Ever since directing State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability I’ve gotten the question of yes, but what would a sustainable culture really look like? As I started writing about degrowth for State of the World 2012, this question only grew in frequency. So, recently I attempted to paint a utopian vision of a Sustainable America in 2100.
And by utopian, I mean that in both the positive and negative sense of the word–ideal but impossibly so. With ancient political realities in play (power preserves itself) the idea that we will smoothly transition to a post-consumer, post-growth, post-fossil fuel world is pretty hard to believe. But this is my imagining of a sustainable 22nd century America where reason prevailed. After all, without fantasies about the future, what keeps us motivated to keep on working towards utopia? Below you’ll find a few excerpts from my recent E Magazine article, “Choose Your Future: A Vision of Sustainable America in 2100.” You can read the full piece online.
Climate change has had a devastating impact, and it’s not over yet. The total warming of 3.3 to 4.5 degrees Celsius predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has led to considerable ecological changes. Chicago now has the climate of New Orleans, and New Orleans, well, much of that was claimed by the Gulf of Mexico. The rest of that city, one half of Miami, a third of Manhattan and many other cities were either lost to rising sea levels or proactively converted into wetlands in order to provide a buffer to what habitable land remained. Losing that land was a great tragedy, but a shrinking population, combined with an increasingly agrarian economy made it less painful—in economic terms at least. Nothing will ever replace the loss of the birthplace of jazz.
I started the piece by making it clear that even in the extremely utopian future, we’re going to have ugly ecological changes. We’ve built those into the system already. So, I’m sorry Miami and New Orleans but I don’t think you’ll make it through the century, no matter how quickly we course correct (Manhattan, on the other hand, is so loaded that they’ll probably insulate themselves for a while with sea walls).
Perhaps the most striking shift in the United States in 2100—and one of the reasons for [the fact that America now has negative CO2] emissions—is that a large proportion of Americans now consider their primary occupation to be “homesteaders.” The vast majority live in what were once called “bedroom communities,” suburban infrastructure that was long ago retrofitted into small farmstead communities that provide a secure source of food, textiles and goods both for families living there and the adjacent urban populations.
How does everyone live in this future? Mostly like we have throughout history: as smaller, subsistence farming communities. Either in rural, suburban, or urban settings (though of course urban populations are more specialized, drawing food surpluses from rural areas–but many manage ecosystem services, parks, and community gardens). And also gone are the days of single-family living:
One of the effects of a shift to homesteading, smaller family size, and an increasingly informal economy has been the return of multi-generational households. The era of outsourcing elder and childcare came to an end as the total number of jobs shrank and cheap transportation declined but this was readily solved by having elders once again taking care of children while younger adults worked either in remaining formal jobs or around the homestead. Clearly—in such an individualistic culture—this transition didn’t come without friction.
I of course had to discuss major changes in consumption as well–the end of the private car, major reductions in electricity consumption (thanks to carbon taxes and tiered pricing schemes), drastic cutting back of TV time, huge reductions in meat consumption, and yes, the major shrinkage of pet populations:
While discussing population, one surprise may be the dramatic decline in America’s pet population, which fell from its 2013 peak of 171 million dogs and cats to less than two million today. Americans still have pets, but often they are shared at the community level and are full members of a community—serving important roles like guarding farm animals from predators or getting rid of mice. Most households no longer have their own dog or cat but have productive or edible pets, like chickens, rabbits or goats. While hard to believe, dogs and cats are minimally missed now that our human population isn’t as socially isolated as it was in 2011. Pets’ valuable therapeutic role became less important once people had close communities of friends and family to lean on and bond with.
I also discuss nationalizing fossil fuel industry and relegating these fuels for only unsubstitutable purposes (special plastics, medical supplies, drugs) and how there was resistance to this (partially triggering the Gray Depression) but this was eventually quelled. And I also discuss that while the formal economy continues to shrink, this is more than offset by a growing informal or to use Juliet Schor’s word “plenitude economy.” The final point I leave on is that while this is a good future (in my mind, probably not the average American’s though) the more likely future is a post-Soviet collapse scenario. I just hope that we work toward something better than that.
Admittedly all this adds up to an almost alien world as compared to America in 2012. First and foremost, this vision assumes an ever increasing level of equity—resources better distributed among Americans including employment, land and, most importantly, a fair share of wealth being returned to society by the richest in order to fund public infrastructure and social goods, including a basic level of healthcare for all people. But America is not like that, nor is any country in existence today. Instead, growth in all its forms is celebrated uncritically.
More likely, the America of 2100 will have more in common with post-Soviet Tajikistan. Tajikistan in 2012, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is rabidly inequitable with most people lacking heating in the winter while a small minority lives an affluent consumer lifestyle, complete with iPhones, gym memberships and foreign travel. Much of the infrastructure is old and inefficient Soviet construction—not a comfortable lifestyle for those that can’t afford gas or electricity. Most people eke out a living in the informal economy, but lack any security whatsoever—access to healthcare, a social safety net, even a functioning banking system.
This, sadly, is a more probable path for America, but it is certainly not inevitable. The key to avoiding this, however, will be to have a clear, attainable vision of a truly sustainable society. Even a green consumer lifestyle is directly in conflict with the realities of a finite and increasingly overtaxed planet and is a vision based on denial. Only when people face this reality will a future of true sustainable prosperity for the United States and the planet be possible.