It's a cliche among science fiction fans. According to (picking a novel off the top of my head) Arthur C. Clarke's 2001, we were supposed to have moon bases by now, and hotels in space, and regular PanAm service to and from them.
There's a flip side, though, that doesn't get examined so much. One of the other things Clarke predicted, based on the expectations of a multitude of experts — it must have seemed, then, a far safer bet than moon bases and space hotels — was that by 2001 the skyrocketing population would lead to global food shortages. "Even the United States had meatless days," Clarke wrote, "and widespread famine was predicted within fifteen years, despite heroic efforts to farm the sea and to develop synthetic foods."
But even as Clarke wrote those words in the late 1960s, the seeds were being sown — literally — for averting that nightmare; his figure for the population, six billion, was on target, but the worldwide famine hasn't happened yet. There is starvation in many places, but the problem is one of distribution rather than production: We have the food, but it's difficult to get it to the starving people.
The man largely responsible for keeping that prediction from coming true died last night in Dallas. Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work in developing high-yield rice and wheat crops. Through his efforts, first Mexico, then Pakistan and India, were able to feed themselves, and soon his techniques spread throughout the world. By a conservative estimate, he saved hundreds of millions of lives.
As with all solutions, his brought new problems — among them, grain monocultures more susceptible to widespread disease, and the intensive use of chemicals and expensive plant strains — but he bought us what we sorely needed, and that was time.
The New York Times obituary is here.