Up for Grabs

The United States in the 1980s

edited by Peter Duignan, edited by Alvin Rabushka
Hoover Institution Press, 868 pp., $20.00

Setting National Priorities: Agenda for the 1980s

edited by Joseph A. Pechman
Brookings Institution, 563 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Human Scale

by Kirkpatrick Sale
Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 558 pp., $15.95

The Microelectronics Revolution

edited by Tom Forester
MIT Press, 589 pp., $12.50 (paper)

A National Agenda for the Eighties: Report of the President's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties

US Government Printing Office, 224 pp., $4.75 (paper)

Life After '80: Environmental Choices We Can Live With

edited by Kathleen Courrier
Brick House, 280 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Writing about the future generally takes two forms, prediction and prescription. The first is more or less prophetic: we are told what’s in the cards, with warnings to get ready. There may be some choices at the margins of what is to come, but the major moving forces are already underway. Writers have always differed on those basic causes. Some emphasize technology, others an exploding population or new class configurations or an idea whose time has come. Or even the unfolding of a grand cosmic plan. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes…. The world is heading toward a holocaust.” So predicts Hal Lindsey in The 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon. He suggests we keep our sea lanes open, bring back capital punishment, and pray that our sins be forgiven. Even if the future is immutable, we are still free to forecast what we think is coming. In that sense, each effort at prediction reflects some current mood.

The prescriptive mode is more familiar. We are told a better world is possible; it is up to us to bring it about. The time span may be modest, settling for solving specific problems in the decade that lies ahead. Thus a report commissioned by President Carter, A National Agenda for the Eighties, recommends “relocation assistance efforts designed to link people with economic opportunity, wherever that opportunity might be.” Instead of trying to resuscitate “the older industrial cities,” government should give “large segments of the urban lower classes” bus tickets to the Sun Belt. Other prescriptive texts take a long view, urging underlying changes in the way we lead our lives. Kirkpatrick Sale’s Human Scale asks us to let our imaginations soar in the hope we see that living in small groups is better than living in large ones; he prefers to leave for later details of ways and means.

Whether predictive or prescriptive, all works about the future entertain a vision of how life should be pursued. Thus Life After ’80 (“A Solar Lobby/Center for Renewable Resources Book”) warns we must “re-establish man’s right relation with nature,” which means attuning what we do to what the earth can take. (“In this book, nature is discussed in terms of givens and social options as the variables.”) And those who, like Alvin Toffler, say the future is pretty much decided imply that from our adaptations will emerge a new morality. Unfortunately these and other assumptions are not always made explicit. At issue are conceptions of the good life and the good society, phrases which for all their antediluvian flavor refer to goals that never go away. Perhaps the best place to begin is with two recent volumes proposing programs for the Eighties. One shows that there may be more to the conservative future than its proponents wish to say, whereas with the liberal vision the contrary is the case.

The Hoover Institution was set up at Stanford University in 1919 to study the Russian Revolution…

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