In 1990, We Predicted What 2020 Would Look Like. Did We Get Anything Right?

And since we're here, why not place some bets on 2050?

Oct. 12, 1990, cover illustrated by Sam Hurt: "Austin, Texas, 2020AD – The unprecedented success of the first urban rain forest thwarts another visionary project: solar powered mass transportation."

In 1990, We Predicted What 2020 Would Look Like. Did We Get Anything Right?

Nobody can really remember why – and this was long before my time – but in 1990, the Chronicle editorial staff ran a whole issue devoted to imagining what life in Austin might look like 30 years hence. Now that we've all arrived, somewhat limpingly, at 2020, it's the right time to reassess.

Many of the articles cast a doomsday-ish eye toward the future, even while lamenting that already in 1990 Austin was in many ways lost. (No matter the era, lamenting Lost Austin is our city's eternal favorite pastime, followed closely by lamenting about lamenting.) In 1990, sci-fi writer Howard Waldrop imagined undrinkable water and Barton Springs Pool all dried up. He also declared with absolute certainty two prophecies that turned out to be dead wrong: 1) "The Booms are Over. Get used to it"; 2) "If you come back for a visit in 30 years, you'll still be flying into Mueller."

In "Big Brother Is Eating," S. Emerson Moffat envisioned a world in which "chemically produced non-food products" became ubiquitous; we're not quite there, but it's certainly within the realm of possibility. And she went three for three with these predictions: Whole Foods has gone national; Spam-a-Rama is still around; and "... miraculously, Dirty's is still open, though the fastidious customer does not inquire too closely as to the meat source of the O.T. Specials."

Robert Faires, then as now our paper's authority on theatre, rose to the challenge of the day by doing what Robert does best: knowing what he's talking about and doing it in a terribly entertaining manner. He smartly called certain trends – the one-man show, a more expansive idea of what constitutes a performance space (including staging pieces in living rooms), and more and more "spectacle" pieces. To my knowledge, the following prediction has never borne out, but we're the lesser for it: "Who's to say 2020 won't see a production of Les Miz that takes place on the street, lasts three days, and invites the audience to don period costumes and take part in a riot?"

Brent Grulke's "The Future Is Now" adopted a plus ça change mentality about the Austin music community: "There will be music made in Austin Texas in 2020, much of it quite good, much of it ignored in the popular marketplace. Artists, industry moguls and journalists will lament this." He concludes, quite poignantly: "Nobody will be able yet to explain why music has the attraction, beauty and emotional power it does. Some will try. They will sound stupid doing so. I hope I'm not one of them." A pillar of the Austin music community, as a critic and then as the South by Southwest Music Festival creative director, Grulke died of a heart attack in 2012.

Getting down into the real nitty-gritty, Richard and Barbara Cilley were remarkably prescient with their 10 predicted trends, accurately forecasting Travis County's passing the 1 million residents mark (that was recorded as far back as the 2010 census); the rise in biotechnology, including GMOs; instantaneous communication; the rise of debit cards; the dissolution of the nuclear family; "smart" technology, especially in terms of the "'smart' house of the future [which] will provide active energy conservation ... robotic assistance for clean-up and recycling, and even emotionally tuned mini-environments for stress reduction or romance." (Siri, play "Bedroom mix.")

Operating at a significantly lower batting average: Publisher Nick Barbaro. With characteristic certitude, our fearless leader announced the following "Nine Things That Are Absolutely, Positively, Going to Happen Before the Year 2020 (So we might as well do 'em now and get on with it)." Below, his predictions – and, in bold, our 2020 accounting of whether he got it right or not.

1) Single member districts Yes! City Council switched from at-large to single-district seats in 2012.

2) A bottle law Not in Texas.

3) Marijuana decriminalization Not in Texas.

4) The end of the petroleum age Nope. (Cough, wheeze.)

5) A resurgence of rail and other transit systems Sort of? Light rail debuted in 2010, but largely functions as a commuter rail.

6) A national health plan While 2010's Affordable Care Act expanded coverage, universal health care remains solely the stuff of stump speeches.

7) A national sales tax (or value-added tax) Nyet.

8) A state income tax Not gonna happen, as reaffirmed by Texas voters as recently as November 2019.

9) The Chronicle goes to electronic publishing While we have indeed "dump[ed] the dinosaur typesetters and glue pots" and retired the old ways of publishing the paper, it's difficult to imagine this ride-or-die print shop ever going exclusively to electronic publishing. Check back in 2050?

Sam Hurt's 2050 vision continues in this week's "Eyebeam." (Illustration By Sam Hurt)

Here's Looking at You, 2050: Another Round of Predictions

Surely by 2050 the United States will have elected a female president, and after witnessing some level of dystopia as the final pillars of inequality die off, reason and kindness will prevail, ushering in universal health care, criminal justice/immigration/education reform, and an end to hunger and homelessness on a global scale. Food forests and communal living will be the norm, marijuana will be legal, and space travel will be possible. Here's hoping we don't give up on tangible books, movie theatres, and cheese pizza.  – Food Editor Jessi Cape

It's unlikely that even the most pathogenically effective pandemic will wipe out more than one-third of our species – sorry, Captain Trips – but I'm guessing that by 2050, civilization will still be struggling to rebuild itself after whatever resurgent plague or airborne hemorrhagic fever has killed so many of us that martial law and wanton slaughter have become the human menu's soup du jour. Whether naturally occurring (hello, thawing permafrost) or weaponized and used or accidentally leaked, everybody's realest enemy is one we can't see without a microscope. Recommended entertainment: Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, the whole fucking world around you. – Arts Listings Editor Wayne Alan Brenner

Sure, in the 50 years since the Stonewall Riots, the LGBTQmmunity has made what many would consider a lot of progress, but the next 30 years will be clutch to fully achieving our (not so) secret agenda: Queertopia. Yes, it's true. For decades lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans folk, queers, and intersex people have been finalizing our gay agenda, the threat of which has been so frequently used for fearmongering by right-wing conservatives that many have laughed it off as a ludicrous joke. But queers will have the last laugh. In 2050, the streets will run with rainbows – we will not settle for a single, measly crosswalk to symbolize the gayborhood, because the whole city, country, world will be one big queer mecca. Environmentally friendly glitter will fall from telephone poles, and equality won't be a foreign concept but a cold, hard reality. – Associate News and Qmmunity Editor Sarah Marloff

More Austinites will be walking or biking from their dense, compact neighborhoods to the Orange Line running along GuadLamar (bus? rail? who knows!), where they'll commute to and from work in their effort to reduce carbon emissions. At least, that's the goal if we have any hope of staving off the more catastrophic scenarios scientists predict in a society that doesn't respond dramatically to a changing climate. Infernal heats, bone-dry droughts, more flash flooding, and general havoc wrought by climate change in 2050 and beyond are likely – but better mass transit and more efficient land use can help save us! – Staff writer Austin Sanders

You're late for work, again, because of SXSW traffic. And ACL, and another fest. That's right, festivals are year-round. (Gridlock? Whatevs, the economic impact is too good to pass up, City Council argues.) You can't take these out-of-towners anymore. "To hell with Governor McConaughey's slogan," you think. You don't want to just keep l-i-v-i-n'.

You drive to H-E-B, surrendering yourself to the parking lot's resident horde of grackles – their beating wings taking you closer to Austin's violet crown (the hue now constant if noxious, courtesy of climate change) as you croak one last, "I remember when Austin ..." – Special Screenings and Community Listings Editor Beth Sullivan

The 2050 Austin food scene is going to be all about sustainability. Items with plastic packaging will be seen the same way we think of 1950s convenience foods: a slightly grotesque relic of another era, proof of how different our culinary priorities used to be. Hyperlocal agriculture will become more and more popular – think rooftop gardens on every office building, vacant lots used as chicken runs, more foraging in the Greenbelt and fishing in our many lakes and streams – as people work to reduce their carbon footprint. Oh, and we're definitely gonna eat more insects. – Contributor Emily Beyda

Syfy network spellbinder The Expanse posits a future wherein Earth teeters on mutually assured destruction with its hawkish colony on Mars. During the second season (installment number four having dropped in December), an Earther asks a Martian, visiting the mother planet for the first time, how they found it. "Earth music good, Mars music wack" is basically her response. In 30 years, the soundtrack to Austin and that of greater Earth will sound Martian: an electro bouillabaisse of all music in one, consumed mostly digitally. Meanwhile, bars with actual stages – those nowhere near a civic center, where cars aren't allowed – will host live roots music for drinkers and vapers. Sound familiar? – Music Editor Raoul Hernandez

The great film wars have been fought and lost, and even though production has ceased in California (due to a perpetual forest fire on what's left of the PCH) and New York (now 50 feet below sea level), no studio will shoot in Texas because the incentives are still too low. All of Austin is now a single massive Alamo Drafthouse screening random reels of El Topo, Smokey and the Bandit, Cats, and Martin Scorsese's gritty reboot of Father Dowling Mysteries. Richard Linklater is three years into his real-time re-creation of the Hundred Years' War. – Screens Editor Richard Whittaker

By 2050, at least one of Austin's tech zillionaires, in a fit of nostalgia for their high school drama/orchestra/glee choir days, will purchase one of the empty retail hulks on the AustAntonio corridor (a victim of the Great I-35 Mall Collapse of the Thirties) so creatives no longer welcome in the capital city can transform it into a culturtainment hub, where screen-saturated members of Gen21 can drink and dine while immersing themselves in art installations, salon concerts, and walk-among-the-actors theatre and opera productions. – Arts & Culture Editor Robert Faires

Metropocalypse 2050: By that halcyon year, Austin will have been absorbed by the Austin/San Antonio/Houston metroplex (aka "Houstonia"), with high-speed train connections making commutes more convenient, although they're undermined somewhat by periodic hyperstorms and coastal flooding as far west as La Grange. The dominant popular music will be Tejano Hip-Hop Country; the ruling cuisine will be commonly known as Veg-Mex. Austin FC will be making its first appearance in the Champions League playoffs. Austin Mayor Simone Rapinoe Watson will be promoting a revision of the Central Texas Land Use Code, in progress for 30 years. The Center-Prog Democratic Party, riven by faction, will dominate state politics; the InfoWars Party (online only) will continue its multilevel marketing scams. – Staff writer Michael King

The zebra mussels win. – Editor-in-Chief Kimberley Jones

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle