Let’s make the future what it was
These forward-thinking thinkers – including Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and the creators of the most important work of post-war futurism, “The Jetsons” – believed that humanity in the 2020s would be well on its way. to become a nuclear-powered space planet. civilization of super-intelligent and very healthy humans enjoying vast material abundance and an ever greener and cleaner earth. (Riding bikes in flying cars, too, of course.) Yet for decades it appeared that these futurists were dead wrong. No human being, American or otherwise, has left Earth orbit since the crew of Apollo 17 in December 1972. Nuclear reactors, of the fission type, do not produce much more American power than they were doing when the Three Mile Island crash happened in 1979. And as the saying goes, they promised us flying cars and instead we got Twitter. Some economists call the last half-century of slowing economic growth and productivity the “great stagnation.”
But perhaps all these recent advances show that reality is finally catching up with the fantastic predictions of the post-war decades. That’s why when I recently visited “Futures,” the massive new exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, I expected not only creative presentations on the latest amazing discoveries and emerging technologies, but also to serious speculation about what might happen next. What diseases could be cured? Will a wave of fusion reactors help solve climate change? How long before the earth is surrounded by orbital factories and humanity has settled permanently on the moon, Mars and beyond?
Well, the exhibit shows a flying car, in the form of an air taxi concept vehicle with four spinning fans in ducts. There’s also an experimental hyperloop train pod from one of Richard Branson’s Virgin companies. But nothing else in the 32,000-square-foot, nearly 150-item exhibit suggests humanity is ready to take any leap forward.
Most of the exhibits seem to be about sustainability: an exhibit showing how washing machines could be used to create a ‘closed sewage system’ to grow a garden of wetland plants; a wall of biodegradable bricks made from mycelium—essentially mushroom fibers; one of 32 solar panels that President Jimmy Carter installed on the roof of the White House in 1979 and then removed during the Reagan administration.
It is therefore strange that the Smithsonian names the exhibition “Futures”, in the plural, when it shows only one vision of the future as possible and desirable. It’s a vision of “sustainable cycles, rather than endless growth” – a concept firmly rooted in the eco-pessimistic 1970s.
At the time, books such as “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson and “Population Bomb” by Paul Ehrlich, as well as the 1972 “Limits to Growth” report based on MIT resource modeling, helped launch a environmental movement based on the notion that humanity was rapidly exhausting itself. the resources of Spaceship Earth. A display of buttons from that era at “Futures” captures the zeitgeist with messages such as “Recycle or Die”, “Consume Less” and “Solar Employs, Nuclear Destroys”. But the eco-pessimists were as wrong as the techno-optimists. The invention of high-yielding crop varieties prevented the worldwide famines that Ehrlich predicted. And the biggest economic story of the past half-century has been the massive decline in global poverty. The acceleration of Asian economic growth thanks to the embrace of the market economy has made it possible to lift more than a billion people out of extreme deprivation.
There’s also not much evidence that we’re running out of Earth. Even though the world’s population has doubled and the global economy has quadrupled since the 1970s, copper, chromium, nickel, tin and tungsten cost around 25% less in 2015 than in 1980. t the time, Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon made a bet on whether resource depletion would drive up the prices of these commodities. Simon believed that humanity could innovate to get out of potential shortages; Ehrlich disagreed. Simon won the bet. It’s true that pandemic-induced bottlenecks and a tsunami of government stimulus have sent commodity prices soaring lately, but Simon’s view on innovation has been valid for ages. decades. Relative to global income, the price of a broad basket of key commodities fell by two-thirds between 1980 and 2017.
And as climate change continues unabated, more environmentalists see advanced nuclear power as the key to addressing it. The lesson here: Economic growth and technological progress can cause problems – like inequality and pollution – but they also provide the solutions to those problems. And humanity continues to move forward, although not as fast as some optimists had predicted. The pessimists overlook this, I think.
It’s not like “Futures” is trying to present a dystopian vision. Its walls are covered with uplifting quotes about the future. But conservatives have clearly accepted the basic eco-pessimistic argument and have attempted to shape an uplifting vision of tomorrow based on these constraints. Maybe that’s why there are no Elon Musk quotes on the walls. The Tesla and SpaceX boss — not to mention Time’s Person of the Year — offers a vision more in line with that of post-war futurists.
Does it matter that the Smithsonian Institution can’t or won’t create an exhibit that promotes a possible future built around creating abundance rather than managing scarcity? Likewise, does it matter that Hollywood produces an endless series of films about the collapse of civilization, whether it’s climate change, the plague, or zombies?
This is important because progress is disruptive. Economic growth and technological change are changing the status quo. The guilds of pre-industrial Europe helped keep Europe pre-industrial by blocking new technologies until governments began to embrace the gains, including military ones, of the Industrial Revolution. One can imagine today’s populist politicians stoking fears about automation – just as some have with commerce – and calling for taxes on AI or robots. Or perhaps they will argue that building a space economy is frivolous, despite the potential to move dirty industries off the planet, harvest vast new resources across the solar system, and develop new ways to create. energy, such as space solar power. Worse still would be a wider societal rejection of progress, a view perhaps best summed up by climate activist Greta Thunberg’s stern lecture on “fairy tales of eternal economic growth”.
Dutch futurist Fred Polak said that any culture without a positive vision of the future “has no future”. This is especially true when too much of the world is still desperately poor and big challenges – from stabilizing the climate to preventing pandemics – require market-driven innovation and growth. Like Alec Stapp of the new Institute for Progress Remarks, a higher gross domestic product per person is “correlated to basically everything we really want as human beings”, including higher life expectancy, lower infant mortality, greater literacy and rights of man more extensive.
There are images of the future that should excite us even beyond the prospect of a higher standard of living. For example, a roadmap to the future recently released by Prime Movers Lab, a “deep tech” venture capital firm, speculates that we will have the first commercial nuclear fusion power plant in the 2030s, near extraction. terrestrial asteroids in the 2040s, and genetic technologies to restore lost species and ecosystems by 2050.
Smithsonian curators and Hollywood producers should take a look. After all, if disruptive innovators had owned the previous day in history, we might have already defeated hunger, poverty and climate change. We might even already be a multiplanetary civilization. Like Musk the dish, “Believe in the future!” Let’s get busy inventing an incredible future that is worth living in.
James Pethokoukis is a Dewitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Faster please! newsletter on Substack. Follow him on Twitter @JimPethokoukis.