the 20th century?A book about how North Carolina's political leaders led us through the 20th century is being released at the same time a conference in Chapel Hill will examine economic development prospects in the global environment of the current century.Raleigh News & Observer journalist Rob Christensen's new book, "The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics: The Personalities, Elections, and Events That Shaped Modern North Carolina," released this month by UNC Press, shows "how North Carolina's political leaders, bound by 19th century ideas and experience, adapted or failed to adapt to the changing times in the nation."This Sunday and Monday in Chapel Hill the fourth annual Global American South conference, "Beyond the Sunbelt: Southern Economic Development in a Global Context," will consider how North Carolina and its region can adapt to changing times in the world.According to Niklaus Steiner, director of the UNC Center for Global Initiatives, the conference will "focus specifically on economic development, business and labor challenges, environmental concerns and opportunities, and the role technology and education play in helping to shape the best path forward."The topic is timely. North Carolinians are dealing with the loss of manufacturing businesses and jobs to other parts of the world. Undoubtedly, some conference presenters will explore positive opportunities that the new world realities present. They may argue, as James Peacock did in his recent book, "Grounded Globalism," that rather than focusing on competition with other countries, we should concentrate on how we can participate profitably in a changing and more interconnected world. He believes that the South may be better equipped than other parts of the country to take advantage of the new global environment.Maybe so. But if the 20th century political struggles described by Rob Christensen are a guide to the challenges of this century, there will be no easy pathway. Christensen says that during the 20th century, "the state frequently oscillated between its progressive impulses and its broad conservative streak, sometimes swinging back and forth in ugly, violent spasms."There were winners and losers in North Carolina's 20th century economic development efforts. Blacks were the principal losers, at least in the early part of the century. They were forced out of the political process and into second-class status in other sectors of life. The hard circumstances of small farmers and mill workers also rarely were addressed directly. Nevertheless, those mills and the low-wage jobs slowly built an industrial base. They gave North Carolina the economic resources to build the educational, transportation and public service infrastructure that helped prepare the state for the progress of the later years of the 20th century. Today, as the grandchildren of those earlier workers and tenant farmers lose their low-wage jobs to overseas competition, is it enough to tell them that it will ultimately be a good thing -- as higher-paying jobs open up in the future for others?The future is not just about the loss of North Carolina manufacturing jobs. What about the high-paying jobs in banking, finance, law, medicine, education and research that are the economic "pride and joy" of the successes of the 20th century?