Scenes of fires, floods, hurricanes, poverty, war, violence, disease, political, economic and social strife inundate us daily. So much so, that it is hard to believe the world has actually gotten better in the past 50 years, not worse.
According to Swedish physician Hans Rosling from his book Factfulness, life expectancy is rising, child mortality, birth rates and extreme poverty are all falling. The number of people living in a democracy has gone up, and the amount of violence in the world has gone down.
In his book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think futurist and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis details how telecommunications, the cost of food, healthcare, transportation, computing power and electricity have all gotten cheaper and better while energy is becoming cleaner.
He also notes that because of the Internet and the exponential increase in computing power, people have a greater ability to solve problems than they ever had in the history of humanity.
For example, building innovative cars and rockets used to be the exclusive purview of governments and large multi-billion-dollar corporations until Elon Musk launched Tesla and Rocket X, two startups who beat out more established companies like GM and Boeing.
So, if we’re not all doomed and the world isn’t going to descend into a chaotic, dystopic, Terminator-like mess, what could it look like in the next 20 years?"
For that, we can look to architect and social engineer Jacques Fresco who coined the term "Resource-Based Economy," which he describes as "A socio-economic model utilizing science and technology toward social betterment to achieve a sustainable civilization of abundance for all."
He describes a world with less crime, poverty, hunger, and homelessness that lives in balance with nature rather than trying to exploit it by intelligently applying science and technology. Mr Fresco describes a society that encourages creative thinking and emphasizes cooperative problem solving over competition.
So, let’s take a look at some of the things going on today that might help fulfil his vision of the future.
The construction industry has one of the highest carbon footprints and accounts for 39% of CO2 emissions, with 28% coming from the process of building and 11% from the materials. In the near future, our cities could be built using prefabricated modular components made with 3D printers.
They could then be assembled onsite similar to the way Lego bricks interlink. This would result in homes and buildings that would be 5% the cost of current ones, are sturdier, more environmentally friendly and quicker to build. Furthermore, NASA has begun exploring the use of fungi to grow structures on Mars and the moon. A similar approach could be taken on Earth, eliminating the need for building materials altogether.
With the threat of rising sea levels, future cities could be built on the water as well as land. These could house millions and would also act as flood barriers, aquariums, research centres, universities and marine farms, which would also enable us to develop better ecological awareness and balance with the oceans.
Cities on land would be integrated with parks, gardens and automated hydroponic and aeroponic farms, which could feed the local population without the need for pesticides, fertilizers or a substantial carbon footprint. The fruits and vegetables grown would also be fresh and nutritious as they would be locally sourced.
Although artificial intelligence (AI) is still in its infancy, we already have self-driving cars, planes, boats, and robot-controlled farms. In the future, AI assisted by humans could manage a city’s basic infrastructure and help it to run more efficiently to prevent us from wasting valuable commodities like food, electricity and water.
In the next 20 years, cars will be self-driving and connected to a centralized system, which means that vehicles on the highway could drive together in convoys, freeing up valuable space and unclogging roads. It would also alleviate the need for private car ownership since they would be readily available on-demand using an app like Uber or Grab. Since cars spend 90% of their existence parked, and 40% of a cities centre is used for parking, this would free up an enormous amount of land that could be developed for use as parks or low-income housing for the homeless. Magnetic levitation trains could run on green electric energy, as could planes used for short trips, while bio-diesel will fuel longer-haul flights.
In the future, we could derive all of our energy from renewable or clean sources including algae bio-diesel, solar, wind, wave, tidal, geothermal, and thorium reactors, which is a safer version of nuclear energy than we have today. Then there is fusion, which experts predict will be available sometime after 2050.
Our current economic system is predicated on planned obsolescence, and unnecessary spending as advertisers manipulate us into buying things we don’t need because we are under the delusion that the bigger better, newer model will make us happy and fulfilled. According to the Journal of Cleaner Production and IBIS World, a circular economy is an "economic system aimed at eliminating waste, pollution and carbon emissions, by reusing, sharing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling goods."
Terracycle recently launched a program called Loop in which consumers can purchase their favourite brands like Häagen-Dazs, Tide, Crest and Dove among others, online and in reusable containers, which you send back after you are finished.
The automotive, construction, food, textile, and agricultural industries are all changing the way they do business by reducing waste and using more recycled materials in their products.
Furthermore, things that were once considered waste can now be turned into useful products. For example, instead of being thrown away, coffee grounds are being used as fertilizer to grow mushrooms, as bio-plastic, diesel, fuel, and textiles.
In the past 3D printing was used mainly for prototyping, but the printers of today have gotten so much better and faster, they can now manufacture goods as well. This means that more products can be produced locally instead of having to ship them from afar, thus lowering their carbon footprint.
One problem is that most governments use Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a gauge for the success of an economy. GDP is a quantitative metric that requires exponential growth, which is impossible while living on a finite planet. If everyone lived a lifestyle similar to Americans, we would need five planets to supply the resources necessary.
Bhutan uses a qualitative metric called Gross National Happiness (GNH) which measures psychological well-being, health, education, and ecological diversity. Using GNH instead of GDP as a measure of a healthy economy could refocus a government’s priorities and help its citizens to live a more balanced life rather than one based on consumption.
A future with a Resource-Based Economy isn’t a foregone conclusion. It is a possibility. The world is facing extreme challenges today as we transition away from a consumer to a circular economy. We are in the midst of an existential crisis, and according to theoretical physicist Michio Kaku from his book Physics of the Future, we are the most important people on the planet to have ever lived because the decisions we make over the next 50 years will decide the fate of humanity.
While this may sound dramatic, in The Sixth Extinction, journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, details how species are dying out at 1,000 times their historical rate, not because of an asteroid or natural climate change, but because of human activity. In the past, these types of extinction events led to the death of 99% of life on Earth. However, since we are the ones causing our own demise, we are also the only ones capable of saving ourselves and the rest of the planet.
Palmer Owyoung is an environmental activist working with the Kamala Green Club and the Global Sustainability Hub.