Distillations magazine

Unexpected Stories from Science’s Past
October 11, 2016 Environment

Imagining a Postcarbon Future

How do we think about a world that doesn’t yet exist?


Climate change may be unique among the problems humanity has faced. It is caused by people, affects everyone, and is potentially catastrophic—far worse than any other crisis, other than perhaps nuclear war. Yet climate change is hard to see and understand, at least in its early stages. It’s like a deadly but still latent virus, silently proliferating in the body, worthy of huge attention but generating relatively little concern.

This odd state of affairs provokes a wide range of responses. Many people are apathetic; others refuse to believe the crisis is real. Some of the most knowledgeable succumb to pessimism. Climate scientists profiled in an Esquire article in 2015 describe becoming depressed by the lack of progress on anti−global warming efforts and particularly demoralized by political attacks from climate-change deniers.

Nonscientists can also lose hope. Journalist Ezra Klein concluded that humanity has missed its opportunity to prevent disaster, writing, “The question isn’t whether we’ll fail. It’s how badly we’ll fail.”

You won’t find many well-informed people who believe everything will be just fine. But Klein’s formulation—that there are a range of possible scenarios, of better and worse failures—points out the great uncertainty inherent in predicting the future. In fact the scientists, economists, policy makers, planners, and activists focused on climate issues predicate their work on the belief that it is possible to prevent the worst scenario from coming to pass.

This isn’t hope exactly, but something tougher—an implicit conviction that humanity will not allow itself to descend into chaos and that it can develop tools to favorably bend the course of history. After Klein published a list of reasons why the climate-change fight would likely fail, climate expert Andrew Dessler told International Business Times that the writer was too pessimistic. “I remain optimistic that we’ll figure some way out of this problem,” Dessler said. “Don’t bet against the cleverness of humanity.”

It’s comforting that some of those most intimately familiar with the problem believe it’s still solvable. At the same time, the vagueness of the assurances is somewhat unnerving. Dessler’s expectation that “some way out” will manifest itself soon enough to make a significant difference is an awfully slender reed on which to rest one’s hope for the future of mankind.

Finding a hardier source of optimism or inspiration, one that is credible while still remaining positive, poses a major challenge. Such insight must allow us to imagine a good future for our children and grandchildren, avoid fantastic technological breakthroughs or improbable political developments, and be comprehensible and even compelling to nonexperts.

Such a vision could not only help people maintain their sanity but also motivate them to work harder to make the vision a reality. So argues Alex Steffen, a self-described “planetary futurist” who focuses on sustainable urban design. We already know what a climate dystopia looks like—a hotter planet plagued by higher sea levels, flooded cities, bigger deserts, drought, famine, mass migration, and war. In a recent pitch for his latest project, a futurist documentary film, Steffen said we need a persuasive, brighter alternative if we are to have a real chance of achieving the radical change the climate crisis demands.

“It’s literally true that we can’t build what we can’t imagine,” Steffen wrote. “The fact that we haven’t compellingly imagined a thriving, dynamic, sustainable world is a major reason we don’t already live in one.”

An Imperative to Hope

The climate futurist’s central task is to describe a human society that no longer depends on coal and oil, both of which release carbon dioxide when burned. Currently, increased concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere are trapping solar energy that would have otherwise escaped, raising the planet’s temperature. Significant sources of GHGs include methane and nitrous oxide emitted by natural-gas extraction, agriculture, and other processes.

The fears of those who believe it is too late to prevent disaster stem from calculations suggesting that to prevent serious harms from climate change, we should prevent global average temperatures from rising more than 2°C above preindustrial-era levels. The effects of exceeding 2°C might turn out to be manageable, but the greater heat could also create catastrophic points of no return, such as the release of methane and CO2 from biomass exposed by melting Arctic tundra, leading to a vicious feedback loop of quickly rising temperatures.

Based on current trends, staying below 2°C appears all but impossible. Temperatures are already averaging about 0.9°C higher, and we’re heading toward a 2°C increase by around 2050 and 5°C by 2100, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other organizations.

Cutting GHG emissions in half by 2050 would keep us below the 2°C target, but that would require immediately shutting down coal-fired power plants, taking gasoline-burning cars off the road, and reducing agricultural sources of methane (rice paddies and cows’ stomachs, for example). We would need to plant massive forests to draw CO2 out of the air and perhaps build machines that can also suck CO2 from the atmosphere. At the moment few of these efforts have begun, and GHG emissions are still rising.

The field of climate science roils with competing proposals on the best course to slow and then reverse global warming. But vivid portrayals of the world after the problem is licked are relatively scarce, as Steffen suggests. Even in science fiction, depictions that are not dystopic are rare. That may be because a peaceable society distinguished by its large numbers of solar panels, wind turbines, and CO2-absorbing forests is not in itself particularly engrossing. Utopias can be boring.

One of the few relatively happy postcarbon fictions, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, remains entertaining while venturing into geeky description of the book’s world, depicting highly energy-efficient homes and ships and characters who bicycle everywhere. However, the broader systems that allow the world to function without burning fossil fuels are barely sketched out, as befits a novel. The plot, reasonably enough, centers on the characters’ love lives and a political battle between developers and land preservationists.

The difficulty is creating a compelling, realistic near term, the bridge that gets us from the known present to the ideal future.

For much wonkier, detail-oriented descriptions of the postcarbon future, we must look to a handful of creative ecologists and activists. They have performed the thought experiment of taking real strategies for combating climate change and playing them out into something approaching stories, though without fully entering the realm of science fiction.

Steffen offers some such scenarios in his writings, but professional futurists like him tend to be cautious, sticking to practical, near-term scenarios. In one book he painstakingly lays out useful ideas—more densely populated cities designed to encourage walking instead of driving, for example—but he rarely ventures into narrative. He is more interested in theory and pragmatic strategies than in imagining a panorama of the year 2030 or 2075.

Writers who go further must decide how fictive their works will be and where to position themselves on the spectrum of technological advocacy. As in debates about mitigating climate change in the present, the dominant strain of thought about postcarbon futures assumes the expansion of cutting-edge technologies is essential, whether that means ubiquitous solar panels or energy-efficient methods for producing cement.

But another group of thinkers rejects the technological mind-set, arguing that environmental salvation will come only from creating a simpler, smaller society that consumes far fewer natural resources.

The two viewpoints split partly on how population growth will play out, with the “technotopia” adherents arguing there is no way humanity will keep from expanding substantially. According to this line of thinking, if the world population does grow from the current 7 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050, as the United Nations projects, the only acceptable path is widespread deployment of technologies that use natural resources in sustainable, efficient, and nonpolluting ways.

Thus, using optimism—or hopeful prediction—to motivate the needed political and scientific changes becomes a moral imperative. The optimists include British environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, who is eager to play the (mostly) sunny propagandist in his futurist book The World We Made, as he explained in a 2014 interview with Grist:

What’s amazing is that, technologically, it’s going to be possible to create a genuinely good, sustainable world for 9 billion people by 2050. I have absolutely no doubt about that in my own mind whatsoever. That’s a pretty good starting point, because technology is the bare minimum.
What I’m trying to do in the book is to demonstrate to people that this innovation pipeline is bulging. There are new ideas and brilliant breakthroughs and all sorts of technological opportunities emerging on a daily basis. Which means we can free ourselves from fossil fuels, we can get incredible resource efficiency. . . . We need that as a starting point, just to give people a sense of doability—it is doable. At the moment, too many people think it isn’t doable.

Embracing Crises

Porritt has the right résumé to write a wonkish, realistic, yet hopefully compelling vision of the future. Though not a scientist, he has been both an educator and a politician, working as an English teacher and heading the British Green Party in the early 1980s. He has written several books and cofounded the Forum for the Future, a nonprofit that advises such multinational companies as Kellogg’s and Unilever on their sustainability plans.

Porritt attempts to make his futurism enticing by having his main character, a teacher named Alex McKay, look back from 2050 and describe how the world changed over the previous 40 years. The book, published in 2013, stands out for its comprehensiveness: Porritt seems to have investigated trends in almost every imaginable area—not only the climate but also biodiversity, agriculture, finance, law, technology, religion, medicine, and education.

Porritt is extremely optimistic in parts, describing a U.S. political system that by 2016 unites behind climate-change mitigation as a response to hurricanes and other severe weather events. A CO2 cap-and-trade system is created, reducing GHG emissions and raising money for energy-efficiency projects. A terrible flood in China likewise persuades that country to stop burning coal.

He’s also an enthusiast for certain economic trends, like recycling and Airbnb-style sharing services, which are popular with some futurists as ways to reduce resource consumption. By the 2020s, he writes, the “age of selfish consumerism was over, personal ownership became much less important, while renting, sharing, swapping and bartering became the new norm. . . . All the ridiculous status seeking and ownership fetishism that dominated the second half of the twentieth century has all but disappeared.”

In a few places he makes his vision tougher and even pessimistic, in an effort perhaps to leaven the general hopefulness. His future Pakistan, for example, is poor, corrupt, and plagued with floods and drought. And his world uses direct air capture of atmospheric CO2 to reverse global warming, even though such geoengineering—or large-scale environmental intervention—is extremely unpopular with green activists, who dismiss it as expensive, an energy hog, and unproven. The book includes a mocked-up photo of a trailer-sized air-filtering device, which pulls CO2 out of the atmosphere by binding it to sodium hydroxide. The CO2 would ultimately be separated out, pressurized, and stored underground.

In the section on CO2 capture, Porritt tried to be “very realistic about using the data we have available,” he told Grist. “It’s written from the recognition that we’ve got things so badly wrong so far that we’re almost certainly going to have to [use geoengineering].”

The book seesaws between this kind of serious, fact-based extrapolation of current trends and bursts of fantastic utopianism. In one chapter Porritt allows himself the indulgence of a response to climate change led by U.S. Republicans. In another section the world’s religions sign an agreement to advocate for environmental remediation, poverty reduction, and other sustainability goals. Fantasy, Porritt argues, makes the book fun, at least for him. “You have to draw some improbable straws out of this jar and see what happens,” he said.

The problem with visionaries who craft technological utopias isn’t their overly imaginative hope for a redemptive crisis but their failure to think even more unconventionally.

The sheer sweep of Porritt’s vision and its grounding in data and hard science are impressive, and its friendly tone and illustrations soften the policy wonkiness. But the book is still a fairly dense read, without much of a novelistic plot, and the more speculative sections weaken the inspirational goal. Porritt repeatedly depends on deus ex machina crises of various kinds, whether hurricanes or global youth revolts, to bring on the progressive changes he thinks the world needs.

This reliance on dramatic breakthroughs illustrates perhaps the biggest challenge to the mini-genre of climate futurism: it’s haunted by the present. The problem isn’t depicting the distant future, which is unknowable and thus resistant to criticism of the vision’s verisimilitude. The difficulty is creating a compelling, realistic near term, the bridge that gets us from the known present to the ideal future.

To give one example, Porritt says that massive adoption of solar power is absolutely necessary to allow us to quit using fossil fuels. But how does that actually happen? In real life it’s a gradual process involving countless political moves, policy decisions, shifts in economic trends, and incremental technological improvements. It may be possible to create a thrilling story that comprehensively describes a realistic solar adoption scenario, but, well . . . on second thought, no. That actually does not seem possible. No book or film could satisfy the demands of such a project.

Porritt understands the near impossibility of the task he has taken on. He acknowledges that the book’s optimism is fragile and the feasibility of its scenarios precarious, and he reminds himself that Pollyannaish enthusiasm will win few hearts.

“Even modest hopefulness about the future becomes its own worst enemy if it isn’t true to the reality of what’s happening on the ground,” Porritt writes. “In that regard, the gap between what is actually happening and what needs to happen remains deeply disturbing.”

A Lovely World to Live In

Another basically technocentric vision was crafted by Eric Sanderson, a senior conservation ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. His book Terra Nova is for the most part a history of land use and the energy industry in the United States; it also offers better ways to organize urban development, taxation, transportation, and power production. But a short final section paints a vivid picture of how the world might look in 2028 if Sanderson’s ideas were made real, putting flesh on his theoretical bones in a way Porritt never quite does.

Sanderson humanizes his world by making himself the main character and setting the short chapter in his real-life neighborhood of City Island, in New York’s Bronx borough. It’s a lovely world, not that much different from the present but more efficient in a quaint way, with high-density housing, plentiful neighborhood shops, proliferating mass transit, and few cars other than electric delivery vehicles.

“Streams of bikes speed by along dedicated paths beside the retro City Island streetcars, which rumble by every couple minutes in the center lane,” he writes. Higher density provides more tax revenues, which pay for bike lanes, streetcar tracks, and a seaside park with a small forest. “Though there are more people and hustle and bustle on the streets, City Island is quieter without explosion cars and motorcycles; standing on the sidewalk, we hear the cries of oystercatchers from the shore.”

Sanderson and his wife have just retired from their jobs; they hop on a light-rail line that has replaced the Cross Bronx Expressway and take high-speed trains to Chicago and then to San Francisco. From their seats they see greenbelts of forest and prairie, small farms, woodlands and meadows that have replaced industrial agriculture, armies of massive wind turbines surrounded by grazing bison and elk, and deserts filled with solar fields and geothermal plants.

They wind up at their new home in San Francisco, which features “expansive picture windows facing the Golden Gate, a small protected garden, and a study for my old-fashioned books and me,” he writes. “An Italian bakery nearby infiltrates the neighborhood with the aroma of fresh bread and coffee. The bell on the streetcar jangles as it passes by.” He presents a narrow slice of the world, an idyllic reverie of the upper-class American coastal intelligentsia, but it’s also completely realistic and therefore even more persuasive.

This picturesque interlude soon ends, unfortunately, and the book moves on to vaguer, less satisfying hypotheses about the economy and society. Higher energy costs will make industrial products more expensive and spur local artisanship; carmakers will turn into streetcar manufacturers; as oil wars end, the military will shrink. Dense living patterns will force people to shop more frequently, “bump into each other more,” and become more tolerant and convivial.

At his most compelling, however, Sanderson succeeds in painting a rich, inspiring vision of the future by slowing down and focusing on the details, which seem entirely achievable.

“People love that part of the book,” he said in an interview from his office at the Bronx Zoo. “That’s the world I’d like to see when I retire. A lot of people would like to live in that world. And it doesn’t seem so far away to me, especially if we have a time horizon that’s maybe 20, 30 or 50 years, something like that. It only seems far away from me when I’m listening to the news, when I listen to the things that normally get talked about in politics. In terms of what we know, in terms of scientific knowledge, it’s completely possible.”

Sanderson said he is motivated by the wish to avoid disaster, like Porritt, and by a love of his country and the world. He tries to bring an American “can-do attitude” to his work. But he also writes from a professional mission of improving the environment.

“I’m a scientist. Scientists’ main job is to understand the world and interpret it and describe it,” he said. “But I work at a conservation organization. At a conservation organization you work not just to do the science but to suggest what a better way might be.”

Sanderson’s targeted approach has its flaws as a futurist manifesto. His visionary chapter is brief, and unlike Porritt, he focuses almost exclusively on the United States. Although his proposals rest on a mountain of scientific theory, data, and historical experience, the book has curious gaps, failing to address the issues of nuclear power and industrial carbon capture. (For the record Sanderson says he thinks carbon capture may spread, but nuclear power will be doomed by its high environmental costs.)

And he freely admits the difficulty of escaping the death grip of present-day obstacles. His vision depends on governments adopting ecological use taxes, which hike the cost of less environmentally friendly activities and encourage better ones, such as dense housing and sustainable agriculture. Such assessments, called Pigouvian taxes after the early-20th-century British economist Arthur Pigou, are very popular with ecologists but face considerable political opposition and other barriers to enactment. Carbon-emissions taxes, which already exist in parts of Canada and some other countries, are a rare real-world example.

As a result, like Porritt, Sanderson is left waiting for an environmental or political crisis that will leave the nation scrambling for a solution until it happens upon his prescriptions.

“I think there will come a moment where there will be a big reform. The question is if these ideas can be articulated well enough, and when that happens, maybe something could change,” he said. “I will say, this has been the big question about the Terra Nova vision. It all sounds great, but how do you get there from where we are now? It’s really hard to imagine.”

A cloud of unreality thus surrounds even Sanderson’s sober-minded and relatable vision of a sustainable world. It’s far from science fiction—all it takes is some new taxes!—but far, too, from coming to pass.

The Joyful Survivalist

What if the problem with visionaries who craft technological utopias isn’t their overly imaginative hope for a redemptive crisis, but their failure to think even more unconventionally? Rather than assuming that society will accept difficult changes in order to allow it to continue to grow, why not admit the possibility that it will do best by shrinking to a more sustainable size?

Traces of this position run through many technology-focused futures. Porritt, in characteristically dramatic fashion, has the pope end Catholic restrictions on contraceptive use (in 2016, no less), which in combination with global family-planning efforts keeps the world population to 8.6 billion in 2050 (1.1 billion people fewer than currently expected). Sanderson says he could picture a smaller, better-educated population and says the post−fossil fuel world could see economic growth decrease to its preindustrial rate of 1% a year, well below the 3.8% average of recent decades.

In its most advanced form, however, this position is more radical. Its adherents picture a much smaller population and basically zero growth. They are the philosophical descendants of Thomas Malthus, the 18th-century English cleric who thought that food shortages, disease, and war would always limit population.

Malthus was wrong: improvements in agriculture, medicine, and other areas have allowed the population to increase far beyond what he imagined possible. But his successors say that at some point in the late 19th century, human populations crossed over the line of sustainability and began consuming resources and trashing the planet beyond the point of recovery. Climate change is one example of that runaway destruction. The only real solution, they say, is to reduce the population to a level at which a nongrowing “steady-state” economy is sustainable for the long term.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to find comprehensive descriptions of the perfect steady-state world, and those that have been attempted lack the cutting-edge vividness of technological eco-utopias. This may be because such worlds are defined in large part by absence, by a lack of stuff and striving. Furthermore, while steady-state economics is focused on maximizing human happiness rather than prosperity, it is also obsessively theoretical, giving little attention to portraying daily life in its ideal future.

One way to imagine a future steady-state world is to look at people who are already trying to live it. These true believers are philosophical cousins of survivalists and “peak oil” enthusiasts, groups who believe that environmental or political crises have already occurred or are about to. Some resort to radical self-sufficiency, living off the grid in isolated rural redoubts.

An idealized version of this frugal, agrarian life has been labeled the Simpler Way by Australian social scientist Ted Trainer, an apostle of steady-state economics. Offering his own life as a model, he describes spending 12 hours a week gardening and raising animals at his home outside Sydney. “These are things we really like doing,” he avows in one testimonial. On a typical day he might “weld a heat exchanger for the open fire, make some mud bricks, plant out some seedlings . . . put a 12 volt light into the circuit, cut some firewood, shear a sheep.”

Outside the home he might work on the community beehive or prune the community fruit trees, or serve “on the orchard care committee, the library committee and the looking-after-old-people committee, the library, fish pond or energy committee.”

Elsewhere he imagines a whole world of happy subsistence farmers: “It would be a leisure-rich environment, full of familiar people, small businesses, common projects, drama clubs, animals, gardens, farms, forests, and things to see and do,” he writes. “People would work on voluntary rosters, committees and community work groups to maintain infrastructure and provide services.”

“Living in ways that are frugal and that minimise resource use should not be seen as a burden or sacrifice that must be made to save the planet,” Trainer says. “These ways can be sources of great life satisfaction.”

A thousand objections immediately arise. What if people don’t want to become farmers and drama-club enthusiasts? What if they’re not content with what Trainer deems “sufficient?” They certainly haven’t been so far, and the prospect of having to embrace such austerity does not enhance this vision’s inspirational powers. Does everyone have to live in the woods, in Mad Max−style hovels of recycled junk? What happens to the elaborate, built-up cities where most people live? “Progress” may have wrought environmental destruction and other disasters, but it also increased longevity and allowed people to choose lifestyles other than subsistence; are we to give all that up as well?

“Progress” may have wrought environmental destruction and other disasters, but it also increased longevity and allowed people to choose lifestyles other than subsistence; are we to give all that up as well?

And, as always, how do we get there? Even if we could agree on the earth’s proper population, by what realistic and humane scheme could we force people to stop reproducing? Where is the tidal wave of funding and political support for universal free contraception that such a change would require? In the United States alone, just ensuring insurance coverage for paid contraception is an ongoing struggle. Played out to its logical ends, the steady-state path seems like a fantasy despite its exhaustive theoretical underpinnings.

Third-World Paradises

Fans of steady-state theory note that there are less-extreme versions of low-growth, sustainable societies in the real world, or at least gestures in that direction. Environmentalist Bill McKibben, a leading campaigner on climate change, highlights some of these in his book Deep Economy, such as Bhutan’s use of a “happiness index” instead of a gross national product. Stopping climate change is not Bhutan’s main goal, but such efforts suggest there are ways to live well without blighting the planet.

McKibben and other anticonsumerist advocates are particularly fascinated by the Gandhi-inspired success of Kerala, India, a poor, densely populated, economically stagnant region whose residents nonetheless have the life expectancy of Americans, literacy rates reaching nearly 100%, high rates of newspaper readership, and a falling birth rate.

According to McKibben, Kerala owes these remarkable achievements to Communist state governments that prioritized human services and quality of life but not economic growth, as well as to a culture of volunteerism, which recalls Trainer’s network of committees. He describes an organization that helps residents learn how to farm more efficiently: “In one region, for instance, owners of paddy fields were asked to allow their land to be used, free of charge, as community gardens between rice crops. This allowed the vegetables to be sold at market for less than agribusiness imports. In a rough-and-tumble way, Kerala comes closer to an experiment in sharing than any place on earth.”

McKibben notes that Kerala is not exactly self-sufficient. Unemployment is high, and many of the well-educated youth go abroad. They send home money that supports the moribund economy. Kerala’s budget deficits are growing, and some economists describe it as a fiscally unsustainable welfare state. But McKibben argues that its apparent economic weakness shows that happiness can increase untethered from growth, providing a model for sustainability.

“Kerala does little to raise the world’s temperature or to drain its oil fields; any American suburb has more cars than the whole crowded Indian state,” he writes. “By that measure alone, you could call Kerala’s society profoundly more successful than ours. Keralites may still suffer materially, but they conclusively prove it’s possible to thrive on considerably less than we consume.”

McKibben notes that Kerala is a “bizarre anomaly” even within the Third World. He considers it an inspiration for other developing nations, but it’s hard to see a country like the United States embracing a low-growth, far-left economic path any time soon. And the example of China shows that adopting Communism is on its own no guarantee of economic restraint or environmental caution.

More acceptable models are provided by certain European countries, which as McKibben points out have a higher quality of life than the United States by many measures while consuming half as much energy per person. Denmark, which is sometimes ranked as the best place to live in the world, has set a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. It may actually get there: its energy use has been flat for 45 years despite economic growth, and wind already powers 42% of electricity consumption.

In the end the search for a good postcarbon future turns out not to be a journey of hope after all. It’s more of an emotional roller coaster without end: a stomach-heaving ride from the heights of optimism for a solar-powered society to the depths of despair over apathy and hostility among political leaders, industry, and the public.

This journey also requires confidence not only about 2050 but also about 2017, and 2020, and about the possibility of even creating a useful futurism. With so many unknowns and barriers to overcome, no perfect, inspiring vision presents itself. Hope still has its place but not in any specific solution. Our safest refuge may be in the vague assurances of people like Andrew Dessler, who says we’ll find “some way out.” We have little choice but to keep muddling through, making incremental changes, waiting for one of Porritt’s emergencies to force a burst of progress—and preparing for the worst.

“It’s extremely hard to imagine a world substantially different from the one we know. But our current economies are changing the physical world in horrifying ways,” McKibben wrote back in 2007, when the time remaining before crisis hits seemed so much longer than it does now.

The greatest challenge of our era, he wrote, is to transform those economies enough to limit the damage—“to see if we can manage to mobilize the wealth of our communities to make the transition tolerable, even sweet, instead of tragic.”

Illustrations created by John Pacer, a fine artist and illustrator living in eastern Pennsylvania.

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