Herbert I. London: Why Are They Lying to Our Children?; Stein and Day; New York.
The title of Herbert London’s book is an all-too-accurate description of the textbooks used to “educate” American students, Why Are They Lying to Our Children? is a brief and closely reasoned exploration of the “faddist and trendy character of these books, which adopt the mood of the times without any concessions to historical perspective.” He finds a consistent pattern of ideological bias in textbooks dealing with economic development, the environment, and the probable nature of the future–complicated, in some cases, by a sheer lack of any sense of proportion on the part of some writers. (One textbook writer wrote of the “tragedy”of traffic jams.) The picture of the future conveyed by textbooks and teachers’ guides is horrible indeed–an imminent and almost inevitable sequence of material shortages, environmental collapse, famine, and war. It is also a picture of the present, heavily loaded with guilt over American and Western affluence and responsibility for the misfortunes of others. It is the advanced countries of the “North,” and especially the United States, that are primarily responsible for the sufferings of the world’s poor. It is because we are so wealthy that the poor countries of the world are so impoverished. The energy crisis is only the first installment of our long over due punishment for exploitation and wealth. The West or the North (these people have a somewhat confused sense of direction)–has an obligation to help the “Third World” or “South” repair the damage that has been done. Moreover, the advanced countries produce most of the pollution. Science and technology are bad, especially if they are complex and function on a large scale. Only “small is beautiful.” Nuclear energy, especially, is evil. In fact, man at worst is evil and at best a nuisance. These writers are firm believers in the somewhat old fashioned opposition between “Man” and “Nature,” but unlike traditional believers in this division, they side with “Nature” against humanity.
The textbook view of the world is static and curiously anachronistic. It is a world view based neither on long term historical trends nor on current observation, but on the fads of the late 1960’s. Much of this worldview is the new Malthusianism: the known finitude of natural resources, a high and increasing population growth rate, and an ever-increasing amount of air and water pollution.
London is no anti-environmentalist fanatic; he counsels a prudent, measured approach to environmental problems. In fact, he stresses, it is not a case of there being no problem–rather it is a problem that can be solved, indeed, has been solved to some degree. Air and water pollution have generally greatly decreased since the 1960’s. This may not be very comforting to someone living on top of a toxic waste dump but it is a fact that people in general are less exposed to hazards than they used to be. Population growth has begun to level off. Food production, contrary to fears widespread in the late 1960’s, has not peaked, although London admits that the African continent is a major exception in the otherwise encouraging food picture. Despite predictions of shortages of raw materials, mineral prices have actually fallen. The gap between rich and poor nations has not continuously widened; it has shrunk, since a “middle” group of nations has emerged from the formerly underdeveloped group. Life expectancy rates and nutritional standards have risen world wide.
It is not merely specific predictions and projections that are proving fatuous, but the basic elements of the textbook worldview. It is the advanced countries that are primarily responsible for economic progress; it is the backward nations that are dependent on them, not the other way around. If the United States uses a “disproportionate” part of the world’s resources, it is because it is engaged in the major part of the world’s production. We have a “disproportionate” share of wealth because we generate it. London argues that there are no purely environmental or economic reasons why we cannot build a world where all people can enjoy a reasonable degree of prosperity. Given reasonable prudence, we need not trample each other, starve, choke on wastes, or stagnate in a no-growth, static world. In fact, much of the world seems to be moving, if unsteadily, in the direction of high prosperity. If the world’s scientists, engineers, business men, and hardworking masses were able to carry on undisturbed by other factors, we might be heading for a very happy future indeed.
Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Politics, after all, and less-well defined stresses, are also present, and give ample cause for pessimism. We need not restrict ourselves to the well known threats posed by nuclear war and communist totalitarian expansion. The poor countries themselves, even those that are modernizing, are powerful generators of problems. As Samuel Huntington and others have shown, the very process of modernization itself is a cause of violence and turmoil, particularly when it is complicated by irrational nationalist feelings. Contemporary Iran is a case in point. The modernization of Europe,though a more gradual and arguably more organic and me hodical process than that of poor countries today, ended in two World Wars and the rise of communism and nazism. Whether the process of modernization, once begun, will always be completed is another problem. Iran may have wrecked its chance to enter the modern world, even when it rediscovers the will to do so. The “middlc group” of nations London cites may not be very stable or secure–Iran, for a while, was one of that group. The success of some of the advancing countries may well be a typical of the “Third World.” Even where intelligent policies have produced growth, there is no guarantee that it will continue. Nonetheless, London’s book is a much-needed corrective to the doomsaying which has become so fashionable in recent years.