Whether or not it was timed for Earth Day, word came this week that Lost Angeles will begin reconstructing the world premier mass transit system it destroyed a half-century ago, thus prompting a near-future of commuters liberated from solitary confinement, reduced air pollution and lower gas prices. To anyone born in Generation Jones (1954-1965), however, its a past future of well-worn skepticism. During a typical Joneser childhood, the popular TV show Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (Sunday nights, 1961-1969) would constantly replay a 1959 short that promised a futurist mass-transit monorail zooming people above traffic jams as a believable narrator assured viewers it would all be a reality, “soon.” A half-century later, there’s only more traffic.
It wasn’t the only Fabulous Fifties Future that faded fast.
Throughout the Jet Age, earthlings were giddily depicted as imminently abandoning their
drearily deteriorating planet for the nooks and crannies of Mars or the Moon. It was given vague credence by government-sounding experts who declared that, undoubtedly, by that magical moment of the year 2000 rockets would boost we the people on three daily non-stops to the Green Cheese and Red Planet. The living would be easy and if golfing under an oxygen-pumped glass dome or seeing movies in a sealed space helmet meant it was also airless, well…surely it would be better than staying behind on dirty old Earth.
After all, it was the future!
Then came the Seventies.
The year 1970 not only dawned the Age of Aquarius, but a reality check. Rivers of dead fish, spiking cancer rates near smokestacks, and over-population dominated headlines. Paper Dixie cups were crushed by Styrofoam, wax paper was wiped out by plastic wrap. In 1970, President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency before it was too late. That same year, American oil wells peaked out, no longer able to meet domestic demand and foreign oil dependence began.
April 22, 1970 marked the first Earth Day, prompting a week of “teach-in’s” to demonstrate the daily threats that humans posed to “ecology,” a new word tinged with anxiety. Everyday folks were forced to face the forecasted facts of a foreboding future. Arbor Day plantings, Garden Club bake sales, and National Park rules were not enough to preserve, protect and defend the land, water and air. Harshest of all, perhaps, was the door shut on the imagination. The
first moon landing in 1969 had refueled the Mid-Century Modern dream of someday owning a Mars pod of one’s own but three years later, as Apollo 17 returned the last moon-walkers to Earth, one had a better chance of touring Neptune.
By 1973, not even the alternative space lifestyle suggested by swinging unisex “Skylab” space stations could distract fears of stampeding for plankton as the last means of subsistence. Besides, no matter how marvelously the lasers in a bigger, better future Skylab could zap out tough grass stains on jumpsuits or how many avocado trees it could grow on board, it would always fall short of the Starship Enterprise of Star Trek.
That Seventies Cynicism set in. As a few, lucky attractive astronauts were gyrating their modules between the stars, life on Earth for the masses would be hell on Earth – if you believed the movies.
Based on a 1967 novel by the same name, the 1976 feature film Logan’s Run, starring Michael York was the nightmarish result of unchecked consumerism and promiscuous sex. By the 23rd century, Earth is so under-resourced and over-populated that order is kept only by indulging everyone under 30 and “reassigning” those over 30 to shed aging bodies and turn over their souls to those waiting to be born. When a red light implanted in your palm silently begins to flash like those gadgets finally alerting you to a table in a popular restaurant, its time to have your spirit stripped and recycled.
Two centuries earlier, in the year 2022, the deteriorating civilization was at least more efficient in Soylent Green (1973). Although every drop of water on Earth was polluted, every piece of land depleted, every breath of air toxic, an abundance of protein-rich edible “soylent green” squares with a color suggesting fresh veggies meant nobody starved. As a hip, paperless society, nobody was weighed down by clumsy old books – or access to accurate information, all printed matter being bad for the environment. Nor was there any Logan’s Run age discrimination. Even 90-something Boomers could be secretly killed and harvested into – what else? – soylent green.
A better future could still glimmer, however, quite literally just beyond the horizon, if still in the mind. This was the genuine 70s alternative, seeming to offer the best of moon-living without shag-mussing oxygen helmets, a weightless state while hovering the heavens but no Skylab sterility confinement. It was a gargantuan flying object with enough towers, domes and platforms to sustain a self-sufficient population of a sizable kingdom, offering a healthy and active life enjoyed above or upon Earth without polluting or damaging it.
An optimistic vision of the future, it was called Floating Cities!
Conceived onto canvas in 1971 by the genius imagination of artist Robert T. McCall , the concept was basically a massive motor-home for millions. Arizona Metropolis, 3000 A.D., the first of the series, made it immediately obvious the future would be super. McCall united cutting-edge 70s aerospace technology without the era’s miserable green biscuits to a holy-smokes 50s geewhiz vibe without that time’s naively willful environmental abuse. A premise easily read into the Floating Cities series suggests humans making respectfully judicious use of Earth for necessity or enjoyment, then retreating to their urban flying saucers. Linger, don’t settle, enjoy, don’t exploit.
McCall was an Army Air Forces vet of World War II whose magazine illustrations had NASA enlisting his skills in 1962 to depict real and imagined space missions.
Isaac Asimov dubbed him “artist in residence in outer space.”
While McCall got no higher than a ride with astronaut Gordon Cooper up an open-air elevator to the rocket door for the latter’s 1963 Mercury 9 blastoff, he did get placed on a civilian waiting list for NASA shuttle missions before his death at 90 last year.
Since the overwhelming majority of his work is set in space, it might seem odd to associate McCall with Earth but there seems to be something telling about his perspective on the base planet through the Floating Cities series. It was no accident that the first of this series is set in the southwestern desert where he lived most of his later life. The landscape’s textures, colors, light and temperatures fueled McCall’s imagination of how future humans might someday live in the open, starry skies – yet revere the ground below it. All his work about life in space was ultimately an artist’s tribute to Earth. Having to imagine seeing people down here from up there gave him hope in our limitless potential. “I see a future that is very bright,” he said.
for information on McCall, and his work, go to www.mccallstudios.com