Editor’s Page: Time Capsule

Sometimes, we worry about the wrong things.

Photo: Linny Morris

If you were a little kid in Hawaii in the 1970s, chances are you owned, or saw at school, A Child’s History of Hawaii. Published in 1973 by Island Heritage, and now out of print, the book aimed to be “a living history of our [I]slands,” according to its editors, “We asked our children to paint or write about their Hawaii, what they understood about how Hawaii came to be.” The book’s editors received more than 6,000 submissions, winnowing these down to a list of 253 children as their artists and writers. I had a copy when I was little, but hadn’t seen it since.

Then I stumbled across one recently, and reading it was like falling into a wormhole and coming out in 1973. I knew this book, recognized every illustration, recalled every kid version of how volcanoes formed the Islands; how plants and animals, then people, arrived; how the ancient Hawaiians lived. It was all there, Kamehameha and Cook, sugar plantations, Pearl Harbor, statehood.

What I had forgotten was the final chapter, “What Hawaii Will Be Like.” After all the cheerful, colorful text that had gone before, this was a grim burst of pessimism:

When I grow up, surfers won’t have any waves to catch because the reefs will be broke. Tourists will flock to the beaches because now Hawaii is one of the [few] places with clean water. To swim will cost five dollars and a beach plot will cost $10. … In the year 2000 a new super highway might circle each island and we may see swinging bridges connect each island to the other. …. By then every island will be like Honolulu is today and even now it’s pretty bad. … [T]here will be monorails from building to building, mass transit across the reefs, towering skyscrapers on the mountains, an overpopulation of homes on the hills. It will be awful.

The last illustration of the book shows a traffic jam in a newsprint-grey mini-Manhattan, with factories pouring black smoke into the sky.

Looking back on the real 2000 now from 2008, I was relieved to see how wrong the kids were (except for the traffic). Did anyone think life in 2000 was particularly awful? The grim predictions themselves seem trapped in the ’70s. Global environmental catastrophe? Got it. Crushing overpopulation? Check. General apocalyptic hopelessness? Yup. The future will be awful.

Where did the elementary school get these ideas? From the depressed adults of the 1970s, no doubt. Some of the lowlights of 1972, the year this book was most likely written and assembled: The Vietnam War ground into its final year. The U.S. and U.S.S.R worked on treaties limiting biological and nuclear weapons. The Watergate scandal erupted. Muslim terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Dirty Harry ruled the box office, a cathartic revenge fantasy reflecting a doubling of the U.S. murder rate since 1960. Stagflation crippled the economy. Things had been getting demonstrably worse; why wouldn’t that trend just continue? Pessimism probably seemed reasonable.

Yet the kids of 1973 predicted none of the good things we would actually have, and they got the bad stuff wrong. Or perhaps it was the book’s editors who left out more optimistic visions. Something about this seems important, even encouraging. You could just as easily extrapolate from today’s grim headlines that pessimism is reasonable—life in 2035 will be awful.

I wouldn’t bet on it, though. 2035 could be amazing in ways we can’t even imagine.

Except that thing about the traffic.

It will be awful.