In August of 1964, just more than 50 years ago, author Isaac Asimov wrote a piece in The New York Times, pegged to that summer's World Fair.
In the essay, Asimov imagines what the World Fair would be like in 2014—his future, our present.
His notions were strange and wonderful (and conservative, as Matt Novak writes in a great run-down), in the way that dreams of the future from the point of view of the American mid-century tend to be. There will be electroluminescent walls for our windowless homes, levitating cars for our transportation, 3D cube televisions that will permit viewers to watch dance performances from all angles, and "Algae Bars" that taste like turkey and steak ("but," he adds, "there will be considerable psychological resistance to such an innovation").
He got some things wrong and some things right, as is common for those who engage in the sport of prediction-making. Keeping score is of little interest to me. What is of interest: what Asimov understood about the entangled relationships among humans, technological development, and the planet—and the implications of those ideas for us today, knowing what we know now.
Asimov begins by suggesting that in the coming decades, the gulf between humans and "nature" will expand, driven by technological development. "One thought that occurs to me," he writes, "is that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better. "
It is in this context that Asimov sees the future shining bright: underground, suburban houses, "free from the vicissitudes of weather, with air cleaned and light controlled, should be fairly common." Windows, he says, "need be no more than an archaic touch," with programmed, alterable, "scenery." We will build our own world, an improvement on the natural one we found ourselves in for so long. Separation from nature, Asimov implies, will keep humans safe—safe from the irregularities of the natural world, and the bombs of the human one, a concern he just barely hints at, but that was deeply felt at the time.
But Asimov knows too that humans cannot survive on technology alone. Eight years before astronauts' Blue Marble image of Earth would reshape how humans thought about the planet, Asimov sees that humans need a healthy Earth, and he worries that an exploding human population (6.5 billion, he accurately extrapolated) will wear down our resources, creating massive inequality.
Although technology will still keep up with population through 2014, it will be only through a supreme effort and with but partial success. Not all the world's population will enjoy the gadgety world of the future to the full. A larger portion than today will be deprived and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. They will have moved backward, relatively.
This troubled him, but the real problems lay yet further in the future, as "unchecked" population growth pushed urban sprawl to every corner of the planet, creating a "World-Manhattan" by 2450. But, he exclaimed, "society will collapse long before that!" Humans would have to stop reproducing so quickly to avert this catastrophe, he believed, and he predicted that by 2014 we would have decided that lowering the birth rate was a policy priority.
Asimov rightly saw the central role of the planet's environmental health to a society: No matter how technologically developed humanity becomes, there is no escaping our fundamental reliance on Earth (at least not until we seriously leave Earth, that is). But in 1964 the environmental specters that haunt us today—climate change and impending mass extinctions—were only just beginning to gain notice. Asimov could not have imagined the particulars of this special blend of planetary destruction we are now brewing—and he was overly optimistic about our propensity to take action to protect an imperiled planet.
2013 was not the warmest year on record but it will come close. Last month, November, was the warmest since 1880. All of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998. A video from NASA shows the dramatic shift in recent years. Watch what happens in the decades after Asimov wrote his essay. (Yellow and red represent temperatures warmer than the average for the years from 1951 to 1980.)
What color will 2014 be on that map? And what about in 10, 20, or 50 years ahead? Predictions are a messy, often trivial sport, but the overall direction the planet is heading is all too clear. As Wen Stephenson wrote in a blistering essay last year, "It's entirely possible that we'll no longer have a livable climate—one that allows for stable, secure societies to survive—within the lifetimes of today's children." No prediction should scare us more.