The Great Transition to 350


It’s the year 2100, the atmospheric CO2 level is subsiding back toward 350 parts per million (ppm), and the best is yet to come. Beset with a host of global problems just a century ago, our generation rose to the challenge. Here is our story.

It was 2010. We were young people wobbling on the edge of a new decade, and we felt almost crippled by the complexity of the challenges we faced: a warming climate; a rusted, intransigent political system; environmental deterioration on a massive scale; war; widespread corruption and financial irresponsibility. It was easy to feel cynical: for thirty-five years, one president after another had promised energy independence and had failed to deliver it. Even as we came to know and care more about the environmental problems we faced, we worried that it was already too late and that our individual contributions would be too small to matter. We felt disconnected from one another. Collective action was dismissed as utopian. We wanted to consume responsibly, but we stood in the grocery aisle feeling duped and distrustful. And time and again, we watched our increasingly partisan government bicker and stall over the tiniest increments of progress. Meaningful, large-scale change seemed the stuff of fantasy. Despite all this—because we were young and because we had to—we allowed ourselves a cautious optimism.

It was 2010, and it was difficult to know where to start. The Deepwater Horizon oil rig lay at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, and the well was belching untold barrels of oil into the ocean. The disaster exemplified so many of our global challenges, and yet we now remember it as the start of something better. The spill laid bare the huge social and economic costs of an extractive industry, which were embodied and externalized in the constant risk of ecological disaster. It also marked the beginning of a sharp rise in the price of oil, as blossoming demand in China and India began to outstrip global supply. These were the years of what historians now call the Great Energy Transition. During this time, the environmental movement, which had been grasping for purchase, found firmer footing, and young people across America began to demand and choose a different future.

Ours is a country founded on experimentation and innovation, and the Energy Transition presented another opportunity for revolution. After their overwhelming turnout in the 2008 presidential election, young people learned to be activists again. Our politicians were not representing us, and the answer lay not simply in elections but in a more ambitious reengineering. We used new technologies to expand democracy, to engage the public more directly, and to hold our representatives more strictly and bindingly accountable. Increased political engagement at the federal and state levels also began to nourish local activism, strengthening efforts against suburban sprawl and homogeneity. Small businesses were freed from the crushing competition of megastores, and vacant parking lots reverted to urban gardens as cities undertook new design initiatives geared toward public transportation and walkable downtowns. Amid tighter, more vibrant communities, town meetings emerged again as a vehicle for self-government. People gathered in community spaces to learn about and discuss national issues, and votes cast here became mandates for federal politicians. Those years marked the beginning of a transformation that restored a sense of place and character to our nation. The political landscape was forever altered.

After the oil crisis, a persistent public demand for transparency changed not only government but also business. Information labeling, overseen by independent review bodies, became ubiquitous both in the grocery store and on the campaign trail. Each product came with a variety of recognizable stickers, rating its social and environmental responsibility. (Items that scored below a certain point threshold carried something akin to a sin tax.) And politicians gave speeches with corporate logos (and the dollar amount of each donation) emblazoned on their podiums and on viewers’ computer or TV screens.

As the relative cost of renewable energy fell, a rising workforce of young entrepreneurs, scientists, and engineers established a network of green industries. Federal and private investment, previously timid, flooded the market. Talk of a green jobs movement was no longer undermined by halfhearted follow through. This was a large-scale, national, grassroots, and coordinated movement. The shift to renewables came along with a massive push for increased energy efficiency. The boom in green jobs and services made it possible to retrofit old homes with energy-saving appliances, and solar panels and green roofs became commonplace in every community. Power meters, informing each family about its energy usage, became standard in every home. And people were motivated to conserve energy—and to take other simple, everyday environmental steps—because they felt involved in a personal, community-based movement that had swept the nation.

The Energy Transition was, of course, also a global phenomenon, with global causes. In the early decades of the twenty-first century, following years of aggressive public investment, China had become the uncontested leader in green technology. This reality had unexpected, and ultimately positive, implications for the international effort to reduce carbon emissions. Driven by a desire to expand global demand for its technologies, China emerged as a leader at international climate talks, pushing aggressively for a strict global carbon-cap-and-auction plan. Using its financial leverage over the United States, and with the strong support of European Union leaders, China was eventually able to secure international agreement. The dividends from the sale of carbon credits went to developing nations to help fund their transition to clean energy. The cap was also accompanied by a large-scale carbon offset program, REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries), which created a strong financial incentive for forested nations in the developing world to conserve their native forests and to reforest stripped lands.

Though it took time, the staggering world economy regained its footing. By midcentury, unemployment crept down in lockstep with CO2 emissions. A generation that had witnessed simultaneous economic and environmental collapse had found steadier ground upon which to rebuild. And once and for all, the supposed correlation between consumption and happiness was proven specious. As the economy recovered, people were happier; and they were happier without the crutch of lavish consumption. Back in the early decades of the twenty-first century, when unemployment had hit record levels, several governments in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (including the United States) made a risky decision: they mandated a four-day work week. As a result, there were more jobs to go around, and housing breaks and decreased consumption made it possible for workers to invest their extra time in family, community involvement, civic engagement, and education.

This is the brief story of our transformation. Work remains to be done. But, knowing what we’ve accomplished already, our vision of the future is even grander and more hopeful than anything we could have imagined in 2010. And this is what remains most necessary—the vision—for, in the words of poet Czeslaw Milosz, “what is unpronounced tends to nonexistence.”