The world is still going to hell. The sky is falling in the form of acid rain, the earth is washing out to sea or turning to poison around us, trees are cut down faster then they can grow, deserts grow faster than farmers can turn things green, the farmers are villains, not heroes, in the process. People are being born faster than they can die, and there are, every year, fewer and fewer animal species available to populate Noah's Ark. Life after 1980 looks as bad as, or worse than, life after 1970 did. Only the air is, perhaps, a little more fit to breathe.
The first three-quarters of "Life After '80," one of two fairly hopeful (after all) books on past and future relations between earth and sun and human beings, amounts to a status report on how the world has gone since a sizable proportion of the general public first came to environmental consciousness about a decade ago.
It may be a case of overkill. According to editor Kathleeen Courrier's introduction, "Every assessment and hypothesis is coupled either tacitly or explicitly with a social choice," but the promise implied in the subtitle is far less obvious than the imminent disaster. Courrier has provided an admirable editorial framework, logical in premise and arrangement, cumulative in information as essays progress from the present state of natural things -- earth, air, plants and water -- through the effects of unlimited human action to some possible solutions.
As a book, "Life After '80" suffers from the inevitable problems of assembling work that for the most part appeared first on other places -- 22 of the 31 essays are abridgements or adaptions. And as a social document it suffers from the general nature of most surveys. But it is a thorough, exhaustive job, with individual statements in some depth by many of the authors, who include Barry Commoner, Jacques Cousteau, Anne and Paul Erlich, Denis Hayes, Amory Lovins, Theodore Roszak, Daniel Yergin and others.
Choices are often not so much a matter of circumstance as of perception. Two of the book's most illuminating essays -- Hazel Henderson's "The Coming of the Solar Age" and David Morris' "Neighborly Power" -- deal with ways of seeing. Henderson postulates our present state of mature industrialism as an entropy state, a process of increasingly random arrangements of information, cause and effect. As it continues it gets more complex, more unmanageable, until the side effects of actions that are otherwise economically justifiable become unpredictable and unpreventable, and the social costs become prohibitive.
We find ourselves, therefore, at a confluence of several important transitions, economic, cultural and social. Such transitions can be times of exciting ferment and productivity as old confusions give way to new clarity.
Morris takes a simple transitional perception and applies it: Neighborhoods exhibit the same economic needs and characteristics as nations do. They have territory, natural resources and industrial potential. They create and disburse capital, and they have recognizable borders. If you accept the promise that "geographic community should be the focus of society," then sensible, effective actions -- choices -- to promote human and environmental harmony become perfectly obvious.
Compromise with the environment is a strong theme of current politics; the economic problems caused by the shortage of energy override such frivolous considerations as quality of life (read: environment). This is not only a book about choices, but about survival.
If most of "Life After '80" is a flawed Jeremiad on the costs of bad environmental choices, then "A Golden Thread: 2500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology" is one of the minor psalms charting the ups and downs of solar uses and users. There is, it seems, little new under the sun. Solar architecture has been around for longer than we usually think. Socrates commented on the principles of solar heating and cooling. The Romans used greenhouses and heated public baths with solar energy. All through the Middle Ages scientists (alchemists) played with focusing mirrors, incidentally demonstrating the interplay between science and technology as experiments waited upon development of glass and metal-making techniques to allow big enough, tough enough, light enough materials to make the mirrors that could concentrate sunlight to high temperatures. After the Renaissance (Leonardo da Vinci, of course, suggested applying solar energy to industrial needs), there were hot boxes and lenses and solar-powered engines and machines that paralleled the development of the other kinds of machines of the industrial revolution. And at the turn of this century, commercially successful water heating. In the '30s and '40s during the era of the giant architects -- Wright, et al. -- created houses designaed to be heated by the sun.
Most chapters end on a downbeat: "Not till the following century. . ." "The lesson. . . had been discovered and then lost . . . Gone was the driving force. . ." But on the whole it's a hopeful survey.
Careful, thoughtful, and profusely illustrated, the book covers a staggering amount of territory and touches on an awesome range of solar uses and issues. Unfortunately, an illustrated tour through that amount of time can probably only touch down lightly at any single place. As a whole "A Golden Thread" is enlightening, but superficial.