Tomorrow Never Dies

What we can learn from the long, dubious history of predicting the future. (Hint: Don’t pull a Kaempffert.)

To mark Texas Monthly ’s thirty-fifth anniversary, we turn to the future. On nearly every page in this issue you will find an attempt to fathom what life here will be like in five, ten, twenty, even forty years—what music we’ll listen to, where our energy and water will come from, who our leaders will be, where we’ll shop, what we’ll eat for dinner. A magazine is a microscope, magnifying the people and stories at hand; this month we have trained our lenses on the far horizon, on the big questions and on the small, and tried our best to tell you what we see.

We have done this despite the fact that of all journalistic endeavors, the one that presents the most hazards and offers the fewest rewards is a prediction of the future. Consider, for example, a 1950 Popular Mechanics story titled “Miracles You’ll See in the Next Fifty Years,” by the improbably named Waldemar Kaempffert. The author imagined a prototypical late-twentieth-century family, the Dobsons, living in a paradise of efficiency. “When Jane Dobson cleans house,” he wrote, “she simply turns the hose on everything.” Her husband, Joe, has been freed of the need to shave his beard by a Nair-like product—“It takes him less than a minute to apply the chemical, wipe it off with the bristles and wash his face in plain water.” Most importantly, the dinner dishes are a snap for Joe and Jane, since their soluble plates can be washed straight down the drain. As for the rest of the cleanup, “discarded paper table ‘linen’ and rayon underwear are bought by chemical factories to be converted into candy.”

Try living that down. There is no account of how, in later years, Kaempffert came to regard the failure of the chemical industry to turn his boxers into lollipops, but I imagine he would have just as soon not created the expectation. A few predictions did come close (a television set connected to a telephone over which Jane does much of her shopping), but on the whole, Kaempffert’s project was not a resounding success. Nor did Ladies’ Home Journal prove prescient in its 1900 forecast that by the twenty-first century the letters c, x, and q would have been jettisoned from the alphabet; nor did Time, when in 1966 it decreed that “remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop” (the better prediction might have been that “ Time, while entirely feasible, will flop once remote shopping catches on,” but that’s another story. )

Prognostication is an imperfect art, full of risk, but it is one we can’t live without. Every day we make thousands of tiny short-term predictions, most of which are based on experience—when the light will turn green at a familiar intersection, how long it will take for a bowl of soup to get hot in the microwave—and most of which come true. Long-term guesswork is just as routine, only much less conclusive. We are always looking at the years ahead, they just never come into focus.

This has been particularly true during the nearsighted, fearful decade at the start of the twenty-first century. People always believe that the era in which they live is the most perilous in history, but perhaps this only means that people in the present are always right. Jeopardy accumulates over time. Shortly after the end of World War II, a social scientist named Samuel Lilley wrote that “the most prominent psychological feature of the world of 1946 is the very prevalent feeling of uncertainty about the future.” Nineteen forty-six? The war was won, the economy was on the cusp of a decades-long boom, baseball was clean, men wore hats. These days the horizon is much cloudier. To pose just a few of this generation’s quandaries: How will our finite supply of water support the endless growth of our population? (See “ The Last Drop ,”) Will oil run out and what will happen if it does? (See “ The Gospel According to Matthew ,”) How will the contours of our culture be reshaped by immigration? (See “ El Gobernador ,” or just look out the window.)

Though these puzzles cause sleepless nights in every time zone, each has a particular resonance in Texas. All our large cities face critical water shortages; as a global energy capital (and the leading source of carbon dioxide emissions in the country), we have a crucial role to play in the endgame of the petroleum industry and the move toward a carbon-constrained economy; our demographics are at the vanguard of the rest of the country’s. The future is here. There’s some irony to this, since who imagines Texas as especially futuristic? A strong case could be made that the opposite is true, that a unique obsession with the past defines Texans. Our laws are crafted by legislators who sit behind antique wooden desks, surrounded by enormous oil paintings of bygone battles, their microphones concealed in old ink pot wells. Our most famous war cry is not “Forward!” or “Onward!” or “God be with us!” It’s “Remember the Alamo!” We have a tendency to gaze backward in this state; yet as more than one subject interviewed for this issue commented, we now have a great obligation, to the world and to ourselves, to look ahead.

Still, how to avoid pulling a Kaempffert? How to ensure, for instance, that none of the geniuses on this month’s carefully curated list of “ 35 People Who Will Shape Our Future ” will end up droning on the television at four in the morning, peddling their innovations for $19.95?

Fortunately, this question (or one like it) has so perennially dogged mankind that a long tradition of expertise exists. From the oracle at Delphi to the Old Farmer’s Almanac , not a single generation has trod the earth without contriving some means of peering into the mists of tomorrow. The Hebrews turned to their prophets, the Babylonians to their sheep entrails, the ancient Chinese to their oracular

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