A fascinating read and raises, for me, far more issues of interest than I could have imagined.
Forum for the Future's Founder-Director discusses how things have changed with Alex McKay – a 50-year-old history teacher, living in 2050, and the narrator of his new book, 'The World We Made'.
What might a genuinely sustainable world look like in 2050? Environmentalist Jonathon Porritt sets out his vision in a groundbreaking new book, The World We Made. It’s articulated by Alex McKay, a fictional history teacher born (half a century after the author) in the year 2000. Alex looks back from the year 2050 at the momentous events that have transformed the world since the millennium. I couldn’t help wondering what kind of conversation Jonathon and Alex might have if the bounds of time could be temporarily set aside...
Jonathon: I hope you don’t mind me asking, Alex, but have you ever heard of Pollyanna?
Alex: I don’t think so. Your vintage?
J: Not quite. It was the title of an early 20th-century novel about a little girl who stayed hopeful about things, however grim the situation.
A: You seem to be implying that I’m some kind of deluded optimist?
J: Well – you do end your preface, looking back from 2050, saying: We’re still very hard pressed by the legacy of all those wasted decades, but with a renewed sense of purpose as a family of nations, celebrating afresh the collective genius of what it is that makes the human species so special. And we have confidence, once again, in our shared ability to make a better world for all those who come after us.
A: And your point is?
J: I’m just testing the bounds of optimism.
A: Look, I’m a historian. And though The World We Made isn’t a formal history (there’s quite a bit of stuff about me in there), I worked really hard to stick to the facts: what happened, when, and why.
J: But you’re not really claiming to be neutral, are you? It seems to me you’re quite judgemental about some people – particularly politicians!
A: Actually, I’m not critical of our politicians in 2050; on the whole, they’re doing a reasonable job. The ones I do judge are those back in your era – and I’m just as critical about the electorates at that time. How can you all have gone on, election after election, voting in people whose principal quality seemed to be denial about what was going on under your noses – on climate change, corruption, poverty, species extinction, and so on?
J: That’s a bit unfair. We weren’t all stuck in denial, as it happens.
A: Really? From what you’ve told me, you yourself spent your entire working life trying to get people interested in living more sustainably – with next to no success. How do you feel about that?
J: That’s definitely not how I’d put it! Campaigning groups such as Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth (as well as the Green Party in a different sort of way) did an amazing job stopping more bad things happening – it would all have been infinitely worse without that. What we never did, I have to admit, was get people excited about a different model of progress. We failed to make the idea of sustainable living aspirational – not just necessary (which is what all the science kept on telling us) but desirable.
A: And the only aspiration that really mattered was the desire for more stuff?
J: Pretty much.
A: So why The World We Made? Why conjure me up as your spokesperson?
J: To help break that deadlock. The science was all on our side, and the technology breakthroughs started coming thick and fast in the first decade of this century. But our politicians just couldn’t break free of the old orthodoxies. They were obsessed with the illusion of permanent economic growth, whatever the social and environmental consequences.
A: Hang on a minute – aren’t you just a little bit conflicted here?
J: What do you mean?
A: Well, we’re only where we are today because of roughly 20 years of full-on economic growth between 2015 and 2035, with literally trillions of dollars of economic value created in transitioning from your hopelessly inefficient, carbon-intensive economy to our near-zero-carbon, ultra-efficient economy. OK, it’s very different now, in that economic growth (as measured by conventional GDP) is just one small part of what we mean by progress. But we’d never have got here without that period of ‘green growth’, as I think you called it then.
J: That’s good to hear. But can you imagine what it was like trying to advocate that approach earlier in the century? We were caught between a self-serving establishment of business-as-usual zealots and an equally extreme zero-growth movement for whom growth itself (and technology, by the way) was the root of all our problems.
A: We picked that up in our research. And it wasn’t until 2029 that GDP was finally replaced by different measures of economic wellbeing. But we now know that it was all that green growth that created the space for a more intelligent debate about progress, about wellbeing, quality of life and real security. I don’t mean the travesty of ‘security’ in your time, measured solely by the trillions of dollars wasted by nations on weapons of war – even as the physical foundations of life on Earth were just eroding away.
J: 2029? Even by the turn of the century it was apparent to a lot of people that permanent economic growth on a finite planet was just about the stupidest idea we’d ever come up with – but the majority of people still believed that without constant economic growth, year on year, society would collapse.
A: But there was something deeper than that going on, wasn’t there? That obsession with growth was partly because they couldn’t cope with the idea of a more equitable economy. The growth was necessary to mask ever deeper levels of inequality – as the super-rich kept on getting richer at the expense of everyone else.
J: You’re big on all that stuff, aren’t you? One of the promotional lines for The World We Made is “A world in which there are still rich and poor, but the rich are poorer but happier, and the poor are richer in so many ways.” What exactly does that mean?
A: Well, there are still lots of rich people today, but there are no super-rich. And even those that are still poor in money terms enjoy a very reasonable quality of life.
J: That really does sound Utopian!
A: Really? Well, we find it almost impossible to explain how you guys put up with things year after year. It was clear for all to see that the super-rich kept on getting richer precisely because they had the politicians in one pocket and the global media in the other. So it took some world-shaking explosions of rage in 2018 and the late 2020s to restore fairness as the foundation of any genuinely sustainable economy.
J: Interesting. That’s just not how people characterised sustainability in my day. It was all about pollution, climate change, biodiversity and so on.
A: It is all about those things! But whoever supposed that it would be possible to find solutions to those challenges without addressing equity at the same time? You know that – in one of your earlier books, you pointed out that if you’re up to your neck in a crocodile-infested swamp, the last thing you worry about is the quality of the water!
J: Yes, well a few of us…
A: You do keep banging on about ‘the few’ don’t you? Politics has always been about winning majorities, not minorities – which is where you seemed to be stuck. The breakthroughs only came when outright majorities of people, in both the once-rich world and the newly-rich world, realised where their own interests lay – and that wasn’t with the super-rich, that was for sure!
J: But people were so locked into that old model of progress. There must have been some massive shocks to the system along the way?
A: Of course – who’s being Pollyanna-ish now? Famine, cyber-terrorism, climate catastrophes and species extinctions: there’s been no shortage of shocks! And that’s what made things change at the end of the day.
J: But we had plenty of those shocks to the system even before the turn of the century. People just adapted, as if that was somehow ‘the new normal’. So what happened on food security, for instance?
A: Well, those little shocks in your day became ever more frequent, with food shortages and food riots all over the place. But exactly as you say, most people were still surprised when a combination of factors (including a horrendous outbreak of black rust fungus in wheat crops across the Middle East, India and China) led to that long-predicted famine in 2025 – with at least 10 million dead. From then on, it was very different.
J: I suppose you’re going to tell me that GM crops came to the rescue?
A: Not really. They helped a bit on the margin, but nothing like as much as much safer ways of increasing yields, as well as reducing food waste, and getting communities back into the business of growing their own food. As it happens, 40% of the food we eat today is grown in our cities. And there are no food shortages!
J: You could just about detect the early signals of those changes from 2010 onwards, although most government policy-makers were blind to that direction of travel – just to confirm your rather trenchant criticism of poor political leadership in our day! But there were so many taboo subjects in those days – such as excessive meat consumption, for example.
A: So guess when the ‘peak meat’ moment came – the point when global meat consumption started to decline?
J: Er, 2035?
A: Close: it was 2031, as it happens. Health concerns were the biggest factor, but it was greatly helped by the growing acceptability of artificial meat, as it became both healthier and cheaper than the ‘real’ stuff. And global population growth had slowed so much by then.
J: I was wondering when you would get onto that! If ever there was a taboo subject, population was it! So many environmentalists in my day just couldn’t stomach the logic that if you’re talking about per capita footprints (in terms of CO2 emissions and so on) you need to address both the size of the footprint and the number of feet! Talk about systematic denial…
A: We never did get to the bottom of that in our research, especially as there were already sizeable majorities of people in most countries that wanted to see population reduced – through non-coercive family planning and better education. But as just about everything got scarcer and more expensive, the penny finally dropped. Funding for family planning increased massively from 2018 onwards, which is why our population today is just 8.6 billion, and will almost certainly stabilise below 9 billion before the end of this century.
J: That’s amazing!
A: It guess it helped a bit when the Pope reversed decades of largely ignored doctrine by declaring artificial conception to be just fine in the eyes of God.
J: Now that’s some deus ex machina!
A: Actually, it was no big deal at the time. By 2020, pretty nearly all the world’s mainstream religions and major spiritual organisations had woken up to the insanity of continuing to trash ‘God’s Earth’, as it were, becoming some of the most potent forces for change.
J: I’m beginning to see how this all adds up: shocks to the system, massive investment in clean technology, an emphasis on fairness as the foundation stone of sustainable economics, a better quality of leadership… I suppose we did dream a bit about all those things coming together to usher in a period of genuinely disruptive transformation. But whatever optimism was around at that time was usually drowned out by the impending horror of accelerating climate change.
A: And with good cause! It’s unbelievable to people today that you just let things drift for nearly 25 years – from the 1990s onwards. And to be honest, we still don’t know for certain that we have avoided the horror of runaway climate change. We think we have: concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are falling rapidly, with 80% of total energy from renewable sources and 30% of all electricity from solar technologies of one kind or another – including artificial photosynthesis.
J: I’m not sure I know what that is?
A: You should do: Green Futures covered it back in 2011! It’s just one of countless technology breakthroughs that allowed us to ‘decarbonise’ our economy very quickly. But we do still have to implement expensive schemes to get billions of tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere through direct air capture, ocean fertilisation and other relatively low-risk technologies.
J: I wondered if all that stuff would become a necessity.
A: It wouldn’t have if you had got your act together sooner!
J: Well, you have made that abundantly clear on a number of occasions now. And the really tragic thing is that most clear-headed people knew we needed to change, but it looked like such a big leap of faith at the time that it just never happened.
A: Yes, I can certainly sympathise with that. I guess we’re just better at all that visioning stuff these days.
J: In fact, there were so few visions of what a genuinely sustainable world would look like at that time, and why it would be such a good place to live for the vast majority of people, that…
A: That you just had to write The World We Made?