A Future History of the Environment

Texas A&M AgriLife
“In the second decade of the twenty-first century, the Sahara Desert's vast solar potential was tapped for renewable energy generation, including the cultivation of algae for biofuel.

She double-checks the name of the essay final exam—Global Environmental History 302—complete with her student ID number and the date, 23 May 2052. Deciding to use voice and gesture interface for input and edit, she is ready. She thinks OK, Jiera, just keep it organized. You studied for hours and you need to keep up those honors grades. Think chronologically and prioritize events by importance. The last half-century involved a series of crises and sometimes chaotic attempts at resolution, accompanied now and then by the influence of previously initiated trends and general circumstance. She watches the time on the screen switch to 11:00 hours and she takes a deep breath. The entry screen changes color and the exam voice invites her to begin.

The first decade: Before the economically pivotal year of 2008, global citizens had gradually become aware of sustainability, but they and their governments had taken very little significant action. The primary global environmental predicament was climate change, which overlapped population, biodiversity loss, the soil nitrogen cycle, and a host of other issues. Various measurements of sustainability had been developed in the late twentieth century, including the ecological footprint (EF), published in 1996, with the carbon footprint as one subcomponent. EF data showed that, while only half a planet’s worth of resources were used in 1960, the significant one-planet mark of resource use was crossed by the early 1980s, and resource use was up to a completely unsustainable 1.52 planets by 2012, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund. That report showed an ongoing upward trend into the future highlighting and summarizing the global environmental crisis at that time. With one student-interest theme in human geography, her favorite sustainability measure is the EF, as it can be measured in global hectares as well as planet earths. Hectares lend themselves well to display on a map, and both units are intuitively understood. She recalls the paper she wrote profiling the footprint, but she knows she needs to stick to the broader picture for this exam. Primary contributors to the dilemma were cultural (belief in unending increases in material living standards on a finite planet and consumerism viewed as the basis of cultural status and success); economic (a traditional outlook supporting a growth economy with a finite resource base, a market driven influence over the general populace based on advertising and controlled media, as well as support for corporations as the basis of employment creation); and political (traditional partisan political systems in democracies based on mutual criticism, faultfinding, and a strict focus on short-term goals).

The second decade: The downturn—to use a traditional economic term—of 2008 was only the beginning of what has historically come to be known as the social-economic rollercoaster of the next decade. Traditional players in the global economy made ongoing attempts to kick-start its growth. But peak oil, now known to have arrived in 2017, as well as the obvious situation of peak planet (the EF measure is right there) contributed to the ongoing economic crisis. Each time the economy was able to begin to “recover,” speculative investment would begin, petroleum prices would leap again as they had in 2008, and the economy would “crash” again. In parallel with peak petroleum, the global economy was being affected more and more directly by climate change, specifically droughts, floods, wildfires, and major weather events. Drastic increases in food prices led to social unrest, including repeated food riots in developing countries, which ricocheted into the increasingly unstable global economy. One positive outcome of this circumstance in developed countries, fueled largely by the price at the pumps, was a strong movement toward finding energy sources cheaper than hydrocarbons. Beginning in Europe, there was a significant move toward the deserts, where the algae lipids grown in the sun of the Sahara and sourced for biofuel became an essential source of liquid energy. Extensive solar arrays in the African deserts were also connected to the European power grid. The same pattern developed later in the Southern deserts of North America, along with parallel development of geothermal heat-sourcing at an industrial level. The destruction of rainforest for oil palm plantations ended when European tax incentives were adjusted to reduce the use of any biofuel based on a forest or food crop source. This decade is referred to by many as the first transition, the social-economic transition.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Throughout the third decade of the twenty-first century, consumption of animal protein dropped considerably, reducing the agricultural footprint of human civilization.

The third decade: In the early fall of 2023, the North Pole became briefly, and for the first time, ice-free. Environmental activist film stars traveled there for a swimming photo op: images of some in dry or wet suits, and some not, appeared across magazine covers and screens around the globe. The symbolism of this event triggered considerable popular dialogue that continued throughout the ‘20s. In those same years, frustrated by the lack of action from countries most responsible for carbon pollution and the resulting climate change, a group of countries came together to form High Impact Climate Change Countries (HICCC). HICCC included those concerned and affected most by desertification, rising sea levels, and major weather events. Bangladesh was hit by storm surges from two cyclones in 2024 and the Maldives was forced to initiate moves to abandon several islands the next year. When, in 2027, HICCC disclosed its plan to carry out a geoengineering project that would reduce the global temperature by, according to their estimate, two degrees Celsius through a sulfur dioxide release in the stratosphere, the global reaction was calamitous. Though China was not officially an HICCC member nation, the looming national climate change threats were seen by some to motivate their silence. Her mom sometimes talks about all the fear at the time, like the Cold War of the twentieth century, but also about the global awareness it engendered. The popular community was aware by then, through a very well known set of drama movies, of the dangers of such a one-time attempt to adjust a system as complex as the earth’s climate. This was referred to as the political crisis, and sometimes as the second transition.

Throughout the teens and ‘20s, two trends had noteworthy impacts: the inclination toward Green Party power in democracies, and an increase in the sway of women in politics. As democratically elected governments grew in number worldwide, with increasing youth support, they one-by-one voted Green Parties in as majorities or as parts of coalitions. Some political leaders still came to power through coups, or were democratically elected based on radical right platforms, and several regional military conflicts broke out. In spite of this, many Green Party members were able to educate populations on the benefits of a reduced economy. By the late ‘20s, reduce became the keystone word from the token expression of the four Rs—reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover. After a grassroots campaign to randomly paste social shaming sticker labels, such as the popular GROW UP on any gas-guzzling vehicle in North America, bans were put in place on all recreational vehicles. Images of the Rambo-man in his bush-crashing truck and the high-profile, SUV-driving consumer became relics of the past. Instead, biodiversity was advanced and protected through advertising images of threatened species beside small, efficient personal transportation units, including those made available through vehicle sharing programs. Major efforts to sequester carbon in soils and forests, partially in response to the HICCC threat and partially due to popular demand, were financially supported by carbon taxes and cap-and-trade policies that were, by then, in global use. Another North American grassroots campaign began to encourage reduction in animal protein consumption, looking towards Asian traditions where meat is often consumed as a condiment. The EF, which clearly shows that personal reduction of animal protein consumption results in a significant footprint reduction, made the news at that time. She laughs at one of the jokes that came out then about the dog tax, when the animal protein tax on pet food made it clear how much the have-a-large-pet lifestyle was contributing to the demise of the pet owner’s family future.

thetravelguru (via Flickr)
Not all was rosy in the transition to a more sustainable world. In 2025, the Maldives, pictured here in 2010, was forced to permanently evacuate its lowest-lying islands.

For almost two years, in 2027 and 2028, three countries out of the G8 had simultaneous women heads of state who came to be known as the W3, and were sometimes compared to Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. In 2029, the long-term growth of women’s involvement in politics reached the 50 percent mark in spite of major regional variation. Her mother had served three terms on their regional council and is now sitting on several committees. This was seen to have an important influence on the positive negotiations between HICCC, the G8, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Furthermore, with this equal gender representation came educational campaigns speaking to the universal benefits of equity in education, income, healthcare, access to the common biosphere, and each child’s future. The ecological footprint had become a standard measure by then, known to each European and North American household through real estate transactions as well as property tax forms, and to each individual through income tax returns from national statistics departments. There was also a major shift to redistribution of paid-work hours and a reduction in formally recognized weekly work hours. The human population was mined globally for human capital, a search for naturally occurring intelligence, leadership potential, traditional beliefs on sustainability, and traditional methods of conflict resolution. A drastic reduction in spending on the military was carried out, recognizing this huge resource waste and acknowledging that security comes from the ability to cooperate with and help neighbors. Many female political figures, and especially the W3, spoke out about and financed the global education of girls and Planned Parenthood. This was also the beginning of the G8 cultural exchange program, first voluntary but now mandatory, where the selection of places available for exchange included Kerala in India, Costa Rica, Bhutan, Tuvalu, the Maldives, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Samso Island in Denmark, and British Columbia in Canada.

The fourth decade: By the early ‘30s, the class action lawsuits against the major oil companies for their record of advertising and contribution to the climate crisis were in full swing. Many precedents had been set in previous lawsuits, including those citing healthcare costs against tobacco companies. In 2034 the case of five western American states versus Exxon Mobil established a classic precedent, bringing forward everything from crop losses and wildfire damage to rising sea levels, surge tide damages, and flash floods from heavy precipitation events. Mention was even made of Standard Oil’s historic purchase of streetcar systems with the business objective of promoting travel by automobile. This was referred to as the third transition, the legal crisis. But this time period was also known as the decade of peaks. The ecological footprint was first to peak, having reached 1.84 planets by 2032. Then, in 2038, global population peaked at 8.73 billion, lower than projected and highly influenced by women in political positions. Finally, in 2039, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere peaked at 465 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent. Global concern over potential climate-change tipping points was still a serious item of discussion and debate. Global awareness came to be clearly focused on cleaning up the problems created in the past and maintaining a healthy biosphere.

Roy Santana/U.S. Air Force
One of the central global shifts between the early 2000s and 2052 was recognition that security comes through cooperation. This resulted in drastically reduced military spending.

The fifth decade: By the 2040s, post-partisan democracy was coming into play. Democratic governments were becoming much more local and the idea of council and consensus decision-making was rapidly replacing that of a president or any one person making decisions for the community. This system was found to work naturally, especially for women council members. Over the late ‘40s and the first year and a half of the ‘50s, the use of executive decision making was decreasing, going the way of the monarchies and dictatorships of the distant past. Local governments made most community decisions while the far off federal body was responsible for global security cooperation, national services, and management of the currency. The global EF is now almost down to the one planet mark again, but still with significant regional variation.

She is reminded by voice that she has five minutes remaining. She reads the essay over quickly, correcting minor discrepancies. When the screen fades back to its original color, she acknowledges the submission request, sending her exam in for grading. She has a good feeling about this exam, quite confident it will, in fact, keep her with honors-level grades.

She relaxes and thinks about the afternoon, when she will schedule her six-month community engagement term, mandatory but flexible. Her choice is to directly experience, observe, and learn from a different cultural and sustainability outlook—everything from studying how their local council makes decisions, to cultural traditions that have been determined to be valuable, to their societal outlook on the earth’s biosphere and its value to current and future human generations. She really looks forward to attending regional council meetings to observe how they come to resolution. She has chosen Costa Rica for its advanced methods and progressive positive cultural model, which made it the first nation-state in the world to attain a carbon-neutral status. It has also been influential assisting neighboring Central American countries to achieve carbon neutrality. Twenty-six hours on the Pan-American bullet train will get her there. Her evaluation and written thesis on the benefits of the learned lifestyle and their application in her home country will be credited towards her education and will be seen on her curriculum vitae as highly beneficial toward her future career.