May 6, 2010

Back To The Future


Mr. Tillerman's last writing project was about predicting the future, or at least what sailing might be like in the future.

As it happens, before he announced that writing project, I was preparing a post about a very scary attempt to predict the future that had gone horribly wrong. For me, it was horrible not because the prediction was wrong, but because it has turned out to be horribly right.

I found this historical curiosity while checking some facts for a post I did a while back on the 1964 New York World's Fair, of all things. (Hmm, what kind of sailing blog is this, anyway?)

If you'll recall from that post, the 1964 World's Fair was brimming with hope and optimism about what was thought to be a bright future. Many exhibits tried to show us what life might be like in that future. But none tried harder than the Fair's most popular exhibit of all - the humongous General Motors Futurama - housed in a three-acre building on an eight-acre site. Over a two-year run, the exhibit attracted 26 million people.

GM, one of our nation's largest producers of consumer products, at the height of its power, with its finger presumably on the pulse of American tastes, was proudly showing us where it thought we should be going.

So what was so horrible about what they were forecasting?

Well, among other things, they predicted the destruction of the world's tropical rain forests. Those forests would be cut down, paved over, and 'civilized' cities of consumers would be built where the forests had been. But the great minds at GM were boasting about how this would be one of mankind's greatest triumphs.

Throughout the whole presentation they see man's role as the great 'tamer' and harvester of the world's 'endless bounty'. In the rain forests, in the oceans,  in the desert, in the arctic -  even in outer space - man is the great conqueror and consumer. The natural world exists to serve the needs of man - to be endlessly exploited.

Here is the transcript of the part about how we will 'tame' the 'jungles' of the world:

In tropical waters fabulous coral reefs lead us back to the land. An equatorial land where nature flourishes more abundantly and in greater variety than in any other region of the world. Yet nowhere else have man's productive efforts been so challenged and for so long.

Now technology has found a way to penetrate and control the wild profusion of this wonder world. A jungle road is built in one continuous operation.

First, a searing ray of light - a laser beam - cuts through the trees.Then a giant machine, a factory on wheels, grinds up the stumps and jungle growth, sets the firm foundations, forms the surface slabs, sets them in place and the roadway bed is paved.

These forest highways now are bringing to the innermost depths of the tropic world the goods and materials of progress and prosperity creating productive communities that can enter profitably the markets of the world and offering to us all enchanting tours through the storybook forests of tropic lands.

Yikes! I guess the Cadillacs of 2024 were all going to have mahogany dashboards and we could drive them through the rain forests on wide superhighways once we got all of those pesky trees out of the way.

If you think I'm making this up, here's a video of the whole ghastly thing. You can use the scroll button at the bottom to advance to around 3:45, where the part about the 'jungle' starts.

If that's not shocking enough, they describe how the world's oceans might 'serve' us once we get our technology geared up for the big harvest of the future. Besides drilling for more oil in places we couldn't reach before, we'll be able to feast on the ocean's 'boundless' supply of seafood.

If you've somehow missed the news this week, you may want to flick on CNN to check out how well our quest for offshore oil is going.

And for a modern update on just how 'boundless' that seafood supply is turning out to be, take a look at JP's post on the documentary film End of the Line, which describes in frightening detail how threatened most of the world's fisheries currently are.

From the perspective of 2010, I guess there are some other signs that the geniuses at GM may have missed the mark a bit in predicting the realities of the future.

One thing they failed to notice that would somewhat affect their own future was a small car company that was selling it's first models made just for the US market in 1965. The cars were small and simple, but sturdy and efficient little sedans that, even in 1965, were getting 30 mpg. In that year, the upstart company sold about 6000 cars here.

They had a name that sounded a little funny to American ears. But, in time, most of us would learn how to pronounce it. The accent is on the second syllable:




  1. The factory on wheels reminds me of "The Wild, Wild West". Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, and the "Jabberwock". It was a fighting machine. Futuristic and seemingly unbeatable. Munching up everything in its way. Okay, I'm going to bed now

  2. Speaking of Jabberwocky (as you almost were), I guess I might as well have been talking about brillig and the slithy toves here.

    Sometimes I get fired up about things that others don't seem to much care about.

    This might have been easier to decipher, too, if I'd kept it under two million words.

  3. Y, thank you. If there were not two million words, then it probably would not be you, my friend.

    And, if it were not for Google, I'd have no idea what the hell you were ever talking about.

    Now I'm going to bed

  4. I think I'll go to bed too.

  5. I saw that exhibit as a tot. What I remember is the song "it's a small world after all."

    That and there was a stand outside where you could pay a dollar to buy a clam with a pearl inside.

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  7. Also looked a bit like some of the scenes from "Avatar", didn't it?

    Only in Avatar, the guys driving the tree-razing machines weren't the heroes.

    The voiceover reminds me of a certain robot-gone-mad from a movie about the future from a decade from the past.

  8. I have a book of historical essays written about the development of Colorado. The one from the 1960s was titled "Correcting God's Mistakes" and describes how God put really fertile topsoil on the east side of the Rockies, but He made all of the precipitation fall on the west side. Thus vast systems of reservoirs and tunnels were needed to get the water from one side of the Continental Divide to the other.

    I think the title really says it all about human arrogance of the era.

    (Not that I'm in a position to complain too loudly -- I am right now looking at a lake on the east side of the Divide filled with water from the west side.)

  9. I'm glad to see this full-service blog is serving some useful purpose and can readily induce sleep in readers. A lot of people would pay good money to a sleep therapist for that service.

    Puffin, I think you may have heard that song at the Pepsi Pavillion. One of the many useless facts I dug up researching the original post is that Disney profited handsomely from the Fair. He was hired to do many of the major exhibits (including Pepsi, but not GM's) and it was here that he first developed the 'animatronic' technology used at the Pepsi 'Small World' show. He also did an animated Abe Lincoln for the Illinois Pavillion that many people remember.

    There was some talk about using his exhibits to open a permanent Disneyland at the World's Fair site. That never happened, of course, but a lot of the technology was used at Epcot Center - a sort of permanent 'World's Fair'.

    Bonnie, you may have a point. At least the robot has the same script, "Fish and plankton and sea greens and protein from the sea". Found this clip from the movie.

    Carol Anne, I think that's what got me about the Futurama - its arrogance, or maybe sheer stupidity. It was a number of years before the environmental movement raised public awareness about these issues and we see here what they were up against.

  10. My parents bought a Toyota in 1968, put over 100k miles on it, gave it to my sister who did the same. With over 225k on it, she sold it - it was still going strong.

    I have the vehicle of the future now. It's called a bicycle.

  11. If GM ever made a bicycle, you wouldn't be able to order one without power windows.

  12. Thankfully I won't have to worry about GM being around in 2025. (I hope I'm still around).

    I recently had to print out Jabberwocky to prove to my wife that it is a real poem after I recited it to her. Somehow, that bit of my high school education stuck. I still love it. One, two! One, two! And through and through
    The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

  13. I was always fond of (or wary of) the frumious bandersnatch. You know you don't want that thing biting your leg.