The List: The Dogs That Didn’t Bark

Remember when Japan was supposed to overtake the United States and become the world’s economic superpower? Two decades later, the suggestion is laughable. FP takes a look at this and other famous predictions that never came true.



Atomic Energy for All

Prediction: With the secrets of the atom unlocked, it was only a matter of time before humankinds constant quest for cheap, reliable energy would be solved once and for all. The bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated the almost limitless power that could be obtained by breaking apart the building blocks of matter. In the postwar world, it seemed obvious that efforts such as President Eisenhowers Atoms for Peace would be able to channel this knowledge toward peaceful ends.

Who predicted it: Committed internationalists and nuclear scientists, eager to latch on to some positive outcome of the preceding years of carnage and the terrible consequences of the Bomb. Lewis Strauss, chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, claimed in 1954 that It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter

What happened: The technology proved more difficult and costly to master than originally hoped, while the Cold War ruined any chances of international cooperation. Many countries have been able to draw on nuclear energy as a supplement to other energy resources. But after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island dramatized nuclear dangers, research and construction dried up in most of the world. Although electricity from traditional sources has stayed relatively cheap, nuclear technology has yet to overcome obstacles like waste disposal and high upfront costs. Only now, with carbon-induced climate change becoming a worry, is serious attention returning to this emissions-free energy source.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Too Many People

Prediction: Dramatic population growth in the decades following World War II would inevitably lead to disastrous overcrowding and exhaust the Earths resources. The 1950s and 1960s saw the worlds population increase by 40 percent, the biggest increase in history. Famines in China, Africa, and South Asia seemed a constant fact of life. Developed countries, meanwhile, were using up scarce resources at a rate that was obviously unsustainable.

Who predicted it: British economist Thomas Malthus was the first, in the 18th century. But in the 1960s environmentalists, demographers, and many in the development community embraced his dire predictions with a vengeance. The most notable was biologist Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 work The Population Bomb set out several terrifying possible scenarios of humanitys collapse: The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.

What happened: Birthrates leveled off, food production drastically expanded, and technology improved. The 6.5 billion people alive today are far more than most imagined could possibly be supported a few decades ago. Limited resources and widespread poverty remain challenges for billions, but in nothing like the apocalyptic form that the alarmists predicted. The United Nations now predicts that the worlds population will level off at 9 billion by 2300.


Global Cooling

Prediction: Earths environment would cool dramatically, leading to lower agricultural yields in major grain-producing nations and possible famines. Worldwide temperatures had been dropping steadily from the 1940s through the 1970s. Growing seasons were getting shorter in the United Kingdom, severe droughts were wracking Africa, and Canada and the American Midwest were witnessing unusual temperature swings. The trend seemed to be linked to the sunspot cycle and increased man-made emissions, which reflected sunlight back into space.

Who predicted it: Attention-seeking scientists, helped along by an overeager popular press in the 1970s. A Newsweek piece headlined The Cooling World described meteorologists as almost unanimous that cooling would impact food production over the next century. Scientific journals, however, largely avoided the hype.

What happened: Things started to get warm again. Climate observation and modeling were still in their infancy in the 1970s. As they improved, it became clear that the earlier cooling had been an aberration. The greenhouse effect was building and would soon overwhelm other cooling factors. Ironically, tighter pollution controls that limited particulate emissions may also have played a role in heating things up, allowing more light into the atmosphere again and kick-starting Al Gores movie career.


Japan Will Rule the World

Prediction: Japans dynamic economy would eclipse that of the United States and end American leadership. Its superior social cohesion, workplace discipline, and state-directed investment had resulted in decades of economic growth. By the 1980s, the Japanese were buying major American landmarks like Rockefeller Center, inspiring fear and awe in a country that felt it had lost its own way. The most frightened observers began to speak of a Pacific Century or Pax Japonica.

Who predicted it: Just about everyone. Newspapers were awash with stories extolling Japans rise, presidential candidates worried about how to adjust, and academics produced weighty tomes announcing the beginning of a new era. In his influential 1987 book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Yale historian Paul Kennedy contrasted the United States relative decline with a Japan whose trajectory, for the foreseeable future, would continue to point upward.

What happened: Japans asset bubble burst in 1990, throwing its stock market into a tailspin and revealing deep structural flaws in its economy. Stagnation and deflation were the order of the day for a decade and a half; even zero percent interest rates failed to stimulate growth. Meanwhile, an economic boom sparked by the information revolution reinforced U.S. global leadership. Though Japan is still one of the richest countries on Earth, it has ceded its role as economic boogeyman to China and India.


Another 9/11

Prediction: Al Qaeda or another terrorist group would pull off an attack in the United States soon after September 11, 2001, and on a similar scale. The elaborately planned hijackings had revealed a surprising creativity, determination, and flexibility in the conspirators. Individual threats from such a foe could be frustrated, but no defense could be perfect.

Who predicted it: Politicians and security experts. Most public officials were savvy enough not to estimate when an attack would occur. As U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney put it in 2002, an attack could happen tomorrow, it could happen next week, it could happen next year. U.S. Senator Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat and chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was more precise, claiming that same year, There is a likelihood almost to the point of certainty that over the next say, three to five years, that there will be another terrorist attack inside the U.S.

What happened: Nothing, so far. Although successful attacks have taken place in Madrid, London, Bali, and Riyadh, the territory of the United States has yet to be hit again. It may be due to an aggressive response; it may be due to mischievous long-term planning by al Qaeda; it may be due to the inherent difficulty of the task; it may be due to dumb luck that is soon to run out.

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