Saturday, March 29, 2014

The World We Can Make

Jonathon Porritt set out to do one of the hardest jobs I can think of for a writer: Envision and explain what the world could be like in 2050 if we just got our act together.

Speaking through an imagined 50-year-old British teacher named AlexMcKay as he looks back on the first half of the 21st century, Porritt recounts the changes we made in 10 key areas:
  • Agriculture, food, and water
  • Biodiversity and the natural world
  • Climate change
  • Economics and finance
  • Energy
  • Health and education
  • Politics and security
  • Society and cities
  • Technology and manufacturing
  • Travel and transport
Clearly, Porritt is not right about everything, or maybe even many things, but it's a brave book because someone needs to say what we should do instead of what we shouldn't. The world he describes is not perfect by a long shot, but it seems like something we could accomplish if we just had the political will.

He comes the closest on economics and finance, energy, climate change, and agriculture/food/water. I believe these are closest to his areas of expertise. He seems the most naive about health and politics (especially U.S. politics!).

The chapter on the response to climate change lays out the basics of how they succeeded:
  • They put energy efficiency at the heart of every economic decision
  • They got some quick big wins, including eliminating soot from inefficient cooking stoves
  • They focused on CO2 in the forests and the soil (no tillage farming, coplanting for erosion control)
  • They learned how to power the world responsibly (breakthroughs in solar, but also wind, geothermal, tidal and wave, and artificial photosynthesis)
Some other highlights:

A key bit of economic reform (enacted in 2021) is a worldwide tax on financial transactions and an end to tax havens. This decreases speculation and hiding capital in countries like the Caymans. I have no idea what it would take to get something like that enacted. Porritt provides the impetus through a global youth movement called Enough!, which combines pushes for environmental and economic changes.

Another important step was something called Cap and Prosper, basically a carbon tax with the proceeds going to general income supports to people (70 percent), infrastructure projects (20 percent), and deficit reduction (10 percent).

Co-ops are a big part of the new economic world order, not surprisingly. Also decreased military spending finally starts to pay the long-sought peace dividend. Plus cohousing and community gardening as a main part of food systems.

He has some neat thoughts on how we broke our addiction to airplane travel -- a combination of better telepresence and a tourism lottery that applies to everyone, even the rich.

An international court for the environment has achieved true influence, to the point where ecocide has become a crime, applied "to things that cause large-scale or potentially irreversible damage to the 'global commons' on which we all depend" (page 227). I was wishing for that as I read of the latest feeble attempts to restrict frac-sand mining in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The chapter on democracy made me cry. He discusses the tension environmentalists feel about elected politicians making (or not making) the kind of long-term decisions we need to stop climate change and solve our other big problems. "Indeed, there was a time when all people could talk about was 'sustainability China-style.' With no voters to worry about, it's true that China got more done on sustainability issues in the decade between 2010 and 2020 than Western democracies had managed over many decades before that" (page 244). But democracy comes through in the end. A big part of the change in the U.S., he says, was in 2021 when the Supreme Court finally bought Larry Lessig's argument about the inherent corruption of money in politics. The result: a ban on any contribution over $5,000.

And criticisms:

Porritt's faith in genome sequencing and personalized medicine is off, I think. As we know, generalized medical screening leads to overdiagnosis and unnecessary treatment. Unless something major changes in medicine, I don't see that reality turning into perfect knowledge that makes everyone healthier.

He skirts the complex issues of electronic surveillance and privacy. At one point, in discussing security (in terms crime or terrorism, not sure which) he writes this: "instant face recognition systems mean that the barriers between us and the [school] community that we serve can be kept to a minimum" (page 82). So they don't need to barricade the school to keep the students safe, but if someone from the community tries to walk onto campus, they're stopped because the cameras don't recognize the face?

And I can't resist a few nitpicky things:
  • Porritt has Obama imposing a soda tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in 2014. Yeah, right. With what Congress? Obama can't impose a tax on his own.
  • It's funny how the book uses visuals of mocked-up magazines (with week-long cover dates, even) to illustrate some of the chapters. Does anyone really think magazines will still be printed and have covers 30 or 40 years in the future? I don't.
I don't want to end on a negative, though, because the book overall is a great start to a conversation we need to have. Porritt is continuing that already.

So here's my final bit of appreciation for his take on the basics of raising and educating young children: "Limitless love, total security, and lots of fun and games." If every child had those three things, imagine where we could be.

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