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Reasons for Long-term Optimism

By January 26, 2015May 21st, 2019Leadership News

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the reasons we have for short-term optimism — the reasons why we think that 2015 is likely to be a good year for the markets, and for social justice and environmental sustainability. But, naturally enough, talking about optimism for the short term raises questions about the long term: What does the next century hold? Despite the prevalence of doom & gloom, I’m very optimistic.

Every day, it seems we find new reasons to think that the Age of Humanity is almost over. Some scientists have taken to calling ours the “Anthropocene Era”, the era in which humanity’s activities are driving changes on a planetary scale, in a way that no other species has done. Just in the past couple of weeks, a new scientific study was published which argues that we have pushed our way past four of nine “planetary boundaries”, and warns that we could be very close to a final unbalancing of the global weather and ecological systems. There’s no way to know what new equilibrium the Earth might reach, or when, or whether humanity would be around to find out.

For some, the only response is to pull down the world we’ve built. Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, argues that capitalism itself must die in order to redeem the climate; a Slate article & interview that came out just after the book was published claims “Naomi Klein says we must slay capitalism to fight climate change”. (She doesn’t quite say that, exactly; she’s certain we need to make some fundamental changes to capitalism, but we may not need to kill any bankers.)

This sort of approach is common in certain parts of the political left, even among our friends in the SRI investment industry. According to views like this, there are lots of reasons to be very frightened, and very few reasons to think that we’re headed for any kind of a livable future. A lot of people foresee what permaculture guru David Holmgren has called a “brown tech future”: a future in which climate change gets worse, mitigated somewhat by technological short-term fixes, until democracies and free economies collapse into command-and-control dictatorships (See “Crash on Demand: Welcome to the Brown Tech Future”). The alternative? Destroy the modern world, before things can get that bad: Holmgren wants to “trigger a crash of the fragile global financial system”, and hopes that at least some people will be pursuing permaculture-style gardening / farming, so that they can survive the collapse to a pre-industrial world. Not many will: billions of people will die, in this scenario, but Holmgren seems to think that this is a good thing.

I love a good “post-apocalyptic world” movie, as an escape from the stresses of everyday adult life. But I think it’s altogether something else to predict so confidently that we’re destined for a Mad Max future, and to argue that we should hurry it along. The disaster scenarios we’re talking about here are not necessary. Avoiding a global disaster will require some difficult choices, to be sure, and they will involve a lot of very hard work. In order to “be the change we wish to see in the world”, we will need to engage with the systems of democratic capitalism, and work within these systems to create the kind of transformative, sustainable, economic and environmental systems that our children and grandchildren can use to improve their lives.

So, why am I optimistic? And what kind of future do I foresee? At about the same time that Naomi Klein’s book was released, a report came out from the Global Commission on Economy and Climate, showing that shifting to a green economy would be neither difficult nor expensive — all it would take is the political will to push through a handful of structural changes.

But this isn’t exactly news. In 2011, Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute published Reinventing Fire, in which they show how the US could complete a transition from carbon-based energy by 2050, saving $5 trillion compared to “business as usual” while expanding the economy by 150%. The plan doesn’t require that we get Congress to pass new legislation, and it’s not based on any new discoveries or inventions. It merely requires that we make the conscious choice to get there from here. Lovins made a great 27-minute presentation of the basics of the plan in a 2012 TED talk.

And we don’t need to limit it to the energy sector. In 2012, Peter Diamandis (with Steven Kotler) published Abundance: The Future Is Better than You Think, in which he argues that in the next few decades we will have the technology we need to supply every human being on Earth with a standard of living unimaginable to previous generations. He looks at a handful of key human needs — water, food, energy, healthcare, education, and freedom — and shows some of the ways that existing technologies, and the businesses that support them, are already working to improve our lives. Diamandis made a 16-minute presentation of his basic themes in his 2012 TED talk.

Now, some criticize visions like this as “techno-utopian”, and that they rely on overly optimistic estimates of what we can do with our existing systems. I agree that both Lovins and Diamandis are optimists — but both base their arguments on existing inventions, and ask only that we choose to use our minds and our money to pursue prosperity for everyone and environmental protections for the planet. These optimistic visions ask us to use the world’s existing laws, capital structures, and concentrations of wealth as levers to force the development of an entirely new economy. They are optimistic, not pessimistic; rational, not fearful; and ultimately evolutionary, not revolutionary.

To be sure, there will be upheaval. The companies at the top of the Fortune 500 in the new economy will not be dominated by the carbon energy companies that have ruled the economy for the last 75 years. New companies, new industries, will grow up in their place. And some parts of our lives will be dramatically different than they are today. But new approaches to energy, food, transportation … all parts of our lives could be tweaked to improve everyone’s lot without giving away either the economic or ecological advantages on which they’re built.

So, yes, I’m optimistic. I understand that there are serious problems to solve, and that it can’t happen overnight. But I think that we have the tools we need right now to make the world a better place. Capitalism, technology, and democracy brought us into and through the Industrial Revolution; they can carry us forward into an environmentally sustainable and socially just future. All we need to do is accept our responsibility for the way the future will be, and get started making the necessary changes.