This article is part of a regular section in Solutions in which the author is challenged to envision a future society in which all the right changes have been made.
The year is 2071, and the world is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 2021 Mumbai Earth Treaty. On this momentous day, it seems appropriate to look back at the dramatic sequence of events that followed in the wake of that agreement. Today's world may seem somewhat tame and placid, but its origins lie in the wrenching decisions of the 2020s that led to what is now known as the Great Deceleration—choices that had to be made quickly, at a time when no one could be certain of the consequences.
Throughout the first two decades of this century, the world's biggest economies had continued to function as if the Earth's store of fossil fuels and other mineral resources was inexhaustible and its capacity to absorb greenhouse gases and other wastes was unlimited. Of course, few actually believed that to be true, but almost everyone acted as if it was. The way that the economies of the time were structured, their very survival depended on uninterrupted growth. It was assumed, somewhat vaguely, that our ability to provide life's physical necessities, regardless of resource constraints, would follow a trajectory similar to that of digital technology, with rising efficiency, rapid doubling times, and no apparent endpoint.
But harsh realities could not be ignored forever. By 2020, the rapid rises in global temperatures, the environmental outrages being committed in pursuit of exotic fossil fuel reserves, the sharp increase in the frequency and intensity of climatic disasters, and the accelerated degradation of the planet's soils, oceans, and plant and animal populations all were making it clear that humanity faced a stark decision. Would we simply forge ahead, hoping for a last-minute technological bailout? Or would we pull back within sustainable ecological boundaries and resolve not to trespass beyond them?
Earlier, as the twentieth century was ending, ecological economists had foreseen the necessity of making such tough decisions.1 They had argued that for civilization to endure intact through the coming century, people would be compelled to decide between the worldviews of the “technological optimist” and the “technological skeptic.”2,3 They said that the world could exist in only one state at a time. Therefore, either the optimists or the skeptics could be right in their assumptions about our actual future—but not both. Depending on which worldview people allowed to guide their actions—and, crucially, which worldview turned out be the correct one—we would see, in this schema (and using the nicknames assigned), one and only one of four possible scenarios come to pass:
- If we acted in accordance with the technological optimists’ worldview and they were right, a “Star Trek” future would emerge.
- If we acted in accordance with the technological optimists’ worldview and they were wrong, a “Mad Max” future would be our fate.
- If we acted in accordance with the technological skeptics’ worldview, and the optimists rather than the skeptics were right, a Big Government future would emerge.
- If we acted in accordance with the technological skeptics’ worldview and they had made the right assumptions, an “Ecotopia” future (named with a nod to Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel of that title) would await. Ecotopia would provide enough resources for all in a socially and environmentally stable society.
The names given to these alternative futures tell the story. In the Star Trek world, for example, seemingly miraculous climate-neutral energy technologies would be developed, making a life of leisure possible for twenty billion human beings, a large share of whom would depart for a life on other planets or moons. In a Mad Max world, by contrast, betting on the emergence of world-saving technologies would turn out to have been a big mistake. Technological marvels, in particular, abundant cheap energy sources, would never appear. Greedy corporations would run the world, with individuals and governments powerless to control them. The few people lucky enough to have jobs would slave away for 90 to 100 hours a week, while everyone else scrambled for scarce food and shelter in vast, brutal slums that had once been great cities. (And, as in the film, you could get yourself killed over a liter of gasoline.)
By taking the technological skeptic's road, on the other hand, the world would risk missing out on postindustrial miracles that, some believed, might still be just around the corner. This became the chief preoccupation of leading free-market proponents. They argued that if economies were subjected to constraints the Star Trek future would always remain a fictional future, a tragically missed opportunity. We would have to resign ourselves to living out this century in a Big Government world, one in which bureaucratic encumbrances and high resource taxes protect the ecosphere but at the cost of preventing economic growth from reaching its full potential. Those making this argument generally failed to point out that by taking the skeptics' route, the world could actually keep open the option to take advantage—cautiously to be sure—of any promising new developments that actually might emerge. In fact, imposing restraints on resource exploitation could stimulate the discovery of many quality-of-life improvements that might not otherwise have arisen in a society devoted to growth for growth's sake. And whatever its deficiencies, a world that had conserved and maintained its physical and biological foundations, and its options for innovation, would be far preferable to a Mad Max scenario from which there would have been no escape.
A group of thinkers known as the Global Scenario Group set out to broaden and deepen the analysis of these alternative visions with their publication Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead.4 In it, they examined a larger set of possible futures, from a world that attempts to carry on business as usual by using up resources profligately to a hyper-local Ecotopia, to a descent into barbarism. The two most desirable futures required a Great Transition that, as the publication puts it, would be “galvanized by the search for a deeper basis for human happiness and fulfillment.” That search would be global in scope and would replace wealth accumulation as “a central theme of human development.” The Great Transition would break what the publication called “the lockstep connection between consumption and well-being,” while policy reform and technological programs would reduce the perceived need for more and more material things.
In the decades that followed, the Great Transition Initiative and allied efforts on every continent turned out a large body of work that provided the post-2021 world with a roadmap of sorts. The precise route to be taken to a sustainable future remained to be worked out, but the consequences of choosing one route over another had become much clearer.
After ignoring this logic for decades, the world finally woke up. By the time the delegates to the August, 2021 U.N. Earth Conference had gathered in the half-flooded city of Mumbai, it had become clear that without a dramatic change of course, civilization was going to devolve into a Mad Max world long before salvation through technology could be achieved. Indeed, many impoverished people, who constituted the majority of the world’s population, were already living in it. The final exit ramp was just ahead, and in an unprecedented moment of international collective decision-making, humanity swerved onto it.
The hastily drawn-up Earth Treaty was limited in that it applied only to greenhouse emissions, leaving considerations of other ecological crises for another time. Nevertheless, the emissions cuts it mandated— a 50 percent reduction globally, which meant cuts as large as 80 percent in the United States and 60 percent in Europe—were be deep enough to shake the global economy to its roots. The treaty kicked off a process that eventually would bring to life (at least in some respects) that fourth future, the one labeled Ecotopia. But there were many missteps and meanderings along the way.
The initial policies intended to achieve those deep emissions cuts were focused on a global carbon tax,5 and they flopped. Firstly, the tax was widely regarded as unfair. Despite the redistribution of revenues from the tax as a per-capita cash dividend, the world's poor majority continued to suffer under shortages and inflation, while the rich minority were able afford to pay any price, however high, in order to maintain their accustomed lifestyles. Secondly, the policy was largely ineffective. The tax was an indirect mechanism for suppressing consumption by making it more costly.
But demand for those critical goods affected by the tax was much less elastic than had been anticipated. In order to raise prices high enough to drive down demand among the affluent, the tax had to be increased seven times in three years. But without an explicit ceiling on production or consumption, greenhouse emissions dipped only modestly, about as much as they had in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008-09. And, crucially, there still was no “floor” to ensure that everyone on Earth had access to sufficient resources. Stronger action was needed.
The Fair-Shares Solution
An epochal change came with the 2024 Common Resources Treaty, signed and ratified by 227 nations. It imposed ironclad barrel-and-ton ceilings on the global extraction of fossil fuels and other minerals. Specific extraction, import, and export ceilings were adjusted to accord with each country's domestic endowment of resources, taking into account per-capita requirements for a good quality of life. An impermeable ceiling with no offsets or other escape hatches meant that the usual high volumes of production, consumption, and wealth generation were no longer possible in wealthier nations, while a solid floor made possible a better life for resource-poor populations.6
The production of superfluous consumer goods was reduced even further when a large share of global resources was diverted into building an ecologically durable society. That effort included massive investment in non-fossil, non-nuclear energy sources, conversion to a much less energy-dependent infrastructure, and the building or converting of housing to be more compact and low-consumption. It also included the reworking of agriculture, and the rearrangement of living and working locations and patterns to reduce the need for transportation. Many saw parallels to the 1940s, when large sectors of Western economies restricted domestic consumption in order to meet the needs of wartime production.
The wartime comparisons didn't stop there. This deliberately imposed scarcity, like all scarcities, triggered inflation that threatened the world's poor majority in particular. Governments had learned from their experience with resource shortages, wartime and otherwise, that price controls would have to be imposed for essential goods and factors of production. And they knew that with price controls, demand would far outstrip available supplies and that rationing by quantity would be necessary to ensure fair shares for all.
At first, rationing was restricted to energy and carbon emissions. As a model for how to proceed, governments dusted off several turn-of-the-century British proposals that had never been passed into law.7 As eventually adopted, the various post-2024 ration systems set strict national carbon-emissions ceilings that were lowered year by year. Every purchase of energy was then accompanied by a transfer of the appropriate number of ration credits, with each credit corresponding to the quantity of carbon dioxide (or equivalent in other gases) expected to be emitted in generating the energy. Utilities and other businesses and governments bought their credits, while individuals received free quotas of credits, which were deposited monthly into their personal “carbon accounts.”
By the mid-30s, with these systems in place, human-caused climate impact was already declining steadily. But a problem that some had foreseen from the beginning was now becoming obvious to all. As producers and consumers became more carbon-efficient, and as they spent less on energy, they spent more on other goods and services, stimulating production that often resulted in ecological damage extending well beyond greenhouse emissions. A new strategy was needed, and it employed the concept of an “ecological footprint,” which had by that time been under examination and refinement for several decades. It had finally become feasible to assign a fairly realistic footprint value to every good and service in the economy, not just to fuels and energy sources. An item's footprint value encompassed not just the greenhouse emissions generated during production but all of its impacts on soil, water, biodiversity, and even whole ecosystems. So in fairly short order, in country after country, producers' and consumers' carbon accounts were replaced with eco-accounts. Everyone now received a fair monthly allotment of eco-points, and every good and service was assigned a point value. Like World War II-era grocery shoppers deciding whether to spend their meat points on a small piece of steak or a larger quantity of hamburger, consumers quickly became accustomed to a ration system that became the foundation of the one we still use today. Often, the eco-point value, not the cash price, became the dominant factor in consumers' decisions on whether to buy and what to buy. And in yet another wartime parallel, non-essential products with too-heavy footprints were excluded from the economy altogether.
The Next Future
Gross domestic product as a measure of economic health was jettisoned long ago in favor of various quality-of-life indices. Daily life for most of us has become more local, with small communities of one thousand or so as the basic social unit. Strong political and intellectual relationships are maintained electronically throughout the world, though limits on long-distance transportation mean that many people will never meet physically. (Because the data centers that support today's “lean” Internet no longer have to bear a crushing burden of advertising and marketing traffic, they require far less energy than did early-century ones.) The worldwide consumption floor continues to ensure sufficiency. Although as once predicted, some people do work as little as 20 hours per week, typical workweeks are still 25 to 30 hours. Far less production is necessary, but human labor will always be needed to do much of the work previously done by fossil-fuel powered devices.
By fostering a sense of common purpose and burden-sharing, rationing has been a highly effective alternative to the inevitably disappointing campaigns for voluntary restraint that characterized the early years of global ecological crisis. Without national fair-shares rationing systems, international success in achieving ecological restraint probably would have been short-lived. However—and this cannot be stressed enough—rationing is not a panacea. It was never a plug-in tool for limiting consumption or creating fairness in a growth economy. Rather, it was a policy that became necessary once we had succeeded through other means in pulling our economies back within critical boundaries.
Nor could rationing alone have eliminated the pervasive injustices that plagued the global economy. Early in this century, inequality of wealth and income—both among nations and within the world's biggest economies, especially those of the United States and China—was rising rapidly. Reversing that trend required a revolutionary transformation, a shift of power from the haves and the investors to the have-nots and the people who do the work of societies. At long last, we appear to have come close to achieving that shift in most of the world. However, an account of that experience will have to wait for another time. Suffice it to say that as difficult as it was for twenty-first-century nations to achieve sustainability and sufficiency, rebuilding the human economy in a way that eliminated exploitation and brought fair sharing of economic power was an even tougher job for us, their citizens.
- Costanza, R. Visions of Alternative (Unpredictable) Futures and Their Use in Policy Analysis. Conservation Ecology 4(1) 5 (2000).
- Diamandis, P & Kotler S. Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (Free Press, New York, 2012)
- Owen, D. The Conundrum (Riverhead, New York, 2012)
- Raskin, R et al. Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead (Stockholm Environmental Institute, Boston, 2002)
- Hansen, J. Climate Change is Happening Now—a Carbon Price Must Follow. The Guardian (November 2012).
- Charkavarty, S et al. Sharing CO2 Emissions Reductions Among One Billion High Emitters. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, 11884-11888 (2009).
- Fleming, D & Chamberlin, S. TEQs: Tradable Energy Quotas (House of Commons All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and The Lean Economy Connection, London, 2011).