2020 vision

One member’s musings on the future of sustainability.

Only a fantasist could think that our world will be unchanged in fifty years’ time. One thing that seems inevitable is that by then we will be actively managing our sustainability (especially with regard to climate change) as a matter of course, our daily news reporting progress (or lack of it) as prosaically as the stock index is reported today.

Exactly how we will be managing it is impossible to predict, but as a New Year provides a perfect excuse for imagining the future, I’d like to outline two competing visions that are currently being pursued by two very different groups of people.

The first is driven by an understanding that human beings are preventing nature from restoring a balanced system. In this vision, people will no longer be taking carbon out of the ground. Travel will be rationed and the Campaign for Real Music will have succeeded in stopping young people pursuing global megabands on their worldwide concert schedules and they are instead enjoying the intimacy of live music delivered on a local scale. Trees and soil will be responsible for pulling carbon dioxide out of the air and be given the space and scope to do so. Western diets will be more like they used to be, finding protein mostly from locally grown legumes. Lives will be simpler. People happier. 

For some this is a vision of heaven, but the huge problem it faces is that it is not universally shared and in a free world, it’s not clear how everyone will be encouraged to play along. It is also in danger of harking back to a past that cannot be reproduced, and may never have existed. Our understanding of what Britain looked like ten thousand years ago is unclear. Was it close canopy tree cover or temperature savanna? We don’t actually know. Before you can rewild, you have to know what wild was.

The second vision is driven by belief in technology and human inventiveness. Electric cars will drive us to hydrogen fuelled planes and rock stars will project carbon neutral holographic stage shows into stadia around the world without leaving home. The meat cravings of the masses will be met by burgers grown in petri dishes and staple crops will have been engineered to grow deeper, more carbon rich roots pulling vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the soil with each year’s crop. Massive machines will be stripping even more carbon dioxide from the air (at huge expense) and burying it underground. Lives will be faster, smarter and increasingly urban.

Heaven or hell, this is a vision that many political and business leaders are quietly relying on. Its core problem is that grand technological visions rarely pan out as expected. Cheap, clean nuclear power was meant to be easy. Antibiotics were never supposed to be outpaced by evolution. It’s a huge gamble. And for many people, rather than address the root problem, more technology will only increase our alienation from each other and the natural world we inhabit.

I think we all know neither of these visions will come true. But elements of each will surely be melded with much that remains familiar, and a few major changes no-one yet has thought of. We do need to encourage innovators in both camps, and governments need to give them the space and support to do so. The environmental challenges the world faces are too pressing to allow us to be precious. Salvation may come from unexpected quarters.

The one thing we can say for certain is that life in fifty years’ time will be very different from today and, also, very much the same.

Further reading:

Chory, Joanne: The power of plants to fight climate change (2019) at https://worldin.economist.com/article/17524/edition2020power-plants-fight-climate-change

Tree, Isabella: Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm (2018) Picador

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