In 1976, to celebrate America's bicentennial, Atlantic Richfield Company put out a call—in the form of newspaper, magazine, and television ads—for average citizens to write in and respond to dedicated questionnaires predicting what life would be like when the country celebrated its tricentennial in 2076. Sixty thousand people wrote in.
"It was like one of those talk shows in which people call in to the local radio station and share their opinions on some critical issues of the day," reads the intro of The Tricentennial Report: Letters From America, which was published the following year. "Only in this case, the entire country was plugged in at once." The report is 70-plus pages of analysis interspersed with excerpts from specific letters and even pictures from respondents of all ages. They're arranged roughly thematically, but the themes range from overall impressions of the future world to detailed developments in industry to even fictionalized narratives of daily life.
Technology moves so fast that while some letters still read like science fiction, there are inklings of truth in others. Even for those predictions that are still far-fetched, it's interesting to consider if we're moving toward or away from them. We pulled 11 different topics touched on in one or more of these letters about life in 2076, and we promise to check back in on them in 62 years.
1. Unfettered Optimism
I see a world of peace and beauty. The air is clear and invigorating. The tall, clean, stainless and blue tinted glass business/living complexes seem to blend with the greenery that abounds everywhere...There is no anxiety, no loneliness. There is happy activity and tranquility...Man has controlled disease, population growth and his hostilities.
It seems safe to assume that Jane Petti of Brooklyn, New York, represented an extreme outlier on the spectrum of how hopeful respondents were for the country's future. And since she doesn't seem to provide even an outline for how we should go about not only setting aside hostility but also curing all diseases, we're destined to fall short of the utopia she's envisioned.
2. The Catastrophizers
Not everyone thought the future would be all stainless buildings and abundant greenery. In fact, plenty of people wrote in with bleak prognoses that exaggerated the worst parts of contemporary life.
Irene Sarraf of Howell, New Jersey, wrote ominously that "Spaceships have been arriving daily to take aboard the few scattered survivors left after the havoc."
Andrew Grzanka of Piscataway, New Jersey, used questionable science for his prediction: "A great part of the earth has collapsed due to the removal of vast amounts of coal and minerals," he wrote.
Bruce Povall of Pleasantville, New York got creative; he delivered his prediction in the form of a fictional story about the futuristically-named Nemo Outis, but his prognosis was even darker. "It was short, as such wars go, ending after a week of all out scientific warfare," he wrote. "The net result was the near total destruction of mainland Asia, large parts of Europe, the Mideast, Africa and of course, the United States."
3. Sustainable Energy
The report says that of all issues, the matter of sustainable energy drew the most responses and that "nearly everybody agrees that what is most urgently needed is a substitute for the diminishing, costly fossil fuels we are now so dependent on." Some people suggested nuclear fission or nuclear fusion as a replacement, but solar power seems to have been the most popular replacement.
"Because scientific fact has shown fossil petroleum reserves will run out in the near future...I would like to see a full-speed switch to solar and other natural forms of energy," wrote Bruce Hilde of Moorhead, Minnesota.
"Sunlight is always available, free," backs up Tom Stafford of Pascagoula, Mississippi.
Frances Schleissner of Chatsworth, California, offers a very thorough take: "Many different ideas for fuel are being explored such as hydrocarbon fuels, nuclear fission and fusion, thermal gradients and solar generators. As a long-term means for providing energy without the concomitant production of potentially lethal byproducts, I feel that solar energy is the most practical."
4. Rationing energy
One of the solutions to the energy crisis suggested in a number of letters was to limit or heavily discourage usage by law, a stark contrast to the continued excess that has come to pass.
"I think the best way to solve our energy problems would be by making laws on how much energy you can use," offered Charlotte Walck of Longmont, Colorado.
"The best way to solve our energy problems is to give each family an energy allowance annually, for a stipulated price, whether it be for gasoline, utilities, etc. Once this allowance has been fully utilized any additional usage should be extremely expensive so as to encourage conservation," Richard Kleinbaum of NYC suggested.
This take on futuristic food came from Sikeston, Michigan high schooler Karla K. Adams:
In the year 2076 there will be several changes in the world. We will be eating capsules and pills instead of food. At the Fourth of July picnic our baskets will be stuffed with barbecued chicken pills and potato salad capsules. Scientists will have discovered that human consumption of meats and vegetables is hazardous to human life. For this reason livestock will be kept only as pets and vegetables will be grown only as ornamental plants... Another major accomplishment of these tasty capsules would be the fact that sloppiness at the table would be eliminated.
Another student, Sheri Lynn Brown from Sylmar, California, worries about how a more automated life will lead to widespread boredom, but also extrapolates a radical change to our current social structure based on the changing norms of the '60s and '70s:
Customs have changed much in the last 20 years, so I think that in 100 years I believe we won't have marriage. Families won't be important as they are now. Everybody will do his own thing.
Everyone seems to agree that the future will see even more of a shift to further urbanization. The cities of 2076 are meticulously planned and essentially revamped from scratch with detailed, organized layouts. Arthur R. Carroll of Flushing, New York goes all in on the grid-structure:
My idea is a plan for the city of the future. Population of each city should be limited to 1,000,000 and overcrowding eliminated. The city should be laid out in a huge square with numbered streets and avenues only, not names. All avenues would be six lanes wide. One section of the city would be limited to commercial buildings, a second section to apartment buildings and residences. There would be areas restricted to shopping centers. There would be an automatic overhead monorail system run by the city (no fare charged).
The appeal of cities seems to be that they can accommodate growing populations while still leaving room outside their borders for agriculture. Here's how Donal Hawk Jr. of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania imagines it:
My idea for the Tricentennial is what I call complexes or a city in one building. These could replace the old cities and use spaces economically...A population of 8,000,000 people could be fitted in a 16 square kilometer (5 square mile) area. I gave each person a 10 meter square room and figured out the area needed and doubled it to account for halls and other needed areas. The main purpose of these cities would be to save land to be brought back to nature and to create more farm space for food production.
8. Beauty Standards
Most letters avoid day to day minutia, but in a long, sprawling note from Ralph Doty of Cambridge, Massachusetts comes this gem of the unintended consequences of a return to almost feudal life:
...[S]ince most of the population will be barely subsisting on the results of their agriculture, almost everyone will be thin. Consequently, fatness will be considered a singular mark of beauty in a woman, and parents of marriageable daughters will starve themselves to stuff their offspring. Matchmakers will travel from town to town, displaying photographs of obese beauties to bachelors with money and an urge to marry; fashion will dictate loose dresses with puffed sleeves to counterfeit curves. Perhaps the bustle will come back.
9. The Government
People in 1976 were understandably wary of the government—they had just lived through the Watergate scandal, after all. Their letters, then, are a form of wishful thinking in which politicians are more open or the central government plays a far reduced role in their lives.
"I think we should take away most of the services the government performs and have individual companies bid for the work," wrote Linda Custer of East Hartford, Connecticut.
"Let's start by making it mandatory that each candidate be required to give the public such information as educational background, political ties and past work record," Lewis Wilson of East Orange, New Jersey wrote. (He might be happy to learn that the current news cycle surrounding political campaigns reveals all sorts of personal history far more sordid than previous employment.)
Ed Archer of Brooklyn, New York suggested a radical solution to governmental incompetence, a training program for politicians:
The curriculum would stress the fundamentals of the American constitutional system with emphasis on leadership training, while preparing the student for a career in certain area of government. Graduates would be obligated to a service in government for five years.
10. More radical change
Some people thought the current government couldn't be properly reformed, and that the following hundred years would reveal a need for an all new system.
Allan LeBaron's letter suggested that "We need to rewrite the Constitution."
"We should have a national Council of Elders, a group composed of capable, wise, detached individuals, appointed for life, who would be responsible for supervising studies of alternative courses of action," suggested Fred Floodstrand of Crystal Falls, Michigan, who may have been reading too many Superman comics.
11. Space Travel
What would be the point of predicting the far-off future if not to anticipate space travel?
"Even if the light barrier in never surpassed, I think I can safely say that in 100 years we will have reliable star travel," Martin Halbert of Houston, Texas predicted.
Rather than serve as a backup to a failed Earth habitat, as is often the case with extraterrestrial colonies, Norm Honest of Wantagh, New York anticipated how our space developments would benefit inhabitants back on Earth:
I visualize in the year 2076 space colonies, each housing tens of thousands of people. These colonies will serve as bases for the future exploration of space. They will beam down all the solar energy the earth requires and they will supply us with unlimited amounts of precious ore obtained from the moon, asteroids and other planets.
Christopher Placak of Charlottesville, Virginia was not so hopeful:
If we can set some sort of goal, such as attempting to send men to Mars by 1985, or reach the nearest star by 2010, it would unify the people and provide a tremendous boost for technology. It could help the economy and maybe give some people a place to go after 2010, if we blow the hell out of this planet and make it unlivable.