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Stephen Grant is a Toronto lawyer.

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What we didn’t know about 2020 in 1970 could fill a book, and it did.

I was about to enter law school when I learned that an “anxiously bitter” essay (to quote a reviewer) I had written as a University of Toronto undergraduate was being included in an anthology called Visions 2020: Fifty Canadians in Search of a Future.

Edited by professor Stephen Clarkson, whose letter to his one-year-old daughter Kyra provided the thematic framework, the entries about the world at large and Canada’s future in it ranged from despair, resignation and postapocalyptic nightmare to cautious optimism.

Prof. Clarkson saw Visions as a mission to start "changing [our] blindness to the future by confronting Canadians with the alternatives [we] face.” As a result, the book is full of essays and verse, eclectic and equivocal, judgmental and prescriptive as to what life might be like in 2020.

There were hits and misses, mostly the latter. My own mood about the U.S. cultural and economic hegemony was bleak. Given the rise of newer superpowers, however, my concern may have been misdirected.

Although every epoch reflects its own perspective about its importance in the march of time, 50 monumental years have now passed. When the book was published, it was only a year since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the turbulent age of the counterculture was waning and Love Story and Bridge Over Troubled Waters were atop the book and record charts for the year. Woodstock had come and gone.

We were in the heady days of Canadian nationalism, trying to curb, or at least control, foreign ownership of our Canadian enterprises and natural resources. Events unfolded, mostly without success. One only needs to Google “foreign ownership in Canada” to see the carnage. The last car to be made by General Motors in Oshawa, Ont., rolled off the assembly line a week or so ago.

While the “continental menace” was one concern, poet Dorothy Farmiloe offered a cynical solution to another: overpopulation and the coming food shortage. She suggested cannibalism. While that hasn’t (yet) come to pass, the worrisome realities of factory farming and genetically modified organisms may be more than we care to acknowledge. The shortage and uneven distribution of clean water has also become a lurking threat to civilization as we know it. Melting polar ice caps, too.

While inching ever closer, a nuclear holocaust hasn’t happened either, although the Chernobyl disaster was only years away. In 1970, professor Jack Granatstein thought nuclear war was inevitable, just a matter of time. “What grounds are there for being hopeful?” he asked. And answered, “Precious few,” although the “few” is still more optimistic than “none.” Now, in 2020, advice on the construction of nuclear weapons is practically available on the internet. Prof. Granatstein may well be right.

On the cusp of the founding of Ms. magazine, writer Christina Newman fared slightly better with her “hope that by 2020 A.D. women will not have to consider choosing between being wives/mothers and career women; that it will be possible and seem natural for them to be both."

She went on to envisage “a society in which women aren’t and don’t even feel like an oppressed minority, a society in which they are truly equal to men. But not the same.”

While gains have undoubtedly been made, there’s still a perceptible glass ceiling and pay differential in many corporate and other sectors can’t be denied.

In “the social fabric,” professor Harry G. Johnson discussed “the economic future of sex,” positing that “increasing sexual freedom is likely to mean the social legitimation of homosexuality for both sexes.” Right.

“But paradoxically," he continued, "there will be considerably less homosexual practice than heretofore, because homosexual inclinations are so closely associated with the sharp differentiation of the social roles of men and women that has characterized the preaffluent society and the family as traditionally organized.” Wrong, and cringe-worthy – especially as our definition of “family” has expanded exponentially.

With the recent passage of “right to die” legislation in various jurisdictions, the venerable and still vibrant journalist Robert Fulford (now 87) got close to the mark in his contribution, The Future of Death.

He projected that “death, like birth, will become at least partially controlled, subject to the decision of each individual.” And, “one imagines people openly discussing their deaths, deciding reasonably and honestly the point at which their lives should finish.”

He ended with this passage: “By the year 2020, possibly, it will not be unusual for one free individual to ask another: ‘How do you want to die? Where? When? With whom?’ In the next 50 years a transformation of the style of death may indeed be the most profound change in our way of life.”

It might well have been except for the overarching technological advances that turned Marshall McLuhan’s prophecy of “a global village, a simultaneous, all-at-one world” into our reality, where, among other privileges, we can watch wars and utter savagery live on CNN or digitally downloaded at our leisure.

Politician Eric Kierans rang the proverbial bell when discussing the “new” technology. From our current vantage point, he couldn’t know what we now know about the robust (and often pernicious) power of technology. That anyone could have anticipated the digital revolution only 20-plus years away from 1970 is fanciful hindsight. I typed my original college essay on a manual typewriter, about the size of a mid-century bungalow. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both 15 in 1970.

Still, this is what Mr. Kierans thought: “Beyond question, the most important single technological advance has been the development of computer information systems and of computerized data banks.”

This led Mr. Kierans to consider that “the same marvellous technology which could be used to usher in an era of individual communications can, just as easily, be used to suppress and diminish that individuality,”… forcing us to choose “between the exigencies of economic efficiency and the necessities of personal privacy.”

Professor Abraham Rothstein captured some of the cultural, political and social zeitgeist in “the great moral addiction.”

“The(se) five decades were a golden age for the discovery of invisible oppression … but we could also mention the renaissance of the neighbourhoods, the militancy of the unmarried and the eradication of the deadly rooming houses, the revival of the ethnicity of the immigrant generations, the revolt of the handicapped and the maimed, democratic upheaval not only in industrial plants but in prisons and mental institutions.”

Same-sex marriages and legal rights for common law or same-sex partners were only blips on the horizon. Smoke-free offices, too, as corporate boardrooms all had ashtrays in 1970.

But 50 Canadians conjecturing on 50 years in the future offer a telling glimpse into the 1970s. If not “then,” certainly “now” might easily be seen to be an “anxiously bitter” time, even for millennials (who otherwise couldn’t care less; to them, we’re prehistoric).

Almost overnight, we seem to have forgotten our postwar liberal values of respect and tolerance in favour of populism, nativism, racism, isolationism, exceptionalism, extremism and many other unfortunate “isms” now darkening our world, let alone seen the rise of xenophobia and protectionist walls.

This may well be the legacy from these past 50 years but, to cast at least a shadow of optimism, as former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai supposedly said of the consequences of the 1789 French Revolution: “It’s too early to tell.”

That many of our predictions were misplaced couldn’t be avoided. Still, that these speculations offer a few glimmers of what was to come is bracing, looked at especially in Mr. McLuhan’s window of historicity: “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backward into the future.”

Here, the contributors stared right into the gusty future, unknown and unknowable.

Although poet John Robert Colombo saw former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau as “running a successful leper colony in the Republic of Niger,” that 50 years later, the prime minister is still named Trudeau seemed unlikely. None of us were farsighted enough to predict this strange confluence of events.

And Kyra Clarkson, a Toronto architect now on the cusp of 51, in acceding to her late father’s wishes, has only a few days to go before she gets to read the book.

Editor’s note: (Jan. 2, 2020): An earlier version of this article included an incorrect date for a statement by former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai.

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