The New New York: 2050


Tom Thai/Flickr
Though Miriam and her mother, Samira, both grew up in Queens (pictured here), their stories could hardly be more different.

It seems impossible, until it is done.
Nelson Mandela

In 2050 it’s a pleasure to breathe. The air is fresh, even in the biggest cities. Commuters don’t reach home frazzled after being tied up in bad traffic.

The world is simpler in 2050. There are fewer consumer goods but there is more time, more conversation, and more contentment. The most threatening crises of 40 years earlier have been quelled or, at least, are being addressed. The air, water, and soil are no longer poisoned. The clean water, fresh air, and fertile soil that were once the birthright of all beings are on their way to being restored.

By 2050 great changes have taken place in nearly every aspect of life, but first and foremost in attitudes, values, and actions.

Things got bad before they got better. After superstorms and droughts in 2012 caused enormous damage. The gap between the rich and everybody else became unendurable. Economic collapse, endemic unemployment, glaring injustice, and deepening and expanding suffering goaded people into riots and rebellion—and political action. Effective grassroots leadership arose throughout the world, and the changes began to take root.

By 2020 the primacy of profit and growth had been thoroughly discredited. Like smoking, the culture of greed and “profit first” had become repugnant. So had pollution, economic inequity, and overwork to earn more. Legislation to stem pollution, environmental destruction, and the systemic economic injustices of capitalism was passed in nearly every nation. Thousands and thousands of people joined together to bring about change.

By 2050 the bad old days seemed, quite frankly, insane and sad. Life has vastly improved. The land, air, and waters are cleaner, scrubbed of pollutants and poisons. The natural world is honored as a sacred trust for all, and damaging it for profit is a violation of local, national, and global law.

Cities have retained their character and vigor, but the noise and crush have been eliminated. Traffic jams have vanished and streets are now crowded with bicycles and pedicabs. Sidewalks are packed with pedestrians. Even more striking is the elimination of urban poverty. The streets are safe!

Their inhabitants live differently, too. In the midst of bustling cities, they have embraced community, calm, and the economic and social freedom to find an inner happiness that has nothing to do with materialism or moods.

In 2050 leisure time and contentment are like fresh, smoke-free air. Public policy measures have evened out income levels: the poor are richer and the rich have far less material wealth, but remarkably do not feel poorer. In 2050 the vast majority of people earn enough to live well—simply, but well. The big difference is in the definition of what living well means. In 2050 that means time with family and friends, time to relax, play, learn, and contemplate.

It is, in short, a sane world, where young people like Miriam, a New York college student, can choose a vocation without worrying if it will provide a decent living, where she has time for friends and neighbors and self-reflection, and is able to feel the inner contentment that is now the birthright of every citizen on earth.

New York City, 2050

Miriam has a lot in common with her mother. She lives in the same neighborhood in Queens, New York, the most multicultural place on earth. She speaks French nearly as well as her mother, Samira, who emigrated from Burkina Faso. But a lot has changed. Miriam’s mother, Samira, had to work full-time waiting tables to cover her college tuition because her parents were too poor to contribute.

For Miriam, in 2050, it all sounds like the dark ages.

Her family’s home is modest but well designed and is part of a cooperative housing group with communal green spaces and vegetable gardens. In cold weather and rain, she rides the renovated subway. But usually she bicycles on safe, segregated bike paths throughout the city.

Around 2015 the United States, like most nations around the world, at last began to take pollution and environmental degradation very seriously. Green candidates and those advocating for a new development paradigm were voted in around the world. Companies that polluted faced high fines and boycotts, while green innovators were awarded tax breaks and incentives. Plastic bags were banned everywhere. Fossil fuels were widely replaced with renewable energy.

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Thomas Hawk/Flickr
In 2050, the monolithic power of Big Oil has been “decisively undercut, never to return,” says the author. Sights like this refinery in Rodeo, California, are historical.

Miriam chose her public college for its strong education department. College is free now. Like her mother, Miriam’s days are full. But where her mother had a hard slog through college, Miriam dives lightly into her days and awakens to the prospect of learning, interesting work, and time for friends and family.

Miriam’s life is simpler and easier than her mother’s was. She spends a lot of time in her neighborhood, apprenticing at the local school and attending seminars with other local college students in her field. What’s missing from her mother’s time are tempting arrays of consumer goods of all kinds, the thousands of glitzy shops and manicure salons, the imported gourmet stores, the imported coffee shops with $5 lattes, the cheap and gaudy fast-food burger joints.

In 2050 shopping is no longer a means of entertainment. Food, in particular, is rarely imported. Art and design and couture are displayed in museums, where people can enjoy without needing to own.

Technology and computers are now inexpensive, fast, and beautiful, and have opened up worlds of art, culture, and knowledge.

Looking Back: Two Stories

Samira, Queens, New York. Samira, 59, knows how her college stories sound to her daughter: like tales from Oliver Twist. Her cramped family home. Her parents, quarrelling about money. Her evenings spent at menial jobs to cover the tuition.

It’s a relief, really, that Miriam can’t understand her past struggles. Samira worked hard to become a teacher and make a good life and is delighted that Miriam’s life is so much better.

But Samira has a special source of pride shared by millions of others in her generation. It was they who made the changes happen. It was their collective work, inspiration, and energy, and their political action that created what in 2050 had come to be known as the Great Transition to a cleaner, more just, and more harmonious world.

Samira’s efforts to get through college 40 years earlier had been typical of many from low-to-moderate income families. She attended classes in the mornings and afterwards worked full-time as a minimum-wage waitress in the local diner. She was on the subway to class by 7:30 a.m. and worked from 4 to 10 p.m. She was overworked and stressed, which took a toll on her schoolwork. When she was tired, she felt she would forever be running from class to work to home to study, and never climb out of the hole.

That despair drove her to take part in the protests and political action that swept the country and the world. Social networks brought it to far corners. She and her generation had actually changed the world!

Evan, Westchester County, New York. Almost 40 years ago, Evan, now a graying editor, had thought his future was made when he got into Columbia University. Evan, a child of wealth, had been groomed for the Ivy League since childhood. His college days had been nothing like Samira’s. He lived on Columbia’s leafy campus with his expenses and tuition paid in full by his parents. There, he befriended two young men from super-rich families, which made him feel inferior and resentful, a fault line of an entitled life. The satisfaction of knowing he had the most and the best faltered when he encountered others even more privileged. He began to augment his allowance by selling marijuana to dorm mates.

His grades dropped and he became depressed. His parents spent a good chunk of his trust fund on a private rehab center, which helped him quit drugs and enabled him to graduate. But he gradually realized that his youthful recovery hadn’t addressed his feelings of entitlement based on his wealth, which was handicapping him. Fortunately, however, he had a reservoir of openness and was troubled by the destruction of the environment and glaring economic inequities. He took part in the protests that heralded the Great Transition. He adjusted to his diminished wealth, learned to appreciate new neighborliness and a slower pace, and, by 2050, took almost as much pride as Samira in helping to bring them about.

What was Wrong—in a Nutshell

In 2012 the richest 20 percent consumed 86 percent of the world’s goods, while the poorest 20 percent consumed only 1.3 percent. Their incomes had grown by 150 percent over a period of three years, while the wages of the bottom 90 percent had grown by only 15 percent. The effects of this growing inequity included health problems related to stress, overwork, and junk food.

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Craig Damlo/Flickr
In newly localized economies, one thing absent but not missed are gaudy fast-food burger joints.

2050: A New World View

Samira, Evan, and others came of age in a world that was teetering on the brink of collapse. But the seemingly intractable problems and ineffective leadership actually created a new openness to alternatives. In 2014, at the United Nations, the global community embraced a New Development Paradigm that began to change the world.

Therefore, Miriam came of age in a world that was more balanced. The economic inequality and craving for more had been curbed. What people now wanted were deeper satisfactions: camaraderie, knowledge, and fun. They didn’t have to fear poverty anymore or worry about being left behind.

The overriding global goals of 2050 were genuine well-being and a happiness dependent not on mood or possessions, but on harmony and generosity. Nobody was allowed to profit at the expense of the community, a conviction that underlay individual and policy changes, like the near elimination of private cars, bans on advertising to children, and the removal of tax breaks on all other advertisements.

Ecological sustainability. Climate change created great suffering before global leaders finally responded, instituting effective policies and getting tough with polluters. Greenhouse gas emissions were eventually cut back to just 20 percent of 2012 levels, as back-breaking fines forced polluters and heavy fossil fuel users to switch technologies or go bankrupt. The monolithic power of Big Oil and Big Chem had been decisively undercut, never to return.

Living standards. In 2050 most countries had instituted a guaranteed minimum income (GMI) that could cover people’s basic material needs and a 15-hour workweek. By the time Miriam was in college, it was regarded as a basic right for all. The result was a flowering of volunteerism and creativity by a populace freed from the fear of want.

Housing. In 2012 the low-income apartments in Miriam’s Queens, Evan’s upscale New York suburbs, and places like the slums of Delhi all exemplified the extremes of housing in that era as well as the inequities of what, in 2050, was called the “Degenerate Age.”

By 2050 the Queens, New York, neighborhood had been transformed, with co-housing communities throughout with many common spaces. Co-housing was popular because it cost less, was convenient, and gave residents amenities they could not otherwise afford. Most importantly, it created community while still providing family privacy.

In Delhi, like other global cities with high numbers of slum dwellers, the co-housing transition was first based on a major anti-poverty effort and the renewed popularity of Gandhian values. Indeed, a major national education reform in 2015 had dispelled the system inherited from colonial times and rooted Indian education in that country’s rich, ancient wisdom traditions.

The solitary splendor of Evan’s home created a more stubborn challenge, but the high costs of petrol and property taxes forced the family to act by leasing their yard to organic farmers and taking in an elderly boarder.

Transportation. By 2050 most urban traffic nightmares had been tamed. Metros, buses, and shuttle vans were the norm and private cars rarely seen. Most cities were organized into urban nodes with accessible work, housing, and shopping sections, and with excellent walking and bicycling paths. High-speed electric trains zoomed travelers comfortably and quickly from city to city.

Food. By 2050 nearly all food was local. It was not heavily processed or mass produced, nor was it junk. Nearly everybody gardened, in co-housing areas and terraces and window boxes, proudly consuming their produce. Of course, local gardening could not produce enough food to live on. In 2050 most crops were grown on small- and medium-sized farms within a 100-kilometer radius of their market. Meat, by 2050, was universally organic. The shrinking number of carnivores ate it once or twice a week, and in relatively small amounts.

By 2050 food had become highly nutritious and was not wasted. These trends have improved health worldwide. People often share meals within co-housing communities, and the resultant savings more than make up for higher grocery costs. Even ordinary meals are something of an occasion for family and friends to gather and talk.

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Sylvain Latouche/Flickr
High-speed trains form the transportation backbone in 2050. Personal automobiles are a rare sight.

Work and leisure. Work in 2012 was too often a stressful business. Those with jobs worked too many hours for fear of failing and those without lived on the edge or over it, desperately sending out applications and trying to stave off despair. Many sank deeper into debt that they could not pay or service.

Eventually, starting in 2011–12, the unemployed protested and rioted. The well employed drove themselves to stay on top, neglecting their families and health. The underemployed often worked at two or more jobs to make the rent. Small business owners struggled and often failed to hold on, while corporate employees felt like replaceable cogs.

By 2050 work had become something else altogether. The few major corporations that remained had downsized. Most companies were local and directly responsible to the communities they served. They manufactured and sold their wares and services in their local communities and gave back to the communities that supported them. Worker-owned companies, shops, and cooperatives flourished and increasingly became the norm.

Shorter work hours meant more jobs and job-sharing was common, so unemployment was no longer an issue. People no longer lived to work—it’s tough to be a hard-driving CEO on a 20-hour workweek! Instead, once-ambitious people found fulfillment in their families, friends, and their particular interests and talents. These were characterized by remarkable diversity: reviving of ancient cooking techniques, the study of indigenous languages, creative math, and science, among many others.

Education and culture. By 2050 school was held in workplaces where young people apprenticed, in museums, in community centers where knowledgeable parents volunteered as tutors. A lot of learning is hands-on and takes place in real-world settings: in the Hudson River science center in New York and at Delhi’s National Museum, for instance. Technology connects children directly with people from distant lands and enables them to practice foreign languages and engage virtually in cultural exchanges.

In addition, there is enormous encouragement for children to read in all formats—e-books, print, and multimedia. Through investigating, debating, reading, and discussion, children learn to learn, to question, to research, and to study their world. They gain confidence in their own abilities to learn and come up with solutions themselves, attitudes that will mold them for the rest of their lives.

The content and quality of education has changed, as well. History studies, for instance, emphasize leaders who have produced groundbreaking change, rather than those who simply held power. These include:

  • Vaclav Havel, who peacefully led the Velvet Revolution and willingly gave up half of Slovakia, his homeland
  • F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, who dismantled apartheid in South Africa and avoided what could have been a bloody war
  • the Fourth King of Bhutan, who dismantled an absolute monarchy, willingly abdicated the throne, and introduced democracy

These leaders are among those who let go of power and helped create better societies, a paradigm that is analyzed in the new learning centers. While the New Development Paradigm adopted by the United Nations in 2014 ushered in the Great Transition, education embedded its principles into the marrow of society,

Epilogue: Can it Happen?

This vision of life in the Era of the New Development Paradigm might seem utopian. But history has shown that dramatic changes can occur—and quickly. What statesmen, like Gorbechav, Mandela, and Havel, did was recognize reality, acknowledge the coming change, and act skillfully, preventing violence.

In 2013 the world stands at such a turning point. It may seem that our problems are too big to overcome. But history has demonstrated that major leaps into new civilizations are possible. In short, this vision narrative is not fantasy. On the contrary, from the saner perspective of the 2050s, our present lifestyle is the crazy one.

From the perspective of the New Development Paradigm, this vision narrative is attainable. If we agree on that, then our task of sketching out the New Development Paradigm shouldn’t be too daunting: our job is to elucidate the clearest and most straightforward path to our shared vision.

Acknowledgements

This is an abridged version of a longer vision narrative commissioned by the New Development Paradigm Steering Committee of the Royal Government of Bhutan in preparation for its first International Expert Working Group Meeting held in Thimphu, Bhutan in January-February, 2013.