Our way through - part three: Voice from a future generation - RSA

Our way through - part three: Voice from a future generation

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  • Community and place-based action
  • Environment

In the final chapter of his A Way Through essays series, Anthony Painter reflects on the now from the future. Adopting the voice of a future generation looking back from c2080, Anthony explores the themes of the first two essays - Enlightenment’s Dimming Light and Life in the System - in a history of the future.

I was born in 2050. The year the world was meant to achieve net zero. We know it didn’t. That was the goal world leaders set for themselves some decades before I was born. 2050 was also the tenth anniversary of the Global Ecological Crash. It is difficult to imagine the world before this moment. But 2040 was the year the Siberian tundra released greenhouse gases at a volume the world couldn’t recover from, Arctic ice caps disappeared for much of the year, and the slowdown in the Gulf Stream became catastrophic leaving northern Europe hot, flooded and frozen at different points in the year. America was ablaze. Much of the rest of the world suffered through starvation, disease, floods, fire, mass heat death and much else besides.

Media commentators and politicians need dramatic ways of naming things hence the Global Ecological Crash. It wasn’t a sudden event really but rather an accumulating catastrophe over many decades and the warning signs had been there for some time. So many pompous world conferences had produced bold declarations but action that was far too insufficient.

My grandfather, God rest his soul, used to compare the crash to World War One. He would say everyone in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries knew the risks of the great power game and they played nonetheless. They couldn’t give up and the search for wealth and status was too great. They tried to innovate their way out through technological change, building up awesome military machines in the process. All the time Europe was heading towards catastrophe too horrific to imagine and make sense of. And, when it came, it was every bit as deadly as should have been feared. None of it made any sense to anyone looking back at the so-called Great War from future generations. He said that is what my generation would think looking back at his. As I enter my 30s now, I think I now know what he meant. One of the last things I remember him saying to me, which upset me at the time, was: “Don’t forgive us, learn from us.” He said that should be his generation’s dying wish; a generation he called ‘Generation Ostrich’.

He’d often talk to me about life in the 1990s and 2000s not out of nostalgia but almost out of embarrassment. The West had won the Cold War and a goldilocks economy was driving increasing wealth (if not incomes): peace and prosperity. For years, he said, after a financial crisis in 2007, economists, commentators and politicians fought over if and why new generations were not better off than the generation before them. It was called the Social Mobility Freeze.

Can you imagine how narrow-minded we were? All we cared about was housing wealth and occupational status. Instead of asking why we weren’t richer, how might things have been if we’d asked ourselves whether we were leaving the world better off for future generations than we found it? We weren’t asking those questions.


The generational gap

My parents and my grandfather didn’t see eye to eye over a lot of things. My grandfather’s generation tried to imagine what was coming. My parents’ generation saw it first-hand and that often made them, understandably, angry. They saw coastal areas disappear into the sea, species after species becoming extinct, mass migrations from places that were too hot and dry or too flooded for people to live in. Then there was the waste from a ‘just-a-click-away’ economy polluting the land and sea. Some deluded leaders came to power as conspiracy theories intersected with social media and people wanting to avoid the reality of what was going on (supported by wealthy trillionaires). Then there were horrible wars of ethnic hatred and competition for resources. It wound my parents up that my grandfather would fess up: “Yes, we knew, yes we failed to act.”

Maybe they were too hard on his generation and maybe my grandfather was too. Perhaps human beings struggle to act on an idea, even one backed by a multitude of data – and boy, did they have the data looking back at the old IPCC reports. They didn’t do nothing; they just didn’t do anywhere near enough. The problem seemed so great and global movements like the Ordinaries, set up to pit ordinary people against the experts were brilliant at channelling fear over economic security and shining a light on the supposedly anti-democratic nature of the UN COP process – ‘Green Lizards’ as they referred to global leaders and climatologists. Carbon emissions were cut by fifty percent by 2040 rather than 2030 as was necessary to avoid the more catastrophic impacts of the climate emergency. Of course, reductions weren’t cuts at all. They were the world’s energy consumption causing harm at a slower rate - a very different thing. The harm was nonetheless increasing. And so, we arrived at the Global Ecological Crash just as Europe had arrived at the Great War in 1914.

Burnt forest in Australia

Net zero at any cost

2040 was a pivotal moment. Within weeks a new movement – World x Life – started to spread. It had three aims: home, community and democracy. I’ll come back to those. The G150 quickly convened and put in place plans to get to net zero within 25 years which would take its achievement fifteen years beyond the original goals set in the 2010s and 2020s. The trajectory the world was on would have taken another 40 years to get there.

Brazil refused to become part of the plans preferring instead to retain its rights to deplete the Amazon Rainforest to graze cattle and mine the precious minerals that made our electric vehicles and portable data devices. Brazil was first threatened and then sanctioned. Yet its government refused to change course. Brazil’s people were suffering economically and that only seemed to create an even more convulsive anti-net zero politics under the banner of Comuns (Brazil's Ordinaries). The UN Security Council passed a resolution sanctioning the first War for Net Zero. The Brazilian government barely lasted a month. It wasn’t the last such conflict, but none were on the same scale.

Meanwhile, the World x Life manifesto gathered pace. And forgive me here for going into detail but it matters.

Nature is economy is democracy. We must salvage them all as one. And that means more nature, greater economic security, and deeper democracy. Home, community and democracy. Money, power and technology must serve humanity and nature alike. That’s World x Life.

World x Life manifesto opening paragraph

The American anthropologist, James C Scott, once described the neolithic age Domus, translated as ‘household’, as a symbiotic ecological system. At the centre of the Domus was the human household, but it was clustered with a rich ecology of microbes, vegetation, crops, animals, and set within a wider ecology of woodland and water assets. The ‘home’ of the manifesto was one in which we are embedded within nature and with each other. This symbiosis is hidden – as had been the harmful impacts of our way of life. We had lost sight, amidst the private accumulation of wealth, to a bigger notion of home.

Our systems had come to see nature simply as a tool for our use: just as those odd tech evangelists from the early part of the 2000s saw technology as a tool. In reality, humanity and nature are inter-connected. The sociologist, Ulrich Beck, once observed: “Climate change… is a product of successful industrialisation which systematically disregards its consequences for nature and humanity." The author once, Kim Stanley Robinson, put it rather more directly: “The invisible hand doesn't pick up the bill.”

Radical measures in desperate times

We couldn’t go on as we had been. We had to restore a sense of home, community and democracy. The World x Life plan for home had some radical elements. Firstly, there was a commitment to good ancestry. This was a notion that future generations should be gifted a society that supported all based on a relationship with nature that was co-dependent rather than destructive. There were social foundations and ecological limitsdoughnutism in other words. The world was divided into interlocking bio-regions – as we are now familiar with here in Europe North. Each region was an interconnected system of sustainable local food, energy, waste management and biodiversity. Each region helped the other with technology, know-how and resources when necessary. The Global Ecological Crash had just raised the stakes so far, the choice was act or collapse.

I don’t know how best to describe the next aspect of the home plan other than to say that an entirely new form of the state was created – sometimes at a nation-state level as here in England and Wales, sometimes at a regional level as our Scottish and Irish neighbours did within the wider Euro-system. England and Wales, for example, established the £2trillion Transition Endowment. This endowment was financed by the Bank of England with the state required to cover the cost of interest for a quarter of a century initially. The Transition Endowment was invested globally and domestically in transition projects including funding for the growth and replenishment of natural capital such as re-wilding the Amazon Rainforest, a service for which the new Brazilian government would pay a fee. Some have suggested this is ecological colonisation and, admittedly, they may have a point. Domestically, every house was converted to zero net carbon and waste by 2055 with household savings paying the fund-owned retrofit company a monthly fee.

Climate change… is a product of successful industrialisation which systematically disregards its consequences for nature and humanity.

Ulrich Beck

The fund was replenished through returns on the capital invested. To that was added the proceeds from the new carbon tax and a new wealth tax of 0.1% of net wealth per person with wealth over £1million. The returns to the fund were more than enough to cover the interest fees and much more besides which I’ll come on to. What’s more, to emphasise democracy, the fund was held in a democratic trust with investment and dividends governed by a Citizens’ Panel. Moreover, the fund strategy and practice were informed by a Future Citizens’ Panel – a group tasked with answering the question: “What would future generations want you to do with this resource?” Similar mechanisms were established in many Asian countries, Canada and the US.

It seems funny looking back and reading histories of the 2020s and the arguments used by political leaders and economists at the time about burdening future generations with debt. Well, as it turned out they ended up burdening us with debt and ecological catastrophe. If they’d done something like the Transition Endowment sixty rather than forty years ago, we would have ended up with less debt and we might have limited the damage to people and nature in the process!

As a final element of the home strategy, there was a major reform of corporate law and governance in England, Europe and the US. Instead of competition law being based on narrow consumer interest alone it was widened to have legal regard for detrimental impacts on ecological limits and social foundations. Some of these changes had begun through the Biden administration’s reform of the Federal Trade Commission in the early 2020s and EU competition law. Sanctions were toughened and went beyond fines or even break-up. In fact, in 2045 two global oil companies had their assets sequestered without shareholder compensation. The cases were upheld in both the Supreme Court and the European Court of Justice not least because the companies had decades to create non-destructive business models and had simply failed to do so. Oil reserves were simply kept in the ground as a consequence.

One world, many communities

All of this was important but remember the World x Life mantra: ”Nature is economy is democracy.” And without people feeling supported through the transition, political space for the Ordinaries would have soon opened up again and we would have been back to square one. If people didn’t feel part of a community, that they were supported, then they would feel compelled to choose between their own sense of well-being and the transition. That would have been a disaster. Luckily, that pitfall was largely avoided.

At the centre of the notion of community was an insight that mutual aid, the spirit of working together, was essential to help each other through and it came to the fore in times of stress and distress. Yet, without a sense of economic security - a sense of being supported in life - that spirit of mutual aid would be forever too weak. The major remedy was the Transition Dividend. This was in essence a guaranteed minimum income paid to every person in every household - a universal basic income or basic dividend in the old terminology. This was funded through returns to the Transition Fund with any necessary top-ups from general taxation. The amount was pegged to the reduction in carbon emitted into the atmosphere and the degree to which natural capital was restored to create a sense of common goal and mission. It was redistributive as the wealthiest polluted the most. Without the dividend, it’s difficult to imagine the maintenance of widespread commitment to the transition.

Modern work became very different. People had to train in new fields such as regenerative agriculture, microbial food production, AI energy systems programming, zero-carbon plumbing and housing design, and development. There were lots of opportunities. We also had to become more skilled in managing our own environmental impacts through what we ate, what we wore, how we transported ourselves and kept ourselves warm. Sometimes people just wanted to develop a deeper understanding of what was happening to our world and why. The fund supported a system of learning credits enabling people to acquire new skills for both work and life.

Work, life and ecological balance

The Transition Dividend left people able to take up their new rights to flexible work and half of the workforce now work less than four days per week. There was more time and space for connection with family and community, greater possibilities to provide the mutual care and support we all need.

The biologist, Daniel Wahl once wrote: "We need to learn from the kind of growth found in natural systems, which shifts from quantitative growth to qualitative growth as the system matures." That maturation is exactly what the fund, the dividend and the Learning Credits supported. But remember, nature is economy is democracy. And democracy was nurtured and cultivated in entirely new ways after the Crash. Without going into too much of the rich detail out there, the World x Life conception of democracy had three dimensions: civic, civil and economic.

The civic dimension was developed around the more direct involvement of citizens in political decision making. This was exemplified by the Citizens’ and Future Citizens’ Panel governing the strategies of the Transition Endowment Fund. But there was also the development of local forms of direct involvement with increasing citizen right to be involved in decisions around local transition strategies and budgets. As one leader put it: “More involved citizens mean more informed citizens.” One study found that 12.6 million citizens had been directly involved in deliberative decision-making between 2045 and 2055. The Life Places movement was built out of these deliberations. These were communities where public space and social infrastructures such as libraries and sports clubs were protected. Food, waste, and consumption systems served health and nature together. The community committed to meeting as many of their own needs locally as possible.

Litter pollution

Innovation to disrupt the old ways

Civil democracy was nurtured through the creation of social innovation challenges. A locality would set a goal, the recovery of local woodland for example, and would source ideas from local organisations, social enterprises or community businesses, or local educational institutions for instance. The projects that contributed the most to local regeneration – social or ecological – would be funded. Challenges covered so many areas from care provision and the recovery of nature to redesigning waste and recycling systems to skills training and provision. Outcomes were impressive but, most importantly, an active civil democracy was able to flourish with the right nourishment – and support the Life Places movement. People increasingly saw themselves as citizens first.

Once civic and civil democracy and the sense of agency and empowerment that came with them were firmly on the agenda, it was inevitable that economic democracy would follow. And it did. Twenty-five percent of the investments in ecological business development from the Transition Fund was ring-fenced for employee or community-owned firms. That was a decision ratified by both the Citizens’ and Future Citizens’ Panels. Such firms were prioritised in local purchasing decisions. The observations of the American political scientist, Robert Dahl, that political equality shouldn’t stop at the gates to the market were resonant.

And that’s it. That’s how we are where we are. A global catastrophe and crisis, a new politics with its ideas around home, community and democracy, global commitment and co-operation and a huge sense of mutual responsibility and need to act. We got to net zero in 2058, twenty-two years ago now. That means in my lifetime we have stopped doing further harm through additional carbon emissions. We might even become net positive.

The collateral damage of revolution

So many important moments have gone in the right way for a few decades. Seems amazing to think that the terrifying two-year-long American Insurrection where right-wing militia groups tried to cancel the 2032 presidential election led to a severe curtailment of the rights of social media platforms. In fact, as we know, most of them are now run out of small South Pacific islands with their oddball owners keeping the platforms going through the activity of a mix of conspiratorial cranks, fantasists escaping to the Metaworld, and remaining remnants of the Ordinaries and various off-shoots. Whenever there is a risk of political poison spilling into the mainstream a digital public health action is taken. We’re no longer naïve to the threat they pose following the Insurrection.

At the other side of the spectrum are the WellTECHers congregating frequently in Sonoran Desert or Spain’s Sierra Nevada. These were the optimists of old, constantly telling the world how science and ingenuity would be enough. They were seemingly oblivious to the relentless harm that was being done and the dark side of industrial capitalism. Whilst seemingly harmless, the creed of relentless betterment, lulled us into a false sense of security. At the same time, without wanting to look up from the ground, we were in a state of emergency. Now they have a kind of cult-like feel bringing together wellness and tech utopianism.

The old political parties largely disappeared. Parties of the right either adopted the ideologies of the Ordinaries or they were consumed by it. Parties of the centre and centre-left largely failed to rise to the post-Crash moment and seemed far too conservative for the task at hand.

Green shots of mighty ideologies

In the early 2030s, the DEGRO movement seemed to be gained some force but it quickly fizzled away. Their contention – not necessarily unreasonably – was that growth was incompatible with any transition, so the wealthiest economies had to be reduced in size. They were right about the link between economic growth as a goal and environmental damage, but they missed two critical things. If the transition forced a political choice between transition and economic security, then it had little chance of success. Secondly, growth, whilst not a goal of natural systems, is a common feature. And to get to net zero and beyond required the accumulation and deployment of resources at a scale that was likely to lead to growth, albeit of the qualitative over quantitative kind. Their models of transition ended up being very mechanical.

The POSTGRO movement, emphasising nature and humanity as the goal with the growth of possible outcomes but not the goal of a new system, had greater longevity and, in fact, became a critical strand with World x Life thought.

Not everywhere is on the transition journey. Russia refuses to adapt, and in probably the hardest decision of all, its emissions and waste were adopted by the rest of the world into their regenerative plans. That was a high political hurdle that fortunately was cleared. Russia now spends its time trying to spread the latest Ordinaries’ conspiracies into mainstream democracy, sustaining the noise on the old social media platforms, and occasionally invading a neighbouring country. Generally, it is contained. China never made the transition to democracy. In fact, the Chinese blend of nature, economy and authoritarianism – The State of Nature as it is known - stands as a confounding contrast to the World x Life view.

The journey continues

We are not there yet. And as I sit here with my first child, a daughter, due any day now, I know that our good run could abruptly come to an end. As a mother to be I have an eye on the future. I am also sad about what we lost. My father and mother are as proud as could be, but I know the world was a tough and terrifying place for them in their youth.

And here, in Europe North, we endure our heatwaves, floods and deep-frozen winters; our memorial days to places, cultures and species lost along the way come around; our remembrance for the millions of climate victims serve as a reminder of all that can go wrong, all that can be lost. Those nineteenth-century values of the struggle for wealth and status, of beating the generation before seem so other-worldly now. Strange to think that they were predominant even when my grandfather was born. If my daughter lives to an age that is now common, it’s not unimaginable that she will see 2175. Perhaps then, 200 years after my grandfather’s year of birth, we will have transitioned to new ways of thinking and acting. Perhaps we will finally see our success in whether we leave things better than we found them.

There is a long way still to go. But there is hope. On the journey through.

Each generation leaving things better than the last.

What do you make of the future Anthony has created? Is this a reality you recognise as being possible? If you could add something to this vision of our future world, what would it be?

Download the full essay series - Our Way Through (PDF, 1.6 MB)

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  • Wow. Thank you so much Anthony - this is one of the best, most uplifting and insightful essays I've read for ages. I love the pictures that emerge, of the follies of the Ostrich Generation, and the possibilities of World x Life and POSTGRO. I'm in!

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