A lot has changed since 2007

In writing Replay Earth, I was not specifically looking at what people might actually do in a climate-ravaged future. The example I give in the book are notional and the notions are well-established: sustainability, fairness, collaboration, connection. But fairly early on, I realized that this was only part of the equation.

I am now embarked on writing a sequel, and have thoughts about a third book, too. In the sequel, I want to get deeper into the struggle to rebuild the world. What would life be like for people who, on the one hand, are not guaranteed of survival, and on the other hand, feel both the exhilaration and fear of needing to make entirely new social rules?

Since I don’t know what those rule should be, I have embarked on a period of doing research into what people who study these issues are saying. There’s a lot out there, but I’m not too sure how far any of these thinkers and writers have gotten.

One of the first books I’ve looked at is a collection of essays on key topics called Surviving the Century, subtitled “Facing Climate Chaos & Other Global Challenges” written in 2007. It seems to have been something of an inaugural statement by the World Future Council, a Euro-Anglo-American think tank based in Hamburg. Here’s what the scene was like in 2007:

  • George W. Bush was president and he was establishing the pattern of disengagement and duplicity around environmental issues that Trump has taken to the proverbial next level
  • The Kyoto Accords were still in effect, no Paris Accords
  • There’s little mention of actual climate disasters, as many of the hurricanes, floods and droughts that have captured popular attention had not yet happened
  • Glacial loss was just beginning to become alarming
  • And, most importantly, there was just the beginnings of recognition of both how little time we have to react and how long our failure to do so would resound.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that today there’s the beginnings of a sense that failures to certain things in 10 years, and others within 100 years, leave us only the question of just how warm it will get and just how much of the Earth will become uninhabitable to us, and to life in general for the next 1,000 years or more. That perspective was not present in 2007, at least not in the foreground. If these writers knew that, they were perhaps shielding the public from it out of fear that it would paralyze people.

So what did the World Future Council seek to focus on in 2007? Much of it is still important:

  • Sustainable cities. Herbert Girardet, who also was the lead editor for the book, focused on this. The world is largely urban now. In the developing world, once the redoubt of the rural, people are streaming in from the countryside. Deurbanization is not likely, but redefining the city might. Girardet draws on a 1996 UN formulation:

A sustainable city, ‘EcoPolis’, enables all its citizens to meet their own needs, and to enhance their well-being without damaging the natural world or endangering the living conditions of other people, now or in the future.

  • `A new socio-econcomic order. Francis Moore Lappe (she of Diet for a Small Planet fame) addresses the paradox of Western democracy: free-market capitalism leads to the concentration of power, while democracy is intended to disperse it. She calls our current arrangement “thin democracy” and wants to build a living, dynamic democracy in which the goals of society are constantly evolving and determined by the citizens. Businesses cannot elevate profit and shareholder value above the needs of the many.
  • Sustainable international trade. Many commentators have observed that while it may seem wonderful to be able to buy a pear from Japan and an apple from Chile, the environmental cost of flying a piece of fruit all that way is not sustainable. Stewart Wallis describes a new view of international trade that is centered around a few basic ideas: environmental sustainability, reduction of poverty and inequality, and regulated by open and accountable public governance.

These are all great starting points and were probably cutting edge 12 years ago. What they don’t address is what we already see happening, the cracking of the social fabric in many countries, and at all levels of development. In the relatively calmer climate of 2007 (presumably before the Crash) the answer to “How will we get there?” seems to have been assumed to be “Through steady persuasion based on the truth.”

I find it hard to believe that will suffice in today’s world. Saving this world and building a new one will require vigorous offense and defense. Living in the US in 2019, it’s hard not to feel that a key question, perhaps the key question, is “How will we conduct political change in a world where the forces arrayed against change are willing to use every social division to prevent it?”

Books like this are valuable and I’ve learned some important things from it. But we need to think in more than technocratic and idealistic terms — to those needed perspectives must come, “But how do we convince people to fight for this? And how should that fight proceed?” It seems to have been a disease of think tanks in recent years to eschew this question, but if your starting point involves greater democracy, you really must ask that question. Otherwise, you are just feeding the trope that all intellectuals live in a very well-furnished Ivory Tower, descend to go to Davos now and then, and know nothing about how real people live. And i really don’t think that is the reality or intent of the WFC.