New ways of living give humanity a glimpse of a healthier and happier world
The world with people in it doesn’t work properly at the moment. Humanity — unique in its ability to survive in just about any environment — has spread across the Earth’s surface and turned its ecosystems into commodities to be sold for profit. These ecosystems are collapsing.
And the cities and communities they support are not seeing the benefit. The world as humanity runs it now is not sustainable. A billion people go to bed hungry. Three billion don’t have access to clean water and sanitation.
This is down to our political systems, and the overriding profit motive that drives human society. But these are changing and two diverging paths are opening up.
The one option is for more of the same, in which the relentless push to monetise humans and the environment plays out in catastrophe.
Glimpses of the other path can be seen across the world, with communities and entire countries rethinking the status quo. An economy that looks after the environment and benefits more than just 1% of the population is being created in patches across the planet.
If humanity confronts the ruling elite and takes the latter path, the world of tomorrow could be one in which life is better for everyone.
Workers are a problem for the capitalist system. They produce things, but also do annoying things such as get sick or complain when they are exploited. Robots just produce. The inexorable march of artificial intelligence means sentient life might not be far away for electronic circuits. This will see them doing even jobs once seen as purely for humans, such as journalism.
German shoemaker Adidas recently opened a completely robotised factory in its home country — a decade after shifting production to countries with cheaper labour. This is a problem in a world where robots replace workers, enabling shareholders to squeeze more profit from factories.
Robots will drive unemployment. But it could be completely different. In sci-fi imaginings of the world it is the rise of robots that frees humans up for other tasks. They will do the awful jobs and the mundane work. They will make widgets and grow the gross domestic product.
People could then earn a basic income for no work, an idea with which Swiss voters grappled recently. Humans can then spend time doing nothing, or turn their minds to innovation. This could utterly change the world. People will spend time in nature, or growing vegetables on their balconies. Happy people. Happy world.
Happiness instead of GDP
The success of modern society is measured in GDP. This means an endless race to cut corners and make more widgets ahead of other groups of people. But this is changing. The United Nations is considering indicators of societal happiness as better ways to measure how a country is functioning.
Nepal is the darling of this scheme, where the end goal of government is to improve national happiness. Standardising this will force governments to evaluate their decisions, ensuring that development considers more than just production. Things such as parks and wetlands will suddenly become valuable. Giving citizens a healthy environment will become the gold standard by which political leaders one-up each other.
The world of today is organised to supply the haves with whatever they want. Rich countries get clean air and healthy ecosystems because workers in the poor world work to supply them, but their needs go ignored. This system means thousands of container ships ply the world’s oceans to move consumer goods thousands of kilometres — while poisoning the oceans they traverse.
It means poor countries carry the environmental and health cost of luxuries they will never be able to afford. Their money has to be spent on asthma pumps and medication to survive their dirty environments. Local production will start to change this. China is already moving to an economy that supplies its own population and makes local lives better. Factories are returning to the United States.
This is just the start. In the near future, regions will make the stuff they consume. Community factories — based on 3D printers and robots — will knock together tables and playgrounds.
Local production will be most important when it comes to food. The growth of cities has meant food production has struggled to keep pace with the growing population as a result of denizens not cultivating any of their own. This places an incredible burden on the world as a whole to create enough food. It also means companies — focused on the bottom line — place profit ahead of any consideration of the health benefits of their food. Cardboard masked as a burger is often the most affordable meal in urban communities.
But this is starting to change. When retailers abandoned the poorer areas of Detroit, people turned parks and vacant parking lots into food gardens. These now feed entire communities. In other cities, vertical food gardens and indoor gardens are providing people with a source of nutrition. It only takes a space the size of a door to grow a family’s vegetable needs. By taking responsibility for their food production, people are starting to gain more food security, a security that means their health is not dependent on earning an income. They also know what’s going into their food.
Power and water from everything
The renewable energy revolution threatens a change away from large-scale power utilities to a world where everyone produces some energy. Homes and offices with solar panels and water tanks become part of the larger system, creating power and collecting water for personal use and selling the excess into the national grid.
More of this will threaten the big fossil-fuel companies, which tend to be the biggest donors to political parties and blockers of climate change legislation. Transmission lines will be cut down and communities will grow around shared resources.
Villages first formed around resource points. People worked together to exploit these. But growth has led to societies in which people have handed over decision-making to governments and bodies with which they rarely interact. Sharing food and energy production, however, has started to change this in communities around the world. Democracy at a local level is growing. This, in turn, is starting to show in political campaigns being funded by people instead of corporations trying to influence candidates. This will mean a return to real democracy, where states make decisions in the interests of people. That will inevitably mean more sustainable development with companies no longer able to block legislation that favours people over profit.
A world saved from climate change
The world is already 1˚C hotter than it would otherwise be if humans were not burning fossil fuels. The UN predicts an increase of double or triple that this century. This is catastrophic. But science is starting to offer solutions in the form of technology that takes carbon out of the atmosphere. In Iceland, emissions have been pumped into the ground and turned into rock. In the US, a process has been developed that turns carbon dioxide into fuel. This will slow global warming and give humanity a chance to run the world in a sustainable manner.
But all of this requires humanity to choose the path that favours sustainable and inclusive development. Without this pressure, the 1% will continue to exploit the Earth for their profit. This will lead to a dystopian, Mad Max-like future.
This is the last in a series on renewable energy.