Times have changed. In years past when I gave talks about sustainable living I would spend considerable time, perhaps half of each presentation, trying to convince people that we do indeed have an environmental problem here on our green and blue marble. Today, though, for better or for worse, most people don’t seem to need convincing. This could be because our problems are worse now, or it could be that there is an increased awareness and acceptance of the idea that we need to quit damaging the planet. Either way, what people could use today is some sort of hope that we can indeed do this thing; that we can surmount these huge challenges facing us. And, as I’ve written before, I’m more optimistic than I used to be. We have the tools and technology that we need; we don’t necessarily need new inventions or grand technological breakthroughs. What we do need, though, is a workable common vision of where we’re going.
So, let’s imagine where we could be by the year 2050, if we put our minds to it—even if no new technologies come along to help us. In no particular order, here are some things that we might see. Some of these will be more difficult than others to achieve; I’ll discuss some of the difficulties at the end.
(Click here to listen to John Lennon’s “Imagine” song—to me at least, it seems to set the appropriate mood.)
In 2050, electricity powers nearly everything, and that electricity comes from renewable sources. In our future sustainable world, fossil fuels have been nearly completely phased out. Electric grids are robust and “smart”, and most power comes from wind, solar, and hydroelectric. Input to the grid is in some cases centralized, from large-scale plants, but in the case of solar it is largely “distributed”, and is produced on hundreds of millions of rooftops and smaller installations. The intermittent nature of renewables has been tamed by a combination of grid-scale storage methods, time-of-use pricing and cultural shifts, and smart-grid controls that help smooth the peaks and valleys of daily electricity demand. Most power is produced “in the countryside” and is moved long distances via high-voltage DC lines, many of which are underground, to the cities where most people live. Some power plants use sustainably-harvested biomass as fuel, and these plants have been constructed to also produce biochar, which is then sent off to composting facilities where it eventually becomes a soil amendment, and is used to both improve soil and sequester carbon. As such, power systems as a whole are slightly carbon-negative.
Most people in 2050 live in smaller, highly-efficient buildings. Today buildings consume nearly half of all energy used in the United States, and I assume that that figure is similar worldwide. But here’s the deal—if a building is carefully designed and built, and if solar is added to the roof, then it can power itself. Many “net zero” buildings exist today, and there’s no real reason why nearly all future buildings can’t be built in this way. And buildings that can’t support solar panels can still be built to extremely high energy-standards, and then be powered with renewable electricity from the grid. Here’s a short video that overviews one such efficiency standard, the Passive House standard:
In the future most single-family dwellings will also be smaller than they are today, and more people will live in efficient European-style flats and apartments, too; more on that in a minute.
Agriculture, once a dominant destructive force on the planet, has become restorative. Vast plowed fields of annual monocultures have been transformed into highly-productive systems of agriculture based on perennials, polyculture, trees, and pastured animals. Plowing has become a thing of the past. Diets have moved away from those based on cereal grains to ones where staple carbohydrates and oils come from perennial tree crops. Food from these farms is varied and nutritious, and farmers incorporate growing and pasture techniques that actually restore the land, build soil, sequester carbon, and provide wildlife habitat, all while producing food. Annual grains are rarely grown for animal feed or biofuels. All of these systems are much more pest tolerant, and natural pest controls are used, and the days of dumping hundreds of millions of tons of poisons into the environment are over. Swales, keyline systems, and other water-control methods developed by permaculture practitioners have been adopted on huge scales, which has diminished the severity of droughts, rehydrated soils and aquifers, controlled flooding, and reduced erosion. Because of these changes, soil and chemicals no longer wash into the world’s rivers and streams, and “dead zones” and algae blooms on coastal areas have become a thing of the past.
A video that dramatically shows some of the problems of our agricultural systems today, as well as a quick look at some of the solutions:
Economic and political systems worldwide resemble those of Scandinavian countries today. In short, they maximize democracy and yet retain the power of market systems. A variety of cultural and legal controls limit the power of corporations, and channel their production toward the good of society as a whole. The efficiencies of trade and specialization, combined with a general sense of minimalism, give most people much more free time when
compared to their counterparts earlier in the century. Many factories are nearly completely automated, and productivity, in the economic sense of the word, is very high. Taxation systems are progressive, war is much less common (true democracies rarely wage war on one another), and nations make decisions based on expanded measures of economic progress, much as Bhutan does today with its measures of “Gross National Happiness”. Nations remain sovereign and distinct, but the United Nations is a stronger and more vibrant body than it is today. In general, all of this can all be summed up under the heading “More government, fairer planet”. Nations cooperate to solve problems, and while some nations are still wealthier than others, by 2050 the world is moving toward some measure of equality, both between nations and between individuals. Getting to this point is one of the “tough problems”, I’ll come back to this topic in a minute.
Everything in 2050 is recycled. Everything. Product use cycles are designed “cradle to cradle”, and goods are designed to be disassembled into their component parts. This is aided by market forces—customers pay a fee when they buy products, and these fees fund take-back programs that give companies strong incentives to create easily disassembled and recyclable goods. These closed-loop systems include sewage; sewage sludge and other organic wastes are composted, and the carbon and nutrients are then returned to the soil. In fact, composting is mandatory worldwide; no longer do methane-creating organic materials end up in landfills. For all of these reasons, trash streams to landfills have been reduced to near zero.
Children are taught about environmental stewardship in school, and even in cities it is a priority to keep children close to nature, and to avoid what some call “nature deficit disorder“.
The world’s population has quit growing… (another one of the tough problems I’ll come back to.)
…and the proportion of people who live in cities remains about what it is today, at about half. While city living is more efficient, complex agricultural methods in 2050 are slightly more labor intensive, and because of this rural agricultural sectors have grown. In addition, digital technology has allowed many people to live further from work and to telecommute, and many choose rural areas for lifestyle reasons.
The economy continues to grow slowly, but is increasingly decoupled from its environmental effects, and is increasingly efficient. The decoupling is the result of recycling and progressive policies such as environmental protection laws and energy-efficiency standards. Fairer world policies funnel growth toward poorer nations—once population growth stabilizes, economic growth directly results in improved standards of living. More on this one in a bit, too.
(Note: 5 May 2016— The second half of this post has much more detail about “decoupling”…)
People have figured out that more stuff doesn’t equal happiness. A new moral and cultural outlook sees consumerism as hollow, and most people view extra belongings as somewhat burdensome, and focus on acquiring experiences instead. Some of this has been brought about by careful government policies that have limited advertising. Then, the efficiencies of market systems and reduced consumption have combined to give people more free time, and many people use much of it to travel. Many of those experiences involve the natural world, and millions take advantage of natural areas and parks that have been protected by national governments. Digital photos, ownership of cloud-based entertainment, and other digital advances have helped this transition occur, as virtual belongings in some ways replace physical ones.
Electric vehicles are everywhere. In fact, virtually all transportation is electric. Cars, buses, trucks, ships, and trains are all powered by electricity. Some air travel is electric, but larger planes are sometimes powered by biofuels such as alcohol or variants of bio-diesel. Even so, traveling longer distances by air is somewhat rare and is fairly expensive. Most people no longer own personal cars, but use different forms of public and/or shared vehicles, which are often self-driving (and self-charging, as they can drive themselves to charging stations). Parking lots are no longer salient features in business districts, and most suburban areas are more densely populated per unit of area than they are today. All of these EV’s are also a key component of the “smart” grid, as the grid is able to manage power flow both to and from the batteries in the vehicles, and can use this ready reserve of power to balance loads on the grid, store energy, or have mobile power sources to locally restore power during outages.
By 2050, the world has carved out a great many parks, natural areas, wilderness, and protected marine areas. Formerly poor nations have also been compensated for choosing not to develop or otherwise exploit rainforests and other sensitive areas. Many damaged areas of the globe are being restored, both by restorative practices in agriculture, and by dedicated restoration efforts. The human footprint has been carefully contained, and many of the earth’s species are actually experiencing a rebound as human pressure is removed.
Here’s how we get there—
Believe it or not, most of these changes won’t be super hard to achieve. If you look around Vermont and other parts of the world right now, you can see parts of this transformation happening right before your eyes, with electric vehicles, charging infrastructure, solar and wind projects, and conservation efforts. Here’s the simple version of how it happens—we all realize where we need to be going, and then we begin to act. The task to be accomplished has many facets, and there are many, many ways to begin chipping away at the problem. We can act, and begin walking the walk, and we can vote with our dollars for the change we want to see. Markets are flexible and efficient, they will morph into what consumers demand. We can also vote politically for increased democracy and for progressive, environmentally-friendly policies. Government will play a large role in the transformation to come, we will need carbon taxes and progressive policies of all sorts. We will also have to adjust as we go—the vision outlined above is hypothetical, and based more-or-less on current technology. We may indeed get future tech breakthroughs– algae that churns out liquid biofuels, micro-organisms that eat plastic, fusion, large improvements in batteries, or other amazing advances. But we can’t bank on any of this, we must move forward assuming that those things will not come to pass, and rather take them as extra help if they do. To do otherwise is just another form of failing to act, of kicking the can down the road. (A post I wrote a while back, “The Fallacy of ‘My Part Doesn’t Count’“, is one where I’ve gone into more detail about these forces that will engender change).
So, about those tough problems… In most of the areas above I can see a relatively clear path forward, especially for those of us in developed democracies. But for the entire world to become sustainable there are some difficult challenges ahead, and most of them revolve around the disparity between rich and poor countries. It isn’t enough to only “fix” the developed countries, we must also bring the world’s poorest nations on board. Bringing some measure of equality to these nations is essential, but it is also fraught with difficulty. Wealthy nations today seem to either take advantage of poorer nations, or to naively hope that they will “fix themselves”, or both. With regard to trade, it seems that these situations where goods flow freely to and from poor nations, and yet labor cannot, are deeply flawed. (I co-wrote an article here about this, but I don’t pretend to have all the answers). This isn’t an easy problem, especially since some of these poor places, like Niger, Mali, and Afghanistan, also have extremely high birth rates. (Look at this frightening chart).
In addition, the world’s poorest countries don’t just have a few problems, they have a great many—these nations lack infrastructure, stable government, and the rule of law, they are often wracked with diseases and violence, and they suffer from debt, corruption, and woefully inadequate wealth creation. Worse, these problems, and others, are all mutually reinforcing. To have any hope of improvement, it’s almost as if the world, or a world-body like the UN, needs some sort of drop-in economy-and-government-in-a-box to put enough resources in place to actually turn the tide in these places. Without a large enough response to these problems, I’m afraid small gains are, and will be, simply overwhelmed. And one thing that I am sure of—these nations aren’t going to magically fix themselves. Their economic relationships with the rest of the world are dysfunctional, and this breeds violence and further dysfunction, and we end up with whole huge chunks of the world trapped in vicious cycles of poverty.
A related “difficult problem” is that of economic growth. Common sense tells us that the world economy can’t grow exponentially on a finite planet. As a reminder, 3% growth per year is exponential—at this rate the size of the world economy will double in 24 years, and will quadruple in 48. The planet can’t afford doublings and quadruplings like this, unless we could nearly completely decouple the economy from its environmental effects, which we aren’t even close to being able to do yet. But, I’m not sure how market economies will respond to a situation where growth was slowing to a crawl. It isn’t an immediate problem— we have huge areas of the world, those undeveloped nations, where growth is essential. If we want to imagine a world where most nations look something like Norway or Denmark, then there’s a lot of growth that still needs to happen.
That being said, growth can’t go on forever. Eventually humanity might break free of the planet and we could grow human economies ad infinitum, but our current problems will have to be dealt with before then. In addition, if growth can’t go on forever then the world’s wealth becomes more and more of a zero-sum game; a “fixed pie”. As we go forward this will become increasingly unfair to poor nations, which will get stuck holding the short straws. For years there has been an argument that as long as poor countries were advancing, that it didn’t matter if inequality between nations existed. This argument is less convincing once you realize that there are real limits to economic growth.
The entire situation contains some odd “Catch-22’s”. For example, as we decouple we can produce more wealth without endangering the environment, and could therefore allow more economic growth, but we’ve reached a point where the decoupling must come first because of the large pressures we’re already putting on the planet. In other words, we don’t have much slack to work with here, and we’re going to have to cut back on consumption in wealthy nations while we get both these environmental and inequality issues fixed. But, cutting back on consumption might undercut the very economic vitality that will be needed as we invest in new and improved production and recycling methods.
In another Catch-22, if we could solve the problem of population growth then we could perhaps help poor countries by allowing freedom of movement for their masses of people who have no economic opportunities. But no developed country will allow massive influxes of people if source populations are continually growing anyway, and thus continuing to overwhelm the systems there. So, poor countries are stuck in this way, too—their birthrates would likely drop if their economies improved, but they’re economies can’t improve when population pressures overwhelm progress.
In the end, much of this comes down to asking people to help others, and asking nations to help other nations. Especially with regard to poor nations that are far away, people often wonder why they should help. But in the end, fixing these problems will become more and more an act of self-preservation—if we fail to fix world poverty and systemic unfairness, this poverty will function like a cancer, and will eventually pull us down, both politically and environmentally. We can see this now with these recent terrorist attacks—they are the effects of ideologies that were spawned in some of these same poor and dysfunctional places we’ve been talking about. We also see it in places like Kenya, where poverty has led to vast deforested areas, as poor families struggle to survive by farming and making charcoal. These problems will spread further if no action is taken by the developed world, and if trade policies aren’t altered so that more benefits accrue to poor places.
So there it is. A big job, but something that we can do, and something that we must do. I’m not exactly sure how some of the difficult problems will be solved, but I also have no doubt that we can do it if we put our minds to it—there are a lot of smart people out there.
Paths to avoid—
Now, take just a moment and think about what’s NOT in this path I’ve laid out. A short list—alternative economies, doing away with money, self-sufficiency, barter economies, finding some higher consciousness or “awakening”, unfettered or overly-free markets, nuclear power (Mr. X might argue with me about that one), gift economies, de-industrialization, moving away from cities so that everyone can grow their own food… I’ve discussed most of these before, so I won’t dredge up all the reasoning again, but suffice it to say that there are plenty of posts here that address those issues if you’re curious about my rationale. I could be wrong about my overall positions, and I’m not wedded to them, but as I take everything I know and understand, and try to project a path forward, this is what I come up with. Please argue with me (rationally and thoughtfully, please). We should all be thinking about this— WHAT IS OUR WORKABLE PATH FORWARD? Put on your thinking caps, and imagine…