Thursday, June 24, 2010

Days of Future Past

Crowd scene from Things to Come, showing buildings and transit
Seeing the film Things to Come in my freshman year in college was the first time I thought about how people of the past imagined the future. Or how, inevitably, the present becomes the past and the futures that seemed possible then become absurdist fantasies.

Today's Star Tribune Taste section included a look back at their 1980 predictions for the food trends of 2002, including:

  • Drastically decreased meat consumption
  • Prohibitive energy costs that would kill coast-to-coast shipping of fresh produce, leading to local truck farming, greenhouses and extensive home gardens
  • A decrease in car sales and an increase in tractor sales
  • Backyard fish farming as part of this local food/self-sufficiency trend
Despite the burgeoning local food movement, I think it's safe to say that much more produce is shipped around the country (and the world) today than in 1980. But the Strib writers definitely foresaw the leading edge of the urban gardening movement.

Meat consumption has shifted, but not decreased:

Graph of U.S. meat consumption
Source: USDA

Total meat consumption is up a bit, rather than down, but pork is flat and beef has declined. It's chicken, turkey and fish that have gained. I wonder if that's the type of meat the Strib staff had in mind back in 1980.

I don't know about tractor sales, but according to a table on the Wikipedia, the number of cars relative to the U.S. population only increased each year between 1980 and 2002.

And while backyard fish farming has not become common, aquaponics is definitely an idea whose time is coming. Plus, there's the increasing number of backyard chicken flocks.

So, not bad, Strib staffers of 1980! But the hits -- and particularly the misses -- on the list got me thinking about the predictions we hear all the time about natural resource availability and population growth. Like many of the prognosticators, I tend to think things are going to hell in a handbasket. I've been waiting for peak oil for a long time.

But we're still here. I have to admit, back in the late 1970s or early 80s, I had little hope of that reality, let alone that many of us would still be enjoying the cushiest living standard in human history. So maybe there's something wrong with the nature of our predictions.

Take Paul Ehrlich's dire forecasts of a population bomb, which have not yet come to pass. In fact, population -- now declining or at least stable in many parts of the world -- is likely to peak by midcentury. In 1980, Ehrlich bet libertarian futurist Julian Simon that the prices of five commodity metals would increase by 1990 because of scarcity in an increasingly populous world. It turned out not only was Ehrlich wrong, but he was off by a wide margin, and ended up paying Simon.

Simon, an academic economist who was associated with the Cato Institute for part of his career, is a futurist whose views are sometimes called cornucopian:
More people, and increased income, cause resources to become more scarce in the short run. Heightened scarcity causes prices to rise. The higher prices present opportunity, and prompt inventors and entrepreneurs to search for solutions. Many fail in the search, at cost to themselves. But in a free society, solutions are eventually found. And in the long run the new developments leave us better off than if the problems had not arisen. That is, prices eventually become lower than before the increased scarcity occurred. -- Julian Simon, The State of Humanity, 1996
A 1997 Wired article about Simon put it this way:
For some reason [Simon] could never comprehend, people were inclined to believe the very worst about anything and everything; they were immune to contrary evidence just as if they'd been medically vaccinated against the force of fact. Furthermore, there seemed to be a bizarre reverse-Cassandra effect operating in the universe: whereas the mythical Cassandra spoke the awful truth and was not believed, these days "experts" spoke awful falsehoods, and they were believed. Repeatedly being wrong actually seemed to be an advantage, conferring some sort of puzzling magic glow upon the speaker.
Simon's books, particularly The State of Humanity and The Ultimate Resource, sound worth reading. As the Wired article summed it up:
"Resources come out of people's minds more than out of the ground or air," says Simon. "Minds matter economically as much as or more than hands or mouths. Human beings create more than they use, on average. It had to be so, or we would be an extinct species."

The defect of the Malthusian models, superficially plausible but invariably wrong, is that they leave the human mind out of the equation. "These models simply do not comprehend key elements of people -- the imaginative and creative."

As for the future, "This is my long-run forecast in brief," says Simon. "The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely. Within a century or two, all nations and most of humanity will be at or above today's Western living standards.

"I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse."
All of this reminds me of a favorite Daily Show clip from January 2010:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Even Better Than the Real Thing
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1 comment:

Linda Myers said...

I remember learning, in some economics class or other, that predictions are based on "all other things being equal, and everything remaining the same." And that doesn't happen. The urban gardening movement in which my family participates is something I wouldn't have thought about 20 years ago, but I can see that, even with my small garden, we save gas. And the entrepreneurial spirit is powerful.