Sunday, May 26

Predictions from the Past – The New York Times

2024 is shaping up to be a big year. Countries home to more than half the world’s population — the highest share ever — are set to hold national elections this year, according to The Economist. They include Britain, India and the U.S., where a likely rematch between President Biden and Donald Trump will have huge stakes for the country and for the world. Wars in Ukraine and Gaza may take major turns.

And that’s only the expected events. Many of the most important news stories are impossible to predict in advance.

To prepare you for 2024, my colleagues and I decided to take a look back at The New York Times’s New Year’s coverage from other years when history turned. We included the turn from 1860 to 1861, months before the Civil War began, as well as from 2006 to 2007, as the smartphone era dawned.

Sometimes, the coverage looking ahead was prescient, as in 1938-39, when anxiety about a new world war colored the paper’s account of the ball drop in Times Square. Other New Year stories — as in 1928, the year before the Great Depression began, and in 1967, the year before a chaotic presidential election — missed the mark, which is a reminder of how fickle the future can be.

Alongside coverage of New Year’s celebrations, The Times reported “warlike preparations” — including Southern demands that federal troops vacate Fort Sumter, near Charleston, S.C. Still, the first paper of 1861 sounded hopeful, predicting that “the great Republic will grow stronger and greater with the procession of the months.” Instead, the Civil War began in April, with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter.

A Times story about the country’s financial outlook on Jan. 1, 1929, acknowledged the difficulty of prediction but concluded on an upbeat note: “as to the underlying strength of the American economic system, however, there is only one opinion.” That opinion was bullishness. One Chicago banker predicted that the newly elected president, Herbert Hoover, would “give the country a most constructive and able administration.” The stock market crashed less than 10 months later.

The threat of another world war stalked Times Square revelers ringing in 1939. “Among the funmakers, there were few who did not realize that the twelve months that had passed had seen drastic changes in the map of the world,” The Times reported, referring to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria. The newspaper also quoted a German economist visiting New York who predicted “a general European war in 1939.” Germany invaded Poland eight months later, and England and France declared war.

Times journalists knew 1968 would be a big political year — but got the specifics wrong. A New Year’s Eve story declared Nelson Rockefeller, New York’s governor, to be the only candidate whom Republican officials believed would beat President Lyndon Johnson. In reality, Johnson was so unpopular that he dropped out of the race, while Rockefeller dithered and launched a late and ultimately failed campaign. Richard Nixon took office in January 1969.

A poll by The Times, published on the first day of 1984, captured rising American optimism. But there were enough mixed signs that one G.O.P. pollster said he did not expect “a big party sweep” in the November elections. In fact, Ronald Reagan won re-election with the biggest Electoral College margin since Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1936.

Turmoil in the Soviet Union filled the news as 1991 began. The Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, had recently resigned, “a vivid reminder of the fragility of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s experiment,” one Times story noted. By the end of the year, the Soviet Union had collapsed.

“Everyone’s always asking me when Apple will come out with a cellphone,” a Times technology columnist wrote in 2006. “My answer is, ‘Probably never.’” Apple introduced the iPhone in June 2007, transforming life in ways both good and bad. (That columnist, David Pogue, later included this episode in an article he wrote about the worst tech predictions of all time.)

Feline companions: The hundreds of cats that roam Chile’s largest prison aren’t only good for getting rid of the rats — they’re good for the inmates, too.

Football Sunday: The Upshot has created a tracker showing every N.F.L. team’s path to the playoffs.

Vows: Once she got past the dating profile photo of him on a flamingo float, the pair bonded over a love for baseball.

Lives Lived: Mbongeni Ngema was a South African playwright whose stage works, including the Tony-nominated “Sarafina!,” challenged and mocked his homeland’s policy of racial apartheid. He died at 68.

I recently spoke with the data scientist Hannah Ritchie, author of the new book “Not the End of the World,” about the problem of climate pessimism.

Can you tell me about the decision to start the book with the sentence, “It has become common to tell kids that they’re going to die from climate change”? Who are these people telling children that?

I’m not saying that everyone is telling their kids that they’re going to die from climate change, but there are strong activist groups where that is a core message. How is a 12- or 14-year-old supposed to understand that? The reality is bad enough, we don’t need to overblow it. This rhetoric does work for some demographics and does inspire them into action. But there’s a large demographic where it has the opposite effect.

And your belief is that data works with those people?

I think narrative built around data. What’s key, and you can incorporate data into this, is trying to build a narrative for people which is positive in terms of its future outlook. It’s: “This is the world we can build.” Which is more appealing than “We’re all going to die from climate change.”

I was thinking about the anger of Greta Thunberg or the moral urgency of Bill McKibben. Both of whom have been undeniably successful in motivating people. Do you think a book like yours also has that motivating potential?

I agree, Greta Thunberg and Bill McKibben have done an amazing job of rallying people to the cause. My point is not that my message should replace their message. It should stand alongside it, and with that we can build up a larger group of people that want to see change. You’re never going to get that with just a single message.

Read more of the interview here.

This week’s magazine is The Lives They Lived, an annual issue remembering people — some famous, some not — who died in the past year. Below is a selection of the stories.

Staff recommendations: Times reporters, editors and bureau chiefs describe their favorite books of the year.

Our editors’ picks: “Magic: The Life of Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson,” a biography rich in basketball and cultural lore, and eight other books.

Times best sellers: Daniel Mason’s “North Woods,” a book about a cabin in New England, is new this week on the hardcover fiction best-seller list.

Mix whisky and vermouth for an easy New Year’s cocktail.

Keep cozy this winter.

Pick the best helmet for your two-wheeled commute.

  • Tuesday is the last day for Donald Trump to appeal the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision to take him off the state’s ballot. The state Republican Party has already appealed the ruling.

  • New York City’s ban on street vendors operating on Brooklyn Bridge begins Wednesday.

Worn down by the relentless holiday season? For this week’s edition of Five Weeknight Dishes newsletter, Margaux Laskey has put together a collection of one-pot soups and stews that will make dinnertime easy. Try ham and bean soup, a great way to use up leftovers; t’chicha, a salty-sweet tomato and barley soup from North Africa; and Ali Slagle’s chicken noodle soup.