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Paleofuturism: The Global Class Divide

PUBLISHED: June 24, 2008

Here’s a gem from our Spring 1968 issue: Bruce Russett’s “Rich and Poor in 2000 A.D.: The Great Gulf”:

By many tests the world of the not-too-distant future will be a far better one than the present. We have confident and compelling predictions of vast automation, greatly diminishing the amount of physical drudgery required in production and freeing members of the labor force either for leisure or for intellectually stimulating and satisfying work. Time and facilities for the leisured pursuit of science and the arts seem within reach for many. We have the prospect of major breakthroughs in medical science, with artificial organs and the control of killer diseases. We are promised supersonic transports to circle the earth at three times the speed of sound, and instantaneous electronic communication with data banks and libraries anywhere. A computerized financial system for pay, credit, and tax collection is virtually in preparation. In a recent RAND Corporation survey of scientists who should know, the likelihood of a manned landing on Mars and of a permanent base on the moon by 2000 A.D. was taken for granted. There is held out to us the image of a new Eden, a stable period wherein many of the most unsettling aspects of modern life may be brought under control and we can more fully reap its great benefits.

But how many of the three billion people on this globe can afford to circumnavigate it? How soon will the Indian villager install his automated farm and devote himself to experimentation in his laboratory? Have you paid a hospital bill recently? It is crucial to recognize that the gains from these developments will not apply at all equally to all men.

The Yale international relations scholar figured that none of these benefits would be of much good to the global poor. So, instead, he sought to envision what the gap between the global rich and the global poor would be like 32 years hence.

For the rich, things look pretty rosy in 2000 A.D. We’ll be able to afford organ transplants (true), most forms of cancer will be cured (not hardly), a “major breakthrough” in life expectancy in the U.S. and Europe will extend lifespans to a century (not yet), and a severed head could be kept alive indefinitely (thankfully, no). “Millions of middle-aged and elderly Americans and Europeans will doubtless shortly wear pace-makers” (bulls-eye), and the blind will be given radar (unawesomely, no).

It’s a mixed bag for the poor. The bad news is that they’ll live just half as long as “a citizen of the privileged West.” (This is precisely correct.) The good news is that the literacy rate in poor countries will climb from 25%, such that “the bulk of the populations will be literate” (again, precisely correct), fresh water will be available to them by “economical desalinization of sea water” (nope—it’s hugely expensive), they’ll enjoy the “cheap manufacture of palatable synthetic food” (such food is commonplace but, weirdly, only the global rich have access to the stuff), and income will be available by “the profitable ‘mining’ of sea water for minerals” (nope).

Come 2000 AD, things look dim for the world in some crucial regards. “The poor half of the world will not able to challenge the rich fifth for control—but it will have the ability to harass the rich and bring the entire system into chaos.” (Yup. Exhibit A: September 11, 2001.) “A third of the [poor] population [will live] in cities of 20,000 or more.” (Russett is correct, but the cities are a great deal larger than he envisioned—urban slums are the theme of poverty for the new millennium) “Asia and Africa are likely to comprise a huge slum in the social as well as material sense, with close parallels to present-day Harlem.” (1968 Harlem was a far sight better than the enormous slums of Asia and Africa. Kiberia’s half million citizens and the five million Mumbai shantytown dwellers support Russett’s theory, though cities like Tokyo, Tianjin, Wuhn and Manila show that this is far too broad a brush with which to paint half of the globe.)

All in all, Russett’s is a rather prescient look at the world of 2000. I have to wonder what he would have forecast for himself these many years later. In updating his bio, I learned that Bruce Russett still teaches at Yale, and in the intervening four decades he has written dozens of books and become a widely-known, well-respected political scientist.

To see more paleofuturism, I recommend Paleo-Future, a blog that looks back at similar long-ago forecasts of the far-off world of today.

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