Piercing the Gloom and Doom
by Herbert I. London
Edmund Burke posited two major hypotheses about discussions of the future: that the future cannot be determined from the past, and that the present is pregnant with the future. These propositions may seem mutually exclusive, but they are not. There are some matters, such as demographic profiles, that can be predicted, and some, like the next technological breakthrough, that cannot.
A poll regularly conducted of college freshman asks, "Do you think your future will be filled with success?" More than 95 percent invariably say, "I will be successful." The second question is, "Do you think the country will be successful?" Some 55 percent of these students agree. The third question is, "Do you think the world will be successful?" No more than 25 percent think so. These attitudes are like having a first-class ticket on the Titanic, but expecting it to sink.
Examples of this cultural pessimism abound, as is clear from the following discussion of recent media accounts. Each example is misguided, misleading, or simply wrong.
Land of Pessimism
The first example of public gloom and doom is the notion that the U.S. is running out of arable land. Vice President Al Gore said, "We are losing fifty acres of farmland every hour." Let’s take him at his word for a moment. That is 430,000 acres per year, and at that rate, over the course of a hundred years, all the farmland in the United States will disappear. But Gore does not mention that we had 44 million acres of farmland in the 1930s and we still have 44 million today. And thanks to vastly increased productivity, that amount of land is more than sufficient to feed our population and a significant portion of the globe. The U.S. currently gives away enough food to provide every hungry person in the world with 2,500 British thermal units per day. (Around the world, mass starvation occurs only where governments withhold food as an instrument of political intimidation.)
Actually, land under cultivation and food production worldwide are increasing. Between 1974 and 1995, rice production in China increased by 88 percent. Indonesia’s food production increased by 69 percent, Bangladesh raised its output by 100 percent, India by 117 percent, and the UK by 50 percent. Brazil has increased its corn production by 63 percent, China by 213 percent, and the U.S. by 118 percent. And these increases are occurring even though the U.S. is still spending more than $24 billion per year on farm subsidies, deliberately taking land out of cultivation. Clearly, we are not running out of farmland, but the specter of farms disappearing into the dust has a nostalgic and emotional appeal.
Overpopulation is another subject of unjustified pessimism. Some 44 percent of the globe’s population is now reproducing below replacement level (2.1 children per woman). Birth rates are declining everywhere. Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt projects that by 2050 the world’s population will begin declining, for the first time in recorded history, after reaching a peak of eight billion.
This projection firmly refutes population-control advocate Paul Ehrlich’s widely quoted 1960s prediction that the world’s population will double every thirty-five years. (No serious demographer believes this any longer.) Yet the popular press and the philanthropic community continue to make these claims, to convince us that we are facing an imminent apocalypse and must take drastic measures to avert it.
Environmental degradation is another source of apocalyptic rhetoric, but the facts belie the hysteria. Since 1970, air quality in every major American city has improved. The percentages of carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide have declined precipitously. Moreover, as the United States moves further into the information age, we increasingly disengage from the "smokestack" industries. The United States will remain a manufacturing nation, but much of this manufacturing will be far cleaner than it was thirty years ago. In this light, the Kyoto Accord is not primarily a means of controlling environmental pollution but a way of extending international government control over the economy.
Scaremongers have also written much about nuclear energy, particularly the Three Mile Island incident. But no one really suffered any measurable harm from the accident—the expiration of radiation was no greater than at French and Dutch installations during the same period, none of which caused a public panic. U.S. media analysts, however, largely ignored the question of risks and benefits.
Another popular subject of dire forecasts is energy and minerals. Here again, the facts belie the scare stories. With the exception of tungsten (and even then only for a period of five years in the 1970s) the price of every major mineral relative to wages has decreased in recent decades. The reason for this is clear: market conditions affect price. Buckminster Fuller’s popular notion of a "spaceship earth" is decidedly inappropriate. The earth is much more fungible than a spaceship. Copper provides a classic example. The price of copper increased dramatically when Chile nationalized its copper mines in the 1960s. Since then, however, it has consistently decreased. Customers switched to less-expensive alloys, and providers of transcontinental communications switched from coaxial cables to satellites.
This is the paradigm for almost any mineral of value to humans. A 1979 New York Times editorial declared, "We are running out of energy," referring to predictions that oil would soon cost $100 a barrel. Today, oil futures are at $5 a barrel. The increase in supply has been quite staggering, and it occurred because of innovations introduced in the last twenty years after the initial OPEC price increases.
Many people have argued that there is a widening gap between the rich and poor. These arguments, however, tend to ignore the context. One of the great achievements of the twentieth century has been the creation of a large middle class, a condition relatively unknown in the previous century. Worldwide, per capita income in the year 1800 was $100; in 1900 it was $500; in 2000 it will be $5,000, and in 2100, using the most conservative extrapolation, it will be something like $30,000 in current dollars. This trend has applied to almost every country in the world, despite the glib assertion that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.
There is data to support the latter claim, however, and here is where context becomes crucial. For illustration, compare a nation that has a $1,000 per capita income with one that has income of $10,000 per capita. Suppose that the first nation achieves 100 percent growth (going from $1,000 to $2,000) and the second’s per capita income increases by 15 percent (to $11,500). The numerical spread between them widens, but the relative numbers tell the more compelling story. The rich are growing richer, the poor are growing richer, and the poor are doing so more rapidly than the rich.
In this era of remarkable pharmaceuticals, biogens, robotics, prosthetic devices, and carbon 14 products more powerful than steel with the properties of plastic, technological wonders once only dreamed of are within our grasp. The Internet has changed the manner and speed of communication. Fiber optics and high-definition TV are changing the way we live and even see and think. Of course, such rapid technological changes can engender spiritual malaise and cultural degradation, but the people who needlessly fear that we are going to run out of land, energy, and food usually ignore that possibility. Almost everywhere in the world, people live longer, healthier, and wealthier lives than their forebears, yet the stories about world conditions as the new millennium nears are usually negative.
Clearly, the only news that’s newsworthy is negative news. Attention-grabbing reports of impending doom, such as the famous 1960s Club of Rome report on Limits to Growth, indicate that if the world continues to use resources at the present rate, life as we know it will cease to exist in a hundred years. But will we use resources at the present rate? People are not lemmings. When we have a problem, we examine our options and change.
The culture of pessimism is not only a dead end; it is patently false, as the following true story illustrates.
In 1903 in a small Ohio town, Milton Wright, a minister in the Church of Christ, was looking for an appropriate sermon topic. He found his theme in a very unlikely place—a U.S. Patent Office report on the future. The report said that everything that could conceivably be invented had already been discovered. There are strict limits to human ingenuity, the report argued, and no major advances were likely to occur in the twentieth century.
Wright delivered a sermon based on that notion. At the end, a young man raised his hand and said, "You know something, sir, I believe that one day people will fly."
"Fly?" responded Minister Wright, "If God wanted us to fly, He would have given us wings; He would have made us angels; He would have made us birds. Let me assure you, you will not see people fly." The young man, however, got the last laugh. Three months later, Wright’s two sons, Orville and Wilbur, flew the first airplane, from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Fooling the Experts
The future is not predetermined—far from it. Although clues in the present can help us anticipate the future, the human factor often makes fools of those who too confidently make predictions. The following are just a few examples of experts who were sure about their pessimistic predictions.
In 1927, film producer Harry Warner said, "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"
In 1905, Grover Cleveland said, "Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote."
In the 1830s, Dionysius Lardner, author of The Steam Engine Explained and Illustrated, said, "Rail travel at high speeds is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia."
When told of Robert Fulton’s steamboat, Napoleon said, "What, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense."
On the eve of World War II, Admiral Clark Woodward said, "As far as sinking a ship with a bomb is concerned, it can never be done."
Thomas Edison said, "Just as certain as death, George Westinghouse will kill a customer within six months after he puts in an electric system of any size," and "the phonograph has no commercial value at all."
"This telephone has too many shortcomings to be considered as a means of communication," said the president of Western Union in 1876. "The device is of inherently no value to us."
The president of Michigan Savings Banks advised Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Company because, he said, "The horse is here to stay, the automobile is a novelty."
In 1921, radio pioneer David Sarnoff said, "The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?"
In 1926, Lee DeForest, inventor of the vacuum tube, said, "While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility."
"Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible," said Lord Kelvin, president of the British Royal Society and one of the nineteenth century’s greatest experts on thermodynamics.
"A rocket will never be able to leave the earth’s atmosphere," stated the New York Times in 1936.
"Space travel is utter bilge," said a British astronomer in 1956.
"There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom," said Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Milliken in 1923.
"Taking the best left-handed pitcher in baseball and converting him into a right fielder is one of the dumbest things I ever heard," said Tris Speaker in 1919. He was talking about Babe Ruth.
In 1929, Yale economist Irving Fisher said, "Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau." Two weeks later, the stock market crashed.
MGM executive Irving Thalberg had this for Louis B. Mayer regarding Gone With the Wind: "Forget it, Louie, no Civil War picture ever made a nickel."
The director of Blue Book Modeling Agency advised Marilyn Monroe in 1944, "You better learn secretarial work or else get married."
"You ain’t going nowhere, son. You ought to go back to driving a truck," said Jim Denny, manager of the Grand Ole Opry, in firing Elvis Presley after a performance in 1954.
"We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out anyway," said the president of Decca Records, rejecting the Beatles in 1962.
Darryl Zanuck observed, in 1946, "Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night."
The chairman of IBM said, "I think there is a world market for about five computers," in 1943.
"There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home," said the president of Digital Electronic Corporation in 1977.
"We will bury you," predicted Nikita Kruschev in 1958.
Visionary designer Buckminster Fuller said, in 1966, "By 2000, politics will simply fade away. We will not see any political parties."
Social scientist David Riesman declared, in 1967, "If anything remains more or less unchanged, it will be the role of women."
And here’s one for those who worry that the world will end in the year 2000: Henry Adams said, in 1903, "My fingers coincide in fixing 1950 as the year when the world must go smash. The world is coming to an end in 1950."
As Fats Waller, one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century, observed, "One never knows, do one?" That is an excellent adage for futurists.