Futurism Remembering the 1950-60’s USA ‘Futurists’ – What Went Wrong?

Moore’s law is an example of futures studies; it is a statistical collection of past and present trends with the goal of accurately extrapolating future trends.

(Alan Brooks, one of my regular readers, penned this essay about the history of futurism. I reprint it here, slightly edited for brevity, with his permission.)

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Futurism in the United States properly began during the late 1950s and then took off in the 1960s with the Gemini space program and its ten manned flights. Then came Apollo which made futurism respectable. Unfortunately, with the prospect of landing on the Moon, futurist heads become giddy. It wasn’t hubris necessarily, it was more akin to being slightly intoxicated, tipsy, with anticipation; futurists knew if there were no more major accidents after Apollo 1 men would land on the Moon and space would rapidly be colonized. They were correct on the former but mistaken concerning the latter. The public lost interest after a few lunar landings and the Apollo program was soon canceled to concentrate on Skylab.

Concurrently the ‘back to nature’ movement was in large part a reaction to pollution in modern cities. Thus a new word was coined, “smog”—the haze of gasses floating over an urban area. Water and noise pollution also played a part. Such worries were new, as previously people worried about being poor and hungry, while a haze of gasses over a city was often looked upon as a symbol of vibrant industry and economic activity. How much better to enjoy modern life to its fullest, rather than fret about urban gases; dying of cancer at age 75 was preferable to death at age 40 …

Of all the manifestations of ‘back to nature’, the most practical was and still is an interest in ‘health foods.’  Of course, at the time many practitioners simply confused the natural for the healthy and taken to its ad absurdum il-logic, toadstools in one’s backyard are healthy. But while the majority of food additives are unnecessary, it is erroneous to think preservatives, for instance, should be dispensed with altogether or that we shouldn’t add chlorine to public water supplies. The fact is that some preservatives are required to keep food from spoiling and the addition of chlorine to water supplies is necessary for disinfection purposes. The notion of ‘health food’ was a new one as previously most people lived by the truism “eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may be no more.” …

Another manifestation of ‘back to nature’ was an emphasis on rural living. While some hardy souls did persevere in the rustic life, the majority of ‘back to nature’ enthusiasts eventually became bored with living on farms and would-be vegetarians would run to the nearest diner to purchase hamburgers when the craving for meat became unbearable.

This author remembers this 1970s Vandervogel movement, this time to the farm rather than to the countryside hike. Predictably, ‘70s rustic would-be vegetarian living did not last long. Although the idea of returning to rural simplicity was not new (more than a century before, romantics celebrated the rustic) no one has ever seriously returned to the rustic on a mass scale in modern times. Previous to the 1970s, most wanted to strike it rich, move to large homes, and eat at high-class restaurants, not live on poor farms eating tofu and alfalfa sprouts in a shack. It was ‘new’ in that in the past, rural living had been perceived as a necessity, while during the ‘back to nature’ era rural living was seen as a luxury—the luxury of escaping from polluted, hectic cities and conformist suburbs …

One common thread among today’s futurists is knowing the lure of conservatism is flawed
—we all move on in one way or another, via sickness, age, death, and so forth. Eventually, conservative values are altered beyond all recognition. You Can’t Go Home Again, as in the title of Thomas Wolfe’s book—there is no return to the status quo.

Even the meaning of beautiful art, often considered an exemplar of permanence, changes. For instance, when Michelangelo and Botticelli painted scenes in the Sistine Chapel, those images had a more powerful hold on human imagination than they do in today’s secular world. “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving”, wrote Goethe.

Well, perhaps… but let’s not take Goethe’s word for it.

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