Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Positive Futures

At a recent meeting of my local Transition group, I and others were asked to write a short description of a positive future. The example used was a set of imaginary observations made on the ground, which I felt incapable of emulating. So I deferred.

Those who know me or my writing might suspect that the problem was that I just couldn’t think of anything positive to say about the future. They might be surprised to learn that the problem was that I just didn’t feel honest about creating even a fictional description without first deriving it as a realistic extrapolation from the present (this is the approach I took with my novel “Lights Out”). It turns out that creating such a vision has been on my creative “to-do” list for a long time now, and I want to do it right.

At the same meeting, one of the members gave a presentation that summarized an approach to creating an “abundant” world, where Nature has been reinvigorated as the result of everyone working together, establishing a growing number of relationships in support of the larger system that includes us and the rest of the biosphere. I struggled to take it all in and accept his conclusions, even though I had read a fair amount about it already. The mechanism appears very similar to the growth of ecosystems.

Ecosystems, as I understand them, are very good at cycling mass and energy so that very little becomes unusable by the life forms that inhabit it. I appreciate the fact that this ability is a product of a large number of interdependencies between individuals and species, effectively “trapping” most of the energy by keeping it in complex rather than random forms (life versus heat). Increasing diversity is better for life (more of those “complex forms”) and its long term viability (minimal energy loss).

This is fine except for one thing: Change requires energy. This may be the mechanism behind the relationship I’ve observed between world population (or more precisely, the number of possible transactions of resources) and consumption. As the number of transactions and people to support them increases, so does the amount of energy used. An increase in relationships (read: transactions) may actually speed up our depletion of critical resources, unless we can derive what we need from other sources than the ones driving civilization -- particularly fossil fuels.

One way out of this dilemma is to gradually dismantle the most wasteful parts of our civilization and divert the savings into a creating a more ecologically sound replacement. It can be argued that this is already being undertaken, spearheaded by environmentalists and a growing number of other “sustainability” proponents, though the results are not yet substantially evident on a global scale.

Following this chain of reasoning, we can deduce that a better future will not resemble the present in several key respects. For one, the globalization of human activity, as a transactional enterprise, will eventually cease to exist. For another, the concentration of non-reusable and nonliving things as well as the hoarding of energy will be discouraged, if not banned outright. Other species, which are integral to the collection and reuse of energy, will be greatly valued, perhaps as much as people.

To the extent possible, toxic waste that has already been created will need to be cleaned up and safely isolated from all life that can be harmed by it. Reversing the ecological damage we’ve done (including taking habitat out of use through artificial structures and advancement of monoculture invasive species) will be critical to supporting our large population. As I’ve argued elsewhere, we need to replace current consumption of nonrenewable resources by 5% per year to avoid population collapse, and one way to do that is to replace it with renewable and reusable resources, and enabling natural systems may be our best hope of reaching this target.

The hardest thing to project is how day-to-day life will be experienced under these conditions, other than as a return to the way most humans lived until agriculture was invented, which I don’t consider viable. As it becomes clearer, I will share it, perhaps as another work of fiction.


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