Having fun with predicting the future: The view from 1968

By By JAYSON JACOBY November 26, 2011 12:23 am

By Jayson Jacoby
Baker City Herald

Lampooning people for the predictions they proferred almost half a century ago isn’t exactly fair.
But it surely is fun.

Unintentional hilarity is guaranteed when we try to foresee, with any sort of specificity, something as inherently capricious as human society.
Especially at the distance of 50 years, a span that tends to cast a murky pall on the prognostications.
Figuring out what sorts of trouble we’re apt to get into as soon as tomorrow is no sure thing, even in clear weather.
I was naturally intrigued, then, when I was recently given a book dredged from its long, and dusty, hibernation in someone’s basement.
The title is “Toward The Year 2018.”
Which would hardly make for enticing reading were the volume’s copyright year, say, 2011.
But this book came out in 1968.
That was a pretty raucous year, especially in America.
(Although certain Czechs might quibble with my using the qualifier “especially.”)
Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.
Chicago had a spot of trouble playing host to the Democrats’ national convention.
The Beatles released the White Album.
(Which itself was only occasionally boisterous — “Helter Skelter” for instance — and often rather languid. Listen to “I’m So Tired” lately?)
The author who contributed to “Toward The Year 2018,” though, were a decidedly sober lot.
The volume was edited by the Foreign Policy Association. The organization described its goal this way: “to help stimulate an informed, thoughtful, and articulate public opinion on foreign policy issues facing the nation.”
Suffice it to say the 15 writers, most boasting professional titles that take up a couple of lines of text, probably didn’t spend 1968 deciphering Iron Butterfly lyrics.
Although they might have done better parsing “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” than they did at forecasting the state of the world in 2018.
“Toward The Year 2018” focuses on the future, obviously, but it serves too as a snapshot for its time.
Some of its references to then-current matters both amaze, and amuse, me.
Consider this excerpt from the chapter titled “Energy: Ample Resources Will Supply Rising Demand.”
The subject is petroleum.
(Some things don’t change, apparently.)
“Congress limits imports to about 25 percent of domestic production to maintain U.S. production facilities  and to safeguard the nation from becoming dependent on foreign sources.”
The author doesn’t mention OPEC.
But in 1968 OPEC was a fledgling (eight years old) organization with nothing like the international clout which, within just a few years, it would have — in no small part due to those legislated restrictions on imports.
In any case, I suspect that Americans who languished for hours waiting to fill their gas tanks in 1973 would have had something to say about the notion that enforcing quotas on oil imports would “safeguard” the nation.
Nostalgia aside, it’s the predictions in the book that are most compelling.
In sentences such as the following, you can recognize how tempting it was (and to some extent still is) to believe that American ingenuity, given half a century to work with, can solve any technological mystery.
“Fusion power, still a question mark, is more likely than not to be practical.”
These days, of course, even fission is having a tough go of it.
Perhaps fusion will finally become feasible by 2068.
I was slightly surprised to learn that, as far back as 1968, there was considerable interest in what today comes under the familiar category of “green energy.”
(I sort of figured that back then if you didn’t have to dig it up, it wasn’t worth much as a power source.)
The book delves briefly into wind, solar, tidal and geothermal technology, each of which continues to get into the news with some regularity.
The author’s conclusion, though, sounds archaic.
“These (energy sources) can all be dismissed as inconsequential.”
I doubt “inconsequential” is a word Union County residents would choose to describe the current state of wind power.
(To be fair, considering the author’s optimism about fusion, his dismissive attitude toward renewable power sources is at least logical.)
Conversely, the author’s reference to “growing” liquid fuel – specifically, producing ethanol from corn — is decidedly modern.
Yet, having cited the federal government’s meddling in the petroleum import market, the writer’s failure to recognize that Congress might also insinuate itself into alternative energy options seems to me rather naive.
“It is reasonably certain that, with the pending world food shortage, food-crop land is unlikely to be diverted to the production of fuel.”
The sound you hear is the collective laughter of Iowa.
The chapter titled “Population” might be the book’s least dated section, as it were, even though the forecasts aren’t especially accurate.
But the concerns raised — in particular the threat posed by an unchecked, and escalating, birth rate in developing countries — are as valid today as in 1968.
Much was made last month of the Earth’s population reaching 7 billion.
The book, citing estimates from the United Nations and other sources, predicts a population in 2018 of between 8.5 billion and 10.4 billion.
Even the smaller figure overshoots the current projection for 2018 by about one billion. We’re not supposed to get to 8 billion until about 2027.
It’s probably not a coincidence that another, much more influential book, was published in 1968.
That’s Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb.”
Although Ehrlich’s prediction that hundreds of millions of people would starve during the 1970s was overly pessimistic, the basis for his thesis was sound enough.
It’s easy to detect, certainly, the gist of Ehrlich’s position in that reference to a “pending food shortage” in the chapter about energy.
Although I’ve focused here on a few of the 2018 book’s more egregious gaffes, some of the authors deserve credit for the prescience.
What they lack, in many cases, is not a cogent concept of the future, but rather the ability to describe that future in specific terms that today’s reader immediately recognizes.
The chapter titled “Communication,” for instance, emphasizes radio and television rather more than computers.
And the author’s obvious excitement about touch-tone telephone dialing seems impossibly quaint, akin to a rural family celebrating its first flush toilet.
Yet it seems clear to me that the author, despite his childlike wonder at advances we have long since relegated to the closet where the buggy whip and the telegraph reside, would not be awed, nor even much surprised, by, say, Facebook, Skype or the iPhone.
In describing communication in 2018, he writes: “Technology, then, will provide us with increasingly cheap communication that knows no limitations of distance, and will serve man with increasing efficiency and flexibility. This will make electrical communication more like meeting people face to face.”
That could be the text of a smart phone commercial.
(Well, except for the “serve man” phrase, which fell out of favor about the time disco slunk, in a decidedly funky fashion, off the charts.)
Ultimately, though, two chapters seemed to me particularly fascinating, both for the audacity of their predictions and the enduring relevance of their topics.
These are the chapters titled “Weather” and “Economics.”
The author of the former puts forth the premise that, by 2018, there’s a decent chance we’ll be capable of controlling the climate to a considerable extent, to dispel inconvenient fogs and deliver gentle rains to parched fields.
The basic idea, it seems to me, is that, with sufficient effort, we can domesticate the climate much as we once did various species of animals.
(The author, to his credit, acknowledges that the atmosphere is rather more complicated than an ass. Although he didn’t actually employ any equine-related analogies.)
His chief caveat, though, makes the chapter read more like current science than science fiction.
“A distinct probability should be recognized that large-scale climate modification will be effected inadvertently before the power of conscious modification is achieved.”
In other words, all that carbon dioxide we’ve been spewing might get up to some dickens before we can get the reins tied.
And, finally, economics.
Although the authors write mainly from a global rather than national perspective, the chapter’s subtitle could be plucked from any number of headlines written in the fall of 2011.
“The rich will grow richer and the poor comparatively poorer.”

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.