The future that my parents' generation warned us about forty years ago looks an awful lot like our present. The ice caps are melting, deserts are spreading, the planet is thick with people, most of the world's primeval forests are gone, the seas are in crisis, and pollution, famine and natural disasters kill millions of people a year. Compared to the world we might have had, had the progress of the early 1970s continued steadily through the following four decades, we live on a half-ruined planet.
That half-ruined planet, though, is our home. People old enough to remember the first Earth Day can well grieve for that other, healthier Earth we might have had if only older generations had made different choices. Kids born today won't have that luxury. This world is the only one they'll ever know: they'll have to make the best of it; life goes on.
1970 is the same distance in time away from us now as 2050: that's how close the future is. The 2050s, we know, will be a watershed era: the decade when, if we're smart, human population will have peaked, a bright green model of sustainable prosperity will be widespread and human damage to the climate and biosphere will have begun to be repaired. In an amount of time about equal to that from the first Earth Day, we have to remake the world. We'll know whether we've done well enough by 2050. If we fail, the resulting descent towards greater and greater catastrophe, will likely cause immeasurable human suffering and the end of civilization; it could include perhaps a general extinction of most life on Earth. The final outcome will almost certainly be ripped from our control at some stage. (It would be far better to tackle the planetary crisis while we have a chance at controlling the outcome).
Even if we do reach a safe plateau towards the middle of the century, with a stable human population, a new model of prosperity and a planet-wide effort to halt and reverse ecological destruction, much will still have been lost. Unfortunately, even a "win" may look like a ruined planet to the eyes of those used to the one we have now. Climate commitment means that no matter what we do, more climate change is a given (even if we avoid triggering any massive climate tipping points). Living on a planet of children (the median age in the least developed countries is only 19, for instance) and in a world where billions are struggling to rise out of poverty, means that even if reinvention happens fast and models spread quickly, entire forests, fisheries, rivers, mountains of topsoil, and myriad creatures will be devoured by human needs in the meantime. In the best case realistic scenario, we're going to do a huge amount of damage to the planet even as we transform ourselves into a global society that provides prosperity with essentially no impacts.
Some older environmentalists (most prominently, James Lovelock) have suggested that the fact that no future now awaits us in which our planet is not greatly depleted means the game's over. Lovelock in particular seems to enjoy saying it's too late to do anything to save humanity, but he's not alone among his generation. These “it’s too late” doomers look ahead and see a world full of deserts and empty oceans, dying forests and dead coral reefs, and they say, "we tried to warn you..." and walk away.
The problem is, the children of 2050 will look at that future world, with all its problems, and see home: and they'll look at the choices they have in front of them, and see the future. And since the choices we make in the next forty years will decide what choices our descendants are left with -- a thriving society engaged in centuries of restoration and planetary repair, or a gradual desperate retreat towards the poles -- giving up now because we don't like the choice set we face is pathetic cowardice.
In fact, it's worse: the writing off of the future (especially on the part of those who bear the responsibility of cultural authority) actually directly supports the work of those who are destroying the future; those that are stripping every last shred of profit from the planet's biosphere while they still can. The idea that there is no future is a club used to beat people into submission and acquiescent participation in the unthinkable.
The planetary crisis we face may be made up of machinery and market failures and sheer masses of humanity struggling to live, but I'm more and more convinced that it is not at its core really a material crisis at all. Rather, the planetary crisis is a crisis of vision; we see a growing and darkening void where our future ought to be. The average person, presented with accurate information about the state of the world, can see no way forward at all. The path we're on appears to end in darkness and a swift, cataclysmic drop. Most folks, entirely understandably, choose not to look.
That void in our future vision, I believe, is not accidental. In the 40 years since the first Earth Day, a whole set of industries has grown large attacking scientists and conservationists; falsely complexifying issues; spinning the news of environmental crimes; launching astroturf front groups; endowing think tanks; bribing politicians; obfuscating the need for systemic change by pushing funding towards NGOs that advocate the most limited of personal actions; and by promoting (in the most direct financial sense) cultural work that promotes cynicism and a disdain (if not a hatred) for idealists, from talk radio to teabagging. In a twist on the old axiom that tyrants don't care if they are hated so long as their subjects don't love each other, these industries don't care if the future they're offering us looks dark, so long as no other futures we can imagine look brighter. Despairing consumers still buy, and they cause less trouble for the investing class. "We have an economy," as Paul Hawken says, "where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it G.D.P." Keeping the future dark hides the crime.
There is a vicious political fight for the future happening right now. Having realized that they're steadily losing the war to convince people there are no problems, those profiting from the status quo have now turned to fear, uncertainty and doubt. They’re trying to convince the public that it is both too expensive to make changes that probably won't work and too soon for drastic measures (I personally think that the political use to which geoengineering is being put is very much a part of this effort, but that's a story to take up again another time). The dark, unknowable future has been turned into a weapon against action in the present.
The irony is, we already have the ability to solve or at least address the planet's most pressing problems. We don't have every solution we'll need, not yet. We do, though, have the technological capabilities, the design genius, the scientific ingenuity, the entrepreneurial zeal, the policy acumen, the community-building skill, and the educational and cultural wisdom. It is not that we are not capable of sustainable prosperity. We have never had more or better ability to build a better world. What we seem to lack is a belief that we can actually use those powers to change anything, and we lack that belief precisely because the future has been ripped out of our cultural debate.
That's why if we care about the planet, the most important thing we can do is start showing how good a future we still can have. That's why, right now, optimism is a political act, and a radical one at that.
I think, what we need today, is mass movement planetary futurism. I don't mean futurism in the cheesy sense -- the what-color-is-your-rocket-car sense -- I mean futurism in the best sense: of people who understand that the future is not an alien world or a land-of-make-believe, it's where we are right now, with a brief passage of time. Utah Phillips used to like to say that the past didn't go anywhere. Well, the future's already here. We're making it, as we speak, and we make it better when we consider what the effects of our actions might be over a longer range of time.
Human beings make the future every day. Making the future -- setting in motion future events -- might almost be considered part of the definition of humanity. The problem is that today, when powerful men sit down and make decisions, they generally make those decisions as if the future didn't exist, as if the consequences of their actions were beyond anticipation, as if they bore no responsibility for foresight. The future's not welcome in the room.
We need millions of people ready to put the future back in the room. We need millions of people ready to demand that their governments, their companies, their communities and their cultural institutions confront the reality of the futures they make every day.
In 2010, any institution which is not looking forty years ahead and at least considering the long-term impacts of its work is probably engaged in actions that wouldn't bear the full light of day. We need to sunlight them. We need to hold them up against absolute standards, hard numbers and firm time lines (I prefer carbon-neutrality by 2030, myself, but again, that's an argument for another time). We need to demand forty-year goals and bold immediate commitments. We need to be the voices for the children of 2050 who otherwise currently have no rights in our halls of power. 2050 is right around the corner: we need to fight for it in every discussion of practical action, in every institution on the planet.
And we need to be ready to envision the alternatives, and explore them with people struggling to make better decisions here in the present. Because the reality is that change is not only in the interests of future generations, it's in our own interest. Almost all the things we need to do to safeguard the best possible set of choices for the children of 2050 are things we'd want to do for other reasons, anyway:
*build better cities, so people can live in vibrant walkable communities and green homes, served by ecological infrastructure and a mix of transportation choices;
*foster a culture of bright green innovation, helping to generate meaningful work for the billions who will need it, by spreading new approaches like adaptive reuse, product-service systems and so on;
*develop new technologies and material and new clean energy industries;
*redesign our products and manufacturing to remove the toxic chemicals that are poisoning us and recover materials to eliminate waste;
*preserve farmland and forests, securing working sustainable foodsheds and needed ecosystem services;
*protect and restore wild places and biological hotspots on land and in the sea, helping prepare them for climate adaptation as best we can, saving as much biodiversity as possible, and reconnecting us with the beauty of the planet.
Even if climate change magically ceased to be a problem tomorrow, these are all things we'd want to do for other reasons anyway; places that do them will become far more economically robust and systemically rugged than those that don't.
There will be opposition. We will meet people filled with anger and fueled by misinformation. Many of the men (and they are still mostly men) making these decisions are good people. A few are evil sociopaths, actively obscuring the future to hide their own knowing crimes, but most are people you'd find decent dinner company, people you'd welcome into your family. Some are among the most principled and conscientious people you'll find anywhere. But many look only backwards.
Many, I believe, are secretly terrified of what they'd see if they looked ahead. The people most deeply traumatized of all in our society may be the older men who've devoted their entire lives, in grinding hard work and out of love for the people around them, to building companies and communities and systems they thought represented a pinnacle of human endeavor and free enterprise, but which instead -- they would now find, if they could bring themselves to admit the possibility -- have become components of what is quite possibly the most destructive way of life ever made by human beings. To have done right and well your whole life and yet find yourself ethically indicted in the end, to have your accomplishments turn to ash, to arrive late expecting security and respect, and find neither: I don't think those of us who are younger can fully understand what a soul-wrenching experience that must be.
As the air goes out of the most destructive parts of our economy -- as the oil runs out, as the sprawl financing dries up, as the world runs out of big trees to cut and big fish to catch -- economic fear gets added to the mix as well. How will they survive? Even when they see a glimmer of a bright green economy, it looks full of jobs demanding different skills than the ones they've spent a lifetime honing. I think a lot of them refuse to see a bright green future -- attack even the possibility of its existence, yell at those who even suggest its necessity -- because they see no place for themselves in it, and hear a ringing condemnation of the legacies they're preparing to leave woven into every fiber of the innovations we need.
I honestly have no idea how to reach out to these good people. We know, though, that they are the ones often at the table when the future is made, and though we will eventually prevail since time and numbers are on our side, spending another couple decades butting heads with these guys will at best slow our progress. Merely defeating them politically also wastes a huge creative resource: their talent and experience. Many of the people most angrily denying the future are those who understand how the systems we now need to retrofit, redesign, replace and adapt actually work -- because they built them -- and, if convinced that this new work needs to be done, they have oceans of insight and institutional knowledge to bring to bear on the problem. No one knows how to hack a system better than the person who's been in charge of protecting it from change...if only we can win them over to the side of change.
Whether or not we can bring around the oldest generation, the fundamental need is clear: we need, now, to put the future back in the room.
Image of gas mask smelling flowers from the first Earth Day from National Geographic Blog; Credit: AP Photo, 1970.
Another wonderful post, Alex and a reminder to all of us to keep working for that bright green future. I would just add a plug for teaching ecoliteracy in our schools from pre-school through college, so we can get those bright green habits started early.
I agree our crisis is one of vision as well as leadership that we can ill afford. We mus eschew our comfort zones to get this done. Paul Hawken would likely agree "the laws of biology, physics and chemistry are no respecters of persons, or intent, or what we are comfortable with or politically willing to do." http://energybulletin.net/node/52575
Alex, you are right on target. We need a future to aspire to, not just a collection of ideas to make the future less bad. As i have written in my post on Recovering from Climate Depression http://bit.ly/9BOTxI, I believe that after a time of troubles there will be a Renaissance. By changing our behavior now we can shorten the time of troubles and prepare for a better renaissance.
A great piece Alex, but when you mention that Lovelock states that we are all doomed then walks away, this isn't true. At the moment James Lovelock and I are collaborating on 'A Hitchhiker's Guide to Gaia'. An independent feature length documentary that aims to set out his ideas for our future. A positive look at what can be done and what we really can do to make our lives better. The website is under construction but please check back soon as it will be there in a matter of weeks.
thank you, alex, for being a voice of vision rather than doom.
i agree, sustainability, a bright green future, like any reality, starts from within. our mental pictures, internal conversations, energetic states, are at the source of the reality we create. this points to the need for creating inner sustainability, a sustainable mind, first. there is much available these days in more inner, spiritually focused circles about how to access and use the power of vision; maybe this is the time to foster synergies between the spiritual and the green movement.
in my experience, there can be a tendency, among (periodically) frustrated environmentalists like myself, to let anger at both the general apathy and the seeming eco-genopathic indifference of entrenched wealth and power, get the better of us. when i feel that way, i can end up in a place where i actually *want* things to go wrong, just so i get to be right. it's an experience of intense frustration, anger and feeling powerless. and even though many can probably relate to feeling this way, this state of mind plays into the hands of those who are destroying our planet, and contributes to the destruction, both in word/energy and deed. When i'm that angry, i'm not being/creating the future to which i aspire. i’m not being sustainable.
that's why i derive so much inspiration from your writings - you seem to be solidly grounded in a positive, humanistic place where, for example, the environmental record of the past 40 years, does not seem to undermine your ability and willingness to envision a future where we have learned to be sustainable.
thank you for being that voice.
Those who walk backwards into the future will be rewarded with a vision of heaven...as they topple over a cliff.
It's rather too easy to berate them for their failings. Bear in mind, too, that the ones you speak of are really just the good ancestors of yesteryear who lost their wards' inheritance on some bad investments.
I can see the merit in trying to persuade them to see the future as anarchic: a promise not a threat, but I don't think it is worth the effort to turn them round, especially when they've dived so deep into the numbing lethe-like ocean of misinformation and filled their heads with all the rhetorical jamming that has grown up around all this business not as usual.
Not unless *they* can make an effort.
So, it will be interesting to see what 'guide to Gaia' can produce
Mulling this while I take in the Rudd government's backdown on emissions trading legislation. A pragmatic decision that sends a message: vested interests prevent action: you're on your own, folks.
$ post Alex... very well articulated. The million dollar question becomes how to package this idea of the future into something that people today can not only digest but become excited about. As you briefly mentioned, describing a future without gas-powered cars and suburban homes is only gonna sound appealing to an elite and educated few... what are other ways we can engage other demographics into this vision? Independence, self-sufficiency, economics, community, health, etc? We will only run into more polarization if we continue to demand and regulate people to change their lifestyles to fit our vision...
One idea that is unique and inspiring is that of thrivability (which I first read about here on WC). It's a bit ambiguous at the moment, but the premise lies in the ideals of actively creating a future that we want, rather than responding to one that frightens us. Traditional environmental efforts have been more about patching and repairing than actual building and innovation... this in turn does not effectively engage the public. A tangible example of thrivability is the Living Building Challenge, which has created a standard for buildings that are restorative... there are no negative impacts.
thanks again for your thoughts.
Many good points. But a minor thought to the last commenter - the Living Building Challenge is a fantastic evolution forward, but there are negative impacts. It is not truly restorative.
Do you accept outside stories as I am interested in submitting my reply and further insights into your discussion here in the form of freelance stories from writers, including myself, a certified Permaculture Designer, Writer, and Earth Art & Architecure Builder and teacher since 1989. I welcome your reply and thank you for your beautiful expression.
I have spent 20 years focused on finding answers (I like) to the question "how does peace on earth begin with me and the rest of the world; and what would that look like through art, music and home in a feature film? I have my answers and they improve daily, when I can face the day. It is a rocky thing confronting that which was designed into a suicidal paradigm, and I trust we can dissolve that which does not serve life. Permaculture Design principles are for the earth what Body Ecology's universal principles are for the body and this is where peace on earth begins. The Spirit is senior to it all, and the body will shine, as will the earth, in abundant well being, as we unite to express our freedom and clarity as you have here. Well done!
I will continue to design Permaculturally,
write stories that inspire holistic wellbeing worldwide starting within,
and live my life in a way that is inviting and beautiful,
resulting in abundance and beauty of an entirely more satisfying and integrative sort
than has been demonstrated by my family or society thus far. Permaculture is key as love is key.
I will not "push" anyone anywhere. They are liable to push back! :)
The world needs only to be supported in being connected with nature's majesty, and not suppressed and invalidated away from this powerful relationship.
The rest will unfold as a result. No pushing required.
Thank you for this inviting story. Onward, inward and Upward!
I like the term thrivability, it's very positive and does not sound as difficult as sustainability. I also agree with the comment from Kimberly that we need to teach ecoliteracy in our schools. We can't be good stewards of the earth if we don't understand how the planet works. Perhaps we need to have a conference to create a vision for the future that addresses all the major parts of making a living and a life in a different world: creation and distribution of food, transportation, creation and distribution of necessary goods, community, education, energy, ecosystems, etc. There are lots of great ideas in Alex's article and from various people who have posted a reply. We need to develop a vision with all kinds of people at the table, and talk about it, create excitement about it. Once people have a vision, it can become something to achieve. But we can't get there if we don't know where we're going and how it will work.
I think there is an irony in your argument, when you talk about the children in 2050. If we have children in 2050 at all, we (and they) will already be doomed.
... my comment may sound insensitive, but anyone who understands exponential curves knows it's the truth.
As a mother of a 14, 17, and 18 year old - I'm all about the future. They're certain of it, and so should we (older folks) be. In tandem with the detioration of the planet is the most informed generation on earth. The future is bright - I see it in my house every day.
On April 22, 1970, I, along with 20 million others that day, attended one of the first Earth Day celebrations. We had heard the predictions and we were duly frightened. In those days, most of us in the environmental movement worried about air pollution causing another ice age through global cooling. Many doomsayers proclaimed Malthus—that eighteenth century economist who argued that human population which grew exponentially would quickly outstrip crop yields which grew arithmetically—was a Pollyanna.
On April 22, 1970, we stood on the brink of drought and mass starvation; no oil, forests reduced to stumps or sticks due to over-logging and acid rain, foul air, frozen and polluted water. Many didn't believe the earth and humans would last a generation; a Maltusian Catastrophe would wipe out humankind and many others of its inhabitants. Only cockroaches would remain.
None of that has happened in the past 40 years, perhaps because we made the necessary changes. Perhaps because we won by making the world aware. This doesn't mean there will be different mindsets. “First, humanity's condition will improve in just about every material way,” the late economist, Julian Simon said. “Second, humans will continue to sit around complaining about everything getting worse.”
It’s because of this looking back that I’m an optimistic environmentalist. The lake may not be pristine; it's half-clean rather than half-polluted. Though problems do exist, we have hope and mustn’t squander resources. Yet, I side with Julian Simon that things are getting betting. Thinking that everything is worsening elicits a siege mentality where we either shut down because we want no more bad news or we feel imperiled. Those who feel imperiled bang pans or worse, beseeching us to repent and turn away from our profligate ways; Lester Brown—the rightly-renown environmentalist and founder of Worldwatch Institute and Earth Policy Institute—is one. He writes of climate change, “Researchers…believe that global warming is accelerating and may be approaching a tipping point...” Brothers and sisters the end is near and we stand upon banana peels between vipers and the abyss. We stand on the brink of droughts and mass starvation; forests reduced to stumps, no oil, foul air, frozen anthropogenic global warming, and polluted water.
Bravo - No fate but what we make
A dear misguided friend of mine, just the other day, tried to shut up my partner (who as it happens was talking about Lovelock) by saying "if it's too late anyway, please just chill out and enjoy the ride". I have spent some days trying to work out why this comment so enraged me, and in the meantime I'm afraid I've resorted to fulminating on our blog about your average Joe's objections to what we're facing and what my partner and I plan to do about it.
Now I get it. It's the fact that he's buying into the muzzling of voices speaking truth, of future-envisioning idealism. It's the the inculcated laziness and boredom which lies behind that eye-rolling "please".
In my "objectionable objections" rant I throw it open to the reader to help me find some answers; not all that surprisingly, I haven't had any responses - it is indeed a pretty intractable business.
Your post was a great answer and a timely reminder about the importance of staying positive, looking for solutions. Envisioning the future.
I love your vision and message of optimism. I do find it inspiring. However, the condemnation of the lack of work done in the 70s, 80s, et al, comes with the benefit of hindsight.
I was there for the first Earth Day. Just to have a day devoted to ecological (the term used in those days) issues was a triumph. Also, no one knew a thing about global-warming or climate change. The issues were cleaning up the air and water supplies - hell, one of our rivers caught fire from the pollution.
So what have we accomplished? Quite a bit beginning with auto exhaust emissions - cars are several orders of magnitude cleaner than they were. Our rivers are much cleaner - not perfect but standards were raised and water supplies are much cleaner. China instituted the one-child per family to lessen the impact on natural resources.
Did we end greenhouse emissions? No so much remains to be done. But having seen the complete and utter lack of regulations of the 60s and 70s, we have come a long way. Thanks for your work and keep it up....
I agree essentially with Rich. Car emissions are down over 90% of the 1970's. I will take issue with the "utter lack of regulations of the 60s and 70s." Here's a partial list for the USA:
Clean Air Act, 1963 & 1970
Wilderness Act, 1964
National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), 1970
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 1970
Clean water Act, 1972
Noise Control Act, 1972
Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, 1972
Endangered Species Act, 1973
Safe Drinking Water Act, 1974
Toxic Substances Control Act, 1976
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 1976
Air pollution in the US has been reduced by over 60% and rivers don't catch fire.
Rich & Norm - that's a persuasive argument. But I think Thomas Homer Dixon and others make a better argument, essentially that the harm and threats have only magnified to larger scales of place, at faster paces, and heightened risks of nonlinear and potentially irreversible shifts. Basically that we're on the leading edge of such changes, but that they'll only ramify as generations pass.
I think being truthful is most essential, much more so than being optimistic. I think it was David Orr (and I'm sure many, many others) that identified hope only becomes meaningful where optimism fails. So the defeatists definitely should not dissuade any of us from having hope or taking meaningful action, but frankly, I'd argue that the science and the spiritual both show little reason for optimism. Rather, it's time for a hopeful revolution, but nothing short of the sort of strong-willed thinking like Lovelock will succeed.
So Norm, to your point about agencies and regulation, I think there's more an illusion of regulation, created by an immense and growing bureaucracy, than there is meaningful regulation. So maybe not an "utter lack" but far short from any type of system that actually protects human and non-human health.
As example, www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/us/13water.html
want to join this important cause
"foster a culture of bright green innovation, helping to generate meaningful work for the billions who will need it, by spreading new approaches like adaptive reuse, product-service systems and so on"
It's about time that we cast off this stupid idea that we need to create jobs for people. As Bertrand Russell argued and Robert Anton Wilson imagined, we should be completely engaged in, rather than _creating_ labor for people, _eliminating_ labor by replacing people with machines and _eliminating_ need. By being thrifty, distributing resource extraction and manufacturing, and deconstructing the excessive – but not in the good sense argued by Bataille - yet conservative production->consumption cycle that currently defines everything we do in 'developed' society, we can create a sustainable world of _raised expectations_ rather than _lowered expectations_ as Wilson puts it. Of course I'm referring to the end of market capitalism – oh no, now I've associated myself with Marxism and nobody will listen to me! This "Worldchanging" program is not political enough and that's a sad reflection of state of things, that you must obfuscate your politic message and the connection to the rich tradition of political and cultural analysis in order to maintain an audience.
(re-reading what I wrote) I sound like a conspiracy theorist. I enjoyed the article, especially the way you (Alex) put things in a very familiar contextual frame. We're used to thinking about the time period between the 1970's and now, and many of us have lived through much of it. Extending this intuition ahead of us gives us a way to imagine the future. Thanks for that.
"We need millions of people ready to demand that their governments, their companies, their communities and their cultural institutions confront the reality of the futures they make every day."
This I also find mistakenly optimistic. In the Western world few people have the job security necessary to make _demands_. I can imagine that in less fortunate countries, this is even more the case (for instance, in South Korea where you are expected to work from, say, 8AM until 5AM the following morning to finish a project). It is not sufficient to make _demands_. You must demand it for yourself. In the world that I know, that means _dropping out_ of existing structures and creating your own (like Worldchanging has done, for instance).
Future visioning is very important. But there is also the temporal equivalent of "Think Global; Act Local" - acting NOW is the most important thing we can do for the future.
Getting as much solar- and wind-generated power into the grid as possible right now is better than sketching out ideas to be carbon neutral by 2030. I wouldn't argue with the 2030 goal at all, I'd say "fine" and want to move on to what we can do right now this year. That's what we need to work on most urgently.
I'm poor and don't own my small dwelling, and the landlord pays the electric. Yet I'm thinking to see if I could install a transportable solar system I can move if I move. Better would be if the CLEAR Act, S. 2877, were the basis of an upcoming climate bill, with cap and dividend and provisions to allow us advances on our dividends to pay for energy producing installations. Then EVERYBODY could afford to install solar or small wind turbines, and we could achieve a huge chunk of the clean energy transition within a few years.
With dwindling polar ice and melting permafrost, it is VITAL to act really fast, in spite of the inertia that big systems like government and industry usually take. And don't complain about those who think it is too late - if you don't think there is a chance that it's too late, you're not paying attention to the ice and the unique role it plays in limiting the incoming solar radiation's warming effects. And our own human inertia seems to require a serious emergency before we agree to change our tack. It's the people who are saying it's too late that will get others to say, gosh, maybe it really is time to take action.