There had to be a time when there was no people, right?
Well where did all these people come from, huh?
I'll tell you where. The future.
--Miller, in Repo Man
I've been reading Siddartha Mukherjee's justly praised Emperor of All Maladies--that is, reading about the various campaigns to tame, conquer or just understand cancer. I'm reflecting, inter alia on that time not so many years ago when we were hot on the trail of a "cure for" this peculiarly dreadful disease. We went about it with all the optimism and conviction that a sophisticated, well-financed and energetic research machine could promote. And of course we can cure some cancers, sort of, and we have made some impressive headway at cancer prevention in, e.g., reducing the presence of tobacco. But cancer is still with us and as a whole, we have a more chastened view of our possibilities than we did, say, along about the beginning of the Nixon administration.
Mukherjee's book follows hard on Michael Graetz' End of Energy, where there is a similar theme. After the crude, rude "first oil shock" in 1973 we spit on our hands and tackled the job of developing magic bullets among alternative energy sources. Once again, we've made some progress sideways: CAFE standards have a remarkably good track record and we've done by way of improving energy efficiency. But wind and solar seem almost as elusive as ever and ethanol has turned into a bad joke. Carter made any number of bold forays; then Reagan supplanted him and said "whatever" and there it pretty much lay at least until a year or two ago.
Meanwhile I've also lately listened to an intriguing interview with John Crowley about what he calls "The Next Future"--as the interviewer puts it, “the ways in which writers have imagined the future and how today the future is disappearing from people's imaginations only to be replaced by the past." Think steampunk, or Harry Turtledove. Recognize that hardly anybody in any genre--except dystopia--spends much time worrying about what might like ahead
There's a segue here, not so? We look to the past because our future is just not as dazzling as we thought it was going to be. We more or less know we aren't likely to "cure" cancer; we'll count ourselves lucky if we can just hold it at by. With energy, we know in our heart of hearts that we're just kicking the (empty oil?) can down the road and we entertain the pious hope of a miracle because we know that not much else will save us,. The future, in short, lies mostly in the rear-view mirror. The Jetsons have left the building, and not in a flying car.