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The Nostalgia of Tomorrowland by Richard Seltzer

On my first trip to Disney World back in 1978, Tomorrowland struck me as dated -- embodying an obsolete image of the future, the future we imagined in the1950s. This was the future that Disney and General Electric once promised us. "Progress is our most important product." "Live better electrically." Back in the 1950s, on television, we heard about the future products of inevitable progress. Technology was marching steadily forward. Machines were making better machines to make better machines. Man was the passive spectator and beneficiary of inevitable progress.


In 1978, I expected to see an updated image of tomorrow in Tomorrowland. Surely, the people who built Disney World intended this land to represent the tomorrow of the present, not the tomorrow of the past. But this Tomorrowland was a duplicate of the first 1950s' Tomorrowland. It was yesterday's tomorrow.


Then I was struck by nostalgia for he 1950s, for a time when:

    we could believe in ever-expanding resources and energy and wealth and progress;

    we took for granted that sooner or later (perhaps in our lifetime) there would be regular passenger flights to Mars and beyond;

    costs inevitably went down with increasingly plentiful energy and increasingly powerful mass-production technology; and

    it seemed that every time-saving convenience product could eventually be made cheaply, as one innovation led to another.


And I was struck by discomfort with the present as well, with a time when:

    costs inevitably soared;

    technological innovations gathered dust on the inventor's shelf because they would never be economically justifiable;

    exploration of outer space was too costly;

    energy costs soared, and high-speed cars and big cars used too much energy;

    we had to cut back and slow down; and

    we had to abandon many time-saving conveniences that we had grown used to as we strove to reduce our energy and resource consumption.


A generation that was promised inevitable progress found itself forced to retreat before the energy and environmental consequences. We recognized how foolish that quest for "progress" was, how it led to the rapid and wasteful destruction of vast resources. But we couldn't help but feel nostalgia for those halcyon days when there were no clouds on the horizon and it was all-systems-go. That's the flavor of nostalgia I felt when I left Tomorrowland in Disney World.


Now, in 2017, thinking back to that visit forty years ago, I remember the huge artificial tree in Adventureland, representing the home of the Swiss Family Robinson, and that memory sends my speculation about the future in a different direction.


That display showed examples of nineteenth-century ingenuity working with, taming, and living in harmony with nature. Ironically, it was a celebration of natural living set on a huge artificial tree.


Now that treehouse calls to mind the ingenious techniques that people in the past used before they had access to electrical machinery and internal combustion engines. I'm amazed at what they could accomplish -- not inevitable broad, sweeping progress, but hard-won individual achievement.


We can no longer afford the luxury of passive consumption. More and more, each of us must struggle to cope with decreasing energy supplies and increasing costs. We need to make the most of the objects around us. We need to turn out unneeded lights, insulate the attic, patch and fix clothes and gadgets that a few years back we would have replaced because replacement cost less than repair.


In the past, even inside the house, we faced a constantly changing environment. Now, by fixing and refurbishing, we'll relate as previous generations related to the objects around them.


I see an end to "future shock" coming with the end of passive progress. To thrive now and in the future, we need to become handy, persistent, patient, and ingenious. We need to develop traits and abilities and learn everyday skills that our ancestors took for granted.


A new picture of the future emerges -- a positive and active future I can look forward to, identify with, and participate in.  privacy statement