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Remembering the 1950s-60s Futurists: What Went Wrong?

Posted: Wed, April 17, 2013 | By: Alan Brooks

John Naisbitt
John Naisbitt

Futurism in the United States properly began during the late ‘50s, and took off—as one might guess —in the ‘60s with the Gemini space program and its ten manned flights.

Then came Apollo. With Apollo, futurism became respectable; unfortunately with the prospect of landing on the Moon, futurist heads began to become giddy. It wasn’t hubris necessarily, it was more akin to being slightly intoxicated, tipsy, with anticipation, say; futurists knew if there were no more major accidents after Apollo 1 (which occurred on the ground anyway) men would land on the Moon and space would rapidly be colonised. They were correct on the former but mistaken concerning the latter. What went wrong was, the public lost interest after the first or second lunar landings, Apollo 13 was aborted, and at any rate Apollo had to be cancelled after six flights to concentrate funding on Skylab.

Exactly concurrent with all this was the ‘back to nature’ movement, something not frequently remembered today, though at the time it was as large as any movement. ‘Back to Nature’ had many sources and manifestations: one of its major sources was the reaction to pollution in the cities at the time and a new word was coined, “smog”—the haze of gasses floating over an urban area. Water pollution, even noise pollution were discussed and worried about. It was, if nothing else, something new; previous to this era people had worried about being poor, being hungry, while a haze of gasses over a city was sometimes looked upon as well-nigh a status symbol, a symbol of vibrant industry and economic activity. Or at least pollution was perceived as a minor inconvenience. How much better, it was thought, to enjoy the modern life to its fullest, than to fret about urban gases; dying of cancer at age 75 was seen as being preferable to a primitive’s death at age 40 or thereabouts.

Let fishes worry about water pollution, went the thinking, not industrious human beings.

Another source of ‘back to nature’ was an 18th century ‘Sentimental movement’ literary and philosophical notion of the “noble savage”. Despite the surname ‘savage’, there was a grain of truth to it, noble savages do exist, yet only as anomalies, the majority of savages are not noble.


Alvin Toffler
Alvin Toffler

Of all the manifestations of ‘back to nature’, the most practical on a day-to-day basis was and still is an interest in ‘health foods’; main difficulty being it isn’t exactly known what foods are healthy and less on the subject was known way back when. Back then it was thought if something was natural, it was healthy. Taken to its ad absurdum il-logic, toadstools in one’s backyard are healthy. Although it was recognized how many, if not the majority, of food additives are unnecessary at best, it was erroneous to think preservatives, for instance, could be dispensed with altogether or that chlorine ought not be added to public water supplies. Some preservatives are quite risky to ingest, and there’s no doubt chlorine is toxic: however some preservatives are necessary to preserve certain foods and the addition of chlorine to mass water supplies is necessary for disinfection purposes.

The notion of ‘health food’ was new at the time; before that, most basically lived by the truism “eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may be no more”, it was considered finicky & extremist to be to concerned with what is healthy to eat and what is not. Jesus Himself said to pay no heed to what we eat albeit he might have meant do not worry excessively about food; which is good advice as worrying too much about food can be worse than eating/drinking the wrong thing. ‘Health food’ was a trend yet another manifestation of ‘back to nature’ was a fad: rural living. Now, some hardy souls did persevere in the rustic life, though 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 hambugers and steaks when the craving for meat became unbearable.


Tim Leary
Tim Leary

This author was there, he remembers it, it was a 1970s Vandervogel movement, this time to the farm rather than to hike in the countryside. Predictably, ‘70s rustic would-be vegetarian living did not last more than a few years. Although the idea of returning to rural simplicity was not all that new (more than a century before, Romantic Age-types celebrated the rustic) no one had ever seriously returned to the rustic on a mass scale in modern times. Previous to the ‘70s, the majority had 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, then during the era of ‘back to nature’ rural living was seen as a luxury, the luxury of escaping from polluted, hectic cities and conformist suburban locales. For several years, going back to nature was the In thing to do.

The above matters because the ‘back to nature’ movement had an effect which lingered on, continues even to this day, a reaction/overreaction to pollution and hectic living; astrophysicist Michael H. Hart wrote that the anti-technological bias derives from “the misapplication of technologies.”

There are many futurists; therefore I will briefly describe four of the most famous: John Naisbitt, Alvin Toffler, Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson.

Naisbitt has the safest approach, in attempting to peer a few years into the future. The negative in such an approach is one is too concentrated on the Now—not really futurist. Same is true of Alvin Toffler, who, as Naisbitt, was more sociologist than futurist. The central idea of Toffler’s PowerShift book is that knowledge is more important than wealth, a perhaps premature claim: try paying your medical bills with knowledge and see what happens. But the book was written in the Go-Go ‘80s, thus it must have appeared to someone in Toffler’s lofty position to be plausible.


Robert Anton Wilson
Robert Anton Wilson

Leary was mistakenly typecast as an LSD-guru and counterculturist, when in reality he was so much more. Considering he had to flee the law for a decade or so, Leary did pretty well as a futurist. One of the most ‘interesting’ (untamed) of the original, oldtime futurists was Robert Anton Wilson, who searched everywhere, including the occult, for a fresh slant. Drawback to Wilson’s way was that it sometimes becomes difficult to discern a fad from a trend—whereas a Naisbitt can avoid the fad/trend confusion by simply not trying to glimpse more than a few years into the future.

Naturally, there are countless futurists today, more than ever, and more realistic than futurist pioneers of decades ago. One common thread is knowing the lure of conservatism has a built-in flaw: we all move on in one way or another, via sickness, age, death, moving from one location to another, and so on and so forth. Conservatism makes sense for conventional families and of course in many other ways, yet eventually what conservatives value is altered beyond all recognition. “You Can’t Go Home” is the title of a Thomas Wolfe book, taken to mean there is no return to the status quo ante. Even art, widely considered the fruit of what we optimistically call “civilisation”, is not eternal. For starters, the meanings change; when Michelangelo and Botticelli painted scenes in the Sistine Chapel, Biblical scenes and much else of what they painted had a far more powerful hold on humanity, a humanity which in the 21st century is not religious per se but, rather, hybrid religious-secular. Technically, the art is a bit different as well in that restoration of paintings and frescoes changes the art ever-so-slightly.

“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.


I read Toffler’s Future Shock and The Third Wave in early 1980s. One thing that struck me most was his advocate for “life-long of learning how to learn”. He anticipated a post-industrial era that invited new technology in every aspect of human endeavor and deliberation, bringing in The Third Wave as the wave of technology.
Toffler once predicted, “The next major explosion is going to be when genetics and computers come together. I’m talking about an organic computer - about biological substances that can function like a semiconductor.” Verily, such computer is on its way.        (vzc1943)

By venze on Apr 18, 2013 at 8:39pm

Naisbitt’s “Megatrends 2000” had a comprehensive chapter on biotech. The book was published in 1990 as a review of the ‘80s and a countdown to the year 2000. Negative of Naisbitt is a Readers Digest tone to the writing:

“the world is becoming a unified global marketplace where you are free to pursue a life of religious…”

The above is not a quote but does capture the public relations atmosphere of Megatrends tome.

By Alan Brooks on Apr 19, 2013 at 4:03pm

One more anecdote:
in ‘82 I met Leary at his lecture concerning immortality and space interest. We didn’t actually meet, as at the end of the lecture when I was squeezing through the audience to shake his hand, Leary looked up and said into the mic:

“I don’t like my own fans.”

Fans annoying him with spaced-out chatter.
The interesting part was, after the lecture an elderly gentleman said to me,

“you don’t know how it makes us older people feel with that talk about immortality.”

Obviously, this meant all elders had built up over their lives—their patrimony—was indicated by immortalism to be effluvia.

By Alan Brooks on Apr 20, 2013 at 12:43pm

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