If one were to judge a textbook purely on its presentation, this book would fare very well. It is “student-friendly”, with plenty of graphs, charts, maps and photos. It is smartly arranged, with various student activities and exercises included. It is both readable and informative.
More important than appearance, however, is what is covered in a textbook, and how it is covered. The authors state that this book presents senior secondary students “with an overview of important global issues… the modification, management and value of natural ecosystems; relations between the world power blocs and their effect on world tension and the arms race; and an examination of world economic development.”
Section one, on the earth’s ecosystems, is for the most part a balanced and objective assessment of the topic. The complex and fragile nature of various ecosystems are examined, as is man’s interactions with them. This emphasis on human impact with the environment, however, may be somewhat overstated in this textbook. That is, the authors tend to concentrate on human activity as the chief culprit in environmental degradation, as if the absence of homo sapiens would result in ecological peace and harmony. For example, the authors bemoan the fact that “human modifications …have reduced the diversity of environments and altered environments in such a way that the habitat of many populations has grown smaller or has disappeared.” These modifications “have resulted in the extinction of many species.” What the authors fail to point out is that of about 100 million species of plants, animals and microbes which have evolved over millions of years, about 99 per cent are already extinct, mostly due to non-human activities.
Moreover, as Dr Tim Flannery recently pointed out in an article on Australian wilderness (Australian Natural History, Spring 1989), humans are an integral part of our landscape, and without them biotic diversity will be gradually lost, and “collapse will follow.”
Section two, on global militarism, is somewhat problematic, because (a) it probably does not belong in an environmental geography textbook, and (b) much of the information is presented in a misleading or inaccurate fashion. Assuming for the moment that such a subject is a valid field of study for a geography text, what are some of the drawbacks in the material presented?
One problem is that it tends to subscribe to the “moral equivalence” theory, that the US and the USSR share a moral reciprocity. Therefore, according to the authors, both nations tend to equally exploit and bully the rest of the world, the US economically, and the USSR militarily. Indeed, sometimes the US is made to appear even worse than the Soviet Union. In an eight page case study on the military-industrial complex, the entire focus is on the United States, ignoring the demonstrable fact that while the US has a military-industrial complex, the Soviet Union is a military-industrial complex.
In their technical/statistical assessments, the authors are often simply wrong. Examples:
-They claim that the Soviet Union and its allies lag behind the West in nuclear capability. This was true up until about 1969, when the Soviets reached nuclear parity with the US, but ever since then they have enjoyed a superiority in both nuclear delivery systems and nuclear warheads.
-They claim that former US President Reagan recklessly raised arms expenditures. But as a percentage of the federal budget, both Kennedy and Carter spent much more on defense than Reagan ever did.
-They claim that the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) is “a threat to world peace” and can be used as part of a first strike by the US. Besides misunderstanding the essential purpose of SDI, that of defence, these charges are tantamount to describing a person brandishing a shield to withstand a spear attack as an act of aggression.
-They describe in detail the possible consequences of a `nuclear winter’ resulting from a nuclear conflagration. But the theory of nuclear winter, as Nature magazine once described it, is “notorious for its lack of scientific integrity.” Even though the authors offer this one sentence qualification, “Scientific opinion is divided as to whether this will occur,” they fail to point out that the theory has for all intents and purposes been laid to rest, the final nail in the coffin being a major scientific debunking which appeared in the pages of Foreign Affairs in June of 1986.
Numerous other omissions, misrepresentations or distortions could be mentioned, all of which make this section of much less value for the average student than might have been the case. And this on top of the fact that one wonders why such a subject should be covered in a geography textbook in the first place.
Section three, on economic development, also seems to be questionable material for this type of textbook. And like section two, it tends to lack balance and perspective. Generally speaking, it is critical of Western multinational corporations (Eastern MNCs do exist, but they are not covered here), naive concerning living standards in communist countries, and oblivious to important studies in development economics (see for example the works of Lord Peter Bauer).
As an example of the second point on lack of balance, the authors state that while communist countries do have considerably lower per capita incomes, “most facilities are provided by the state (health, transport, education, child care), there is little inflation and the prices of essential goods are low.” But even lower than the prices of consumer goods in communist states is their availability. It does little good if basic food stuffs and other commodities are cheap if they are also non-existent. As an example, one third of all families in the Soviet Union do not have running water, and two thirds do not have hot water. Supply, not demand, is the big problem in communist countries. Moreover, the authors obviously have never experienced state-provided facilities such as health care or transport in countries like the Soviet Union. They may be free (or cheap), but they are appallingly substandard and sparse.
The authors praise China’s economic development, but do admit that the price of such development “has been the loss of some personal freedoms.” That is like saying a victim of the guillotine has experienced the loss of certain physical amenities. With forced abortions, forced sterilization, and the death of some 30 to 50 million people under communist rule, there has been a bit more than the loss of some personal freedoms in China.
Lastly, a word about the inclusion of sections two and three. Their very presence raises the question of whether geography is succumbing to a process of politicization. Admittedly, when compared with the ultra-radical New Wave Geography textbooks published for the Geography Teachers’ Association of Victoria (examined in the IPA Review, March-May 1989), this textbook comes across as fairly moderate. Yet the question remains as to whether such politicization of geography textbooks is a trend which will continue in the future. Time will tell, but it is hoped that genuine education, as opposed to ideological proselytizing, will in the end take precedence.