It is possible to revolutionise humanity’s relationship with nature and avert environmental catastrophe. Margarita Mediavilla* dreams up a vision of what a sustainable future would be like.
It’s easy to find catastrophic visions of the future in the scientific literature on climate change. As a response to these pessimistic forecasts, a set of positive visions of a future where humanity has reacted well to the environmental challenges is appearing, with the aim of inspiring our collective imagination towards positive solutions.
This exercise of imagination is crucial. “Utopia lies on the horizon. When I draw nearer by two steps, it retreats two steps,” observed the celebrated Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. “What, then, is the purpose of Utopia? It is to cause us to advance.”
One recent example of this visionary storytelling appeared in The Guardian, co-authored by none other than Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary of the UN Climate Change Convention.
On many levels, this thought exercise presents an appealing, even idyllicvision: trees cover an amazing 50% of the world’s land surface, agriculture has become biodiversity friendly and burning fossil fuels is a thing of the past.
However, in a reality where our virgin forests are rapidly disappearing, this vision talks about planting billions of new trees while failing to spell out how the massive deforestation the world is experiencing can be halted and reversed.
Beyond the trees, this vision exhibits that variety of evergreen optimism that technology can save the day. “Most of our energy now comes from renewable sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and hydro,” the authors explain, ignoring the fact that hydroelectric power can also be devastating for the environment and communities living in the area.
While decentralised, distributed grids and renewable energy technologies are promising avenues, the finite global supply of numerous vital minerals required to manufacture the renewable energy infrastructure may not be sufficient, and the impact of mining them is likely to be devastating to many parts of the planet, as our research shows. Renewable energy can only be a part of the solution and must be coupled with sufficiency, rather than growth.
Visualising the future
Given these shortcomings, I honestly think that humankind must develop much more ambitious visions of what a truly sustainable future might look like. These visions cannot be based solely on technological innovation and lifestyle changes. They must tackle the core problems of our social structures, our economic systems, our politics and our values.
The LOCOMOTION project, in which I am involved, was born as an attempt to develop scientific tools that enable us to visualise the different pathways to a sustainable future. Unfortunately, modelling is a slow and laborious activity, and our scenarios are not due for some time.
In contrast, imagination is much faster. Based on what we already have learned from our previous research, we can imagine a whole lot of things that could make a much more sustainable society than most of the alternatives currently proposed.
In 2050 the primary objective of our economies has shifted from maximising the growth in gross domestic product (GDP) to the maximisation of human well-being within the limits of sustainability. Human welfare is now measured by a spectrum of quality of life and environmental indicators, including contentment, health, welfare, solidarity, ecological footprint, the Energy Return on Investment, the recycling rate of technology and the conservation of natural capital.
In the decades leading up to 2050, the limits of continuous economic growth were discussed widely in political debates and this enabled a huge cultural change. Governments undertook ambitious awareness-raising campaigns to ensure that every company, worker, family and farmer thought about the possibilities of energy saving in their daily activities. Living in harmony with nature and having lifestyles of austere abundance have become social status symbols.
Heavy taxes on energy and the most damaging activities to the biosphere were imposed. But, at the same time, sustainable ways of satisfying citizens’ material needs were guaranteed to every person through such measures as a universal basic income. Taxation and other policies helped shift the economy away from resource and capital-intensive activities towards those that provided maximum employment for the lowest energy expenditure. This proved not only to be profitable for people and planet, it helped reduce the gaping inequalities of the first two decades of the 21st century.
To facilitate the energy transition, corporations reinvented their production processes. They rethought all industrial activities to make them more energy efficient, and to incorporate the total recycling of minerals and the direct use of solar heat.
The fruits of sustainability
In 2050, agriculture has been completely transformed from the industrial model in vogue during the 20th and early 21st centuries towards ecological, regenerative and local techniques. The huge savings that this policy generated throughout the food production chain were invested into researching innovative ecological techniques that ended up being a lot more efficient than the chemical-based methods of yesteryear. Moreover, farming without tillage and holistic planned grazing helped reverse desertification and soil erosion in many regions of the planet.
Concern with the ethical, health and environmental impact of industrial livestock rearing has led to a largescale shift towards vegetarianism, veganism or diets in which meat was a treat, not a staple. The shift of demand in meat from quantity to the rolling out of sustainable and holistic livestock breeding techniques. Moreover, the attendant drop in the demand for soymeal for animal feed and grazing land led to the restoration of vast tracts of rainforest and increased the amount of food available in impoverished countries.
Farming is no longer solely a rural affair. As occurred in many poorer countries haphazardly in the past, urban and peri-urban agriculture managed to satisfy a large part of the food needs of cities and create numerous jobs This compensated for the loss of jobs caused by the bankruptcy of business groups linked to industry and the automobile.
Soil regeneration and the relocalisation of food production have helped to vanquish malnutrition and severe poverty in poorer countries.
Engines of urban change
Following a growing realisation that the era of the private automobile had done more harm than good, cities around the world have banned private cars from their streets, replacing them with high-quality public transport and a wide range of light vehicles, both mechanical and electric. Not only are traffic jams a thing of the past, air quality has improved no end.
Migration to medium-sized cities and towns has been encouraged as way to cut down transportation time and energy consumption.
The state subsidised the conversion of the entire housing stock to maximise the energy efficiency of all building. The roofs and facades of the houses are filled with solar collectors for heating, hot water, cooking and electricity.
Waste treatment has become completely organic. Urban gardens recycle food waste, while raw sewage is treated with green filters. Plastic waste has been eliminated with heavy taxes on the use of non-reusable containers and the application of severe waste separation policies.
Research and development focuses on creating sustainable technologies, by extending the useful lives of electronic devices and maximising the recycling of the minerals used in their manufacture. Every single gram of mineral is controlled in order to ensure its recycling and used for future generations.
Global research projects have been established to investigate solutions to the greatest challenges facing humanity: the greening of the planet, adaptation to climate change, the protection of biodiversity, the recycling of key minerals, the replacement of toxic compounds, the recovery of fisheries, conserving water, etc. The human population has already peaked and is beginning to settle at a more sustainable level, while organic agriculture and the shift towards a more vegetable-based diet has increased the quantity of animals, plants and wildlife throughout the planet. Biodiversity is gradually recovering from the existential threat posed by the Sixth Great Extinction.
Margarita Mediavilla has a PhD in physical sciences from the University of Valladolid (Spain) and is an associate professor of systems engineering and automation at the School of Industrial Engineering. She is also a very active in awareness raising about the limits of economic growth, participating in all kinds of publications and conferences in the Spanish-speaking world. Her personal blog is Habas Contadas.