Life is good in 2050

Originally published in the November issue of The Solutions Journal.

by Jay Beeks

The year 2050 is a good time to look back on the major events in the United States since the turn of the century. There have been great hardships, but we have prevailed and achieved so much. Without question, our greatest challenges have been the unparalleled loss of life and the tremendous destruction caused by global climate change. Fortunately, what at times seemed like the inevitable obliteration of society has subsided to ongoing difficulties interspersed with moments of achievement. Given what could have been had we decided not to act, we have reason to celebrate.

Devastation from Climate Change

Over the last few decades, we have seen a five-foot rise in the sea level—significantly higher than many climatologists had predicted—causing devastating floods along our coastal cities. As many as 20 million residents have been forced to migrate inland. Atlantic coast cities from New York to Florida and those along the Gulf States were hit the worst. Twenty-two of our most heavily populated cities have suffered tremendous infrastructure damage. Rising sea levels and hurricane activities have erased more than a million acres of land, displaced over four million people in Florida alone, and forever changed our landscapes. Former great cities like New Orleans, Boston, and Miami are so damaged that full restoration is considered impractical. And New York City has been reduced in size by over 40,000 acres—land that was once some of the most valuable in the country. Manhattan’s underground water, sewer, and electricity infrastructure are too flood-damaged to ever return to full operation and over 50 percent of the New York subway system has been abandoned. To date, the sum total of the dead or missing due to flooding, storm damage, and disease now stands at over six million and total property damage is estimated at over $20 trillion dollars.

Though scientists predicted much of the flooding due to rising sea levels, nobody anticipated the extent of disease outbreaks, nor the resulting death toll. Diseases once considered restricted to developing countries reached plague levels in the United States. Much of the East coast and the Southeast saw outbreaks of water-borne diseases such as typhoid fever, cholera, leptospirosis, dysentery, and hepatitis A. These swamped lands also hatched vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever. Closely following the storms and flooding, disease-carrying insects covered the U.S. These included mosquitoes, ticks, lice, gnats, mites, bed bugs, and countless fly species. Other disease outbreaks included encephalitis, meningitis, staphylococcus, and flu epidemics, which reached epic levels. In the last three decades, over four million Americans have lost their lives from these new threats.

All of these challenges stem from what climatologists call the 50-year lag between cause and effect—our CO2 emissions from the turn of the century are determining today’s weather. In fact, many of the worst and most dire predictions made by our predecessors will continue for another 50 years to come. We will have drought in the South and Southwest along with haboobs in Arizona for several more decades, at least. Things will gradually improve, but our weather will not be what it was in 2000 until sometime after the year 2100.

Energy was Key

It is fortunate, then, that we have started off on a path of improvement. Climatologists knew even before 1990 that humans were contributing to global climate change. Though the political debate took decades to settle, by 2020 it was coming to a close and government and businesses began to work together to slow human-caused climate change. Public deliberations became more proactive—discussing what kind of action was needed as opposed to whether action was needed at all.

Conversations focused on oil used for transportation and coal used for electricity production. We made headway by prioritizing the reduction of oil consumption. In fact, our most notable transformation this century has been the virtual elimination of oil and all oil-derived petroleum products, now expensive enough to qualify as a luxury. We have learned to get by with very little in the way of oil. To some, this absence of petroleum products still creates a sense of loss. Most people, however, are comforted by the fact that our planet can start the long process of healing from some of the damage caused by past over-consumption of oil.

Massive investment in renewable energy led to decade-by-decade decline in the use of fossil fuels. Sights like this one—the old coal-fired Navajo generating station—are relegated to history textbooks.

Weaning ourselves from petroleum required a massive conversion to the use of renewable biofuels and extensive investments in synthetic plastics and other products historically made from oil. We essentially replaced an oil economy with a biofuel, hydrogen, fuel cell, and renewable energy economy. Fortunately, these investments were made almost entirely by the private sector, once it was clear that oil was unable to compete in these markets. In fact, some of the largest biofuel and synthetic plastic producers are now what were once oil companies. Another booming industry that has helped to sustain our economy is electric transportation, ranging from simple scooters and advanced cars to light rail systems, electromagnetic propulsion ships, high-speed rail, and subsonic hyperloop vacuum tube systems. Thanks to these investments, we get around quite well—not quite as easily as with oil-based air travel, but easily enough. And we’re not hurting ourselves in the process.

Another notable achievement has been the dramatic reduction of coal used for electricity generation, a feat that required massive investments in renewable energy sources as well as the expansion of a nationwide electrical grid to carry and distribute this new power. Fortunately, these concurrent changes have essentially eliminated the need to produce electricity from fossil fuels or nuclear energy. Another of our greatest accomplishments is our home-based nationwide electrical storage and generation system, comprised of battery banks, electric cars, and rooftop solar panels in almost 30 percent of all homes. Thanks to this and smart grid technology, we back up the grid as a collective, and many of us are not only saving on electric bills, but even enjoying a monthly check from the local utility.

The oil, coal, and mining companies were forced to clean up over a century of pollution and waste with strict federal laws connecting products to resources. These companies were also subject to tremendous consumer pressure to fix the mistakes of the past. If they had any hope of staying in business, they knew that compliance with public will was necessary. As a result, the oil companies cleaned the oceans’ floating plastic gyres, permanently capped over 30,000 deep-sea wells, decommissioned and decontaminated their refineries, and conducted extensive worldwide cleanup projects of oil spills on land and water. The coal industries did much the same with their open pit and underground mines, expending great sums of capital on heavy metals, acids, and other chemical cleanup efforts. The rest of the mining industry followed suit with their own cleanup of over 200,000 (of about 500,000) U.S. mines. Though terribly expensive undertakings, the public had reached a point of zero tolerance and doing nothing was not on the table for discussion.

The hard fight against big oil and big coal are largely behind us now, resulting in environmental improvements, climate stabilization, more breathable air, and healthy drinking water. Both the oil and coal industries did everything they could to delay the world’s transition to environmentally friendly fuels and energy, but in the end, public policy changes signaled the end of their reign.

The Great Awakening

Most historians agree that the great awakening started after the 2008 recession, caused by government and Wall Street malfeasance. The notable collapse of the real estate bubble combined with extended high unemployment served as a wake-up call for many economists. It became especially clear then that our economic system was vulnerable to the greed of a few. This great recession set the tone for movements that followed.

The Great World Depression in the second decade ended any remaining doubt about the vulnerability of the U.S. economic and political systems. The collapsing dollar led to a short period of hyper-inflation followed by the burst of another housing bubble, soon joined by the highest unemployment rate in the country’s history. Subsequently, a worldwide depression persisted throughout the 20s before we were able to dig our way out and see positive signs of recovery. Although our growth is no longer measured in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), we do not expect to see pre-depression levels of GDP again in this century.

Petroleum has gone the way of whale oil. Most plastic products are made from laboratory-manufactured renewable resources, like algae.

Our economists failed to predict the calamity, just as they had not foreseen the 2008 recession. Though it took time, we came to realize that capitalism is only a tool, and that it can and should be transformed to meet the needs of society, not the other way around. The general public also began to understand that, beyond the health of the natural environment, all other considerations were secondary. With time, this awareness blossomed.

We also knew that lasting environmental improvements would depend on a stable economy, both nationally and globally. This first required reeling in the influence of Wall Street and the banks and returning to regulations limiting the kinds of business activities banks could be involved with. In the early 20s, Congress reinstated provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had been overturned at the end of the twentieth century. The Glass-Steagall Act was part of the U.S. Banking Act of 1933, which restricted commercial bank securities activities and limited affiliations between commercial banks and securities firms. By reinstating key provisions of this act, we took away the banks’ abilities to deal in commodities, stocks, mutual funds, hedge funds, derivatives, and other exotic investment schemes. Banks were once again forced to stick with savings and lending and they could not mix banking with riskier ventures, which had proven too prone to exploitation. Several other legislative actions then followed, increasing government control and furthering regulations on investment practices. Thanks to legislation during this second decade, the power of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was also increased, which provided much needed additional control on the activities of Wall Street, the banking industry, investment firms, and the like.

Also starting in the 20s, federal laws were enacted requiring all government, business, and corporate budgets to include environmental and societal costs, previously external to accounting sheets. This meant that, for example, a city’s transportation and energy budget had to include pollution costs, human health costs, the costs of climate change impacts, and other social costs as part of the total projected budget. Once government entities and businesses started including these costs and incorporating them into the price of goods and services, it became evident that fossil fuels were too expensive to use. Along with a few changes to the criminal legal system—essentially making profit at the expense of the environment a federal crime—these fairly straightforward steps steered our capitalist economic system away from the past pattern of being the adversary of nature and natural systems. In effect, by 2040, nature was beginning to find a new ally in capitalism.

Today, ecosystems are considered irreplaceable. We’ve improved upon capitalism. We are smarter for the events of the last few decades. Out of the ashes of despair came a fresh perspective concerning the need to live in harmony with natural systems.

A Complement of Adjustments

These changes—a scaling back of capitalism, a renewed focus on the environment, and democratic responsiveness—did not occur together by chance. Very few of the cleanup efforts imposed on the oil and coal companies could have been accomplished had there not been major shifts in the way we legislate and in who we elect as leaders. In the fight against big coal and big oil, we initiated an improved, more equitable economic system and gained a more socially democratic political system.

Each change depended on the other: making changes to our economic system would not have been possible without major changes to our political system, along with several new laws enacted to support these changes. In the early part of the twentieth century, our political system was rife with corrupt elected officials and appointees willing to sell their allegiance to the highest bidder. As a consequence, our federal, state, and city laws and regulations were heavily biased toward the interests of those who wielded the power of wealth. Our solution to this kind of corruption-destruction cycle was the enactment of strict federal laws to discourage public exploitation.

We addressed environmentally destructive practices in the same manner. In essence, the federal laws enacted in the late 20s carry the potential of lifetime imprisonment for those found guilty of public corruption or environmentally destructive behavior, both of which are considered to be severe crimes against society. As an example, an oil or coal company executive found guilty of externalizing the pollution and health costs associated with the production and transportation of their products would face lifetime imprisonment. The same holds true for public officials found to be selling their allegiance to special interest groups at the expense of the general public. In the 30s, we incarcerated droves of fossil fuel executives, federal judges, federal legislators, two Supreme Court justices, and a host of others. The majority of states quickly followed suit and state governors, justices, and legislators soon joined the ranks of those behind bars.

The founding of Tesla Motors in the early twenty-first century informally marked a sea change in automotive technology—from gas-powered to electric. Pictured above is an electric car.

This stick-without-a-carrot approach to corruption and greed had one highly beneficial and largely unexpected consequence. The fear of indefinite incarceration became so great that those with destructive tendencies toward society or the environment lost their appetite for public service and they were supplanted with individuals who carried a deep social conscious. Consequently, by the late 30s, highly equitable social programs were being realized and many of the inequities of the past corrected. Our social security program, for example, is now fully viable to the year 2150 because of the social security wage cap elimination bill passed in the mid-20s.

Another ally against government corruption came from campaign finance reform legislation signed into law in the early 20s. This law significantly limited the size of campaign contributions and the total amount any candidate could spend on a given election, based on the salary of the office in question. Campaign budgets were greatly reduced because they were limited to just 20 times the annual salary of the elected position and individual contributions were restricted. Further, laws limiting election campaigning periods to just two months not only reduced election costs, but also increased voters’ interest in elections and voting participation as well.

Another campaign finance reform law overturned the previous Citizens United Supreme Court ruling by prohibiting campaign contributions to any political candidate or ballot measure from anyone other than a living, individual U.S. citizen. From that point on, unions, corporations, think tanks, action committees, or other groups were denied the ability to donate to political candidates and advertisement communications. In short, candidates could not be sponsored by any of these groups. As states joined with similar legislation, laws in favor of the majority—in favor of those who put officials in office—became the norm rather than the exception. We countered campaign finance malfeasances with strict laws against such activities. As a result, election campaigns became primarily grass roots and were run on volunteerism efforts as opposed to the use of commercials and other forms of advertising.

With Sacrifices Came Benefits

Today, most of us live and act quite differently than our predecessors at the turn of the century. The last few decades have seen many losses, some pioneering new inventions, changing norms, and new ways of doing things. Our economy has benefited from new technologies, and those wise enough to invest in green businesses have been rewarded many times over. More importantly, the last few decades have brought about new ways of thinking, which helped us abandon the unsustainable practices that almost led to our demise. We are much less wasteful now. War mongering and the control of those countries with desired resources are no longer considered viable alternatives to progressive adaptation. We have made the best of what we have, and no longer expect the earth and the earth’s resources to bend to our needs.

In 2050, the world we may have at one time wanted is likely not the one that we see. We live with much less. But this is not a negative thing. In fact, experience is proving that it will create better circumstances in the future, largely because of the abandonment of fossil fuels consumption. Air pollution is now a thing of the past, and in addition to easier breathing for us, this has helped the regeneration of countless ecosystems and natural environments, including natural fish habitats. Our water systems and our oceans are gradually and steadily healing from the impacts of our past fossil fuel use. Our smog is gone and our drinking water is significantly less polluted. We can even drink directly from many of our rivers and streams.

The depletion of the Ogallala aquifer in the Midwest has forced us to pipe water from the Great Lakes to the farm belt states. Fortunately, we’ve realized that water, not oil, is the resource we need. The Keystone XL oil pipeline project, once planned for the region, was supplanted by a water pipeline project. Drinking and irrigation water was then, and is now, the key to our survival. Storms across the country have forced millions of people to move to safer areas and many of the people in the Southwest, Southeast, and Midwest have moved to more temperate areas with sufficient drinking water. Our population centers have shifted, altered, re-distributed, and the majority of U.S. citizens are now living in urban areas next to mass transportation systems in locations with sufficient crop growth and plentiful water sources.

Other resources like lumber, rare and exotic metals, topsoil, large fish species, many of our food crops, and non-local meats are in short supply. It is clear that several of the non-renewable resources we once took for granted are now gone, and that our children are already accustomed to living without them. We now tend to gather our food locally and that means less variety and an emphasis on need rather than want. Shipping food long distances, even with the switch to renewables, is still too costly, so we make do with less colorful diets. Our food is generally fresher and healthier than in the past because it is grown close to where we live. Laws preventing environmental damage have also cleaned up our food supply. We no longer ingest pesticides, steroids, antibiotics, or herbicides as part of our daily diet.

Those of us living in urban centers are getting more exercise, walking and biking, and our mass transportation is essentially pollution free. As a result, obesity and many forms of cancer have been greatly reduced. Life expectancies have increased due to the significant drop in air and water pollution as well as a higher consumption of organically produced foods. Communities have become closer-knit due to shared needs and cooperative alliances. The national happiness index has spiked.

These days in the U.S., our primary industry and our primary exports are green products, technologies, and services. As an example, the U.S. leads the world in liquid hydrogen export as well as in synthetic plastics made from renewable resources like algae and non-edible crops. The U.S. also leads the world in 3-D technology development and 3-D component manufacturing. We have a sustained unemployment of less than 3 percent nationally, thanks to a thriving green industry and shorter workweeks. A more equitable social democracy has allowed each of us to take better care of one another, our sick, our elderly, and those with fewer resources. We once again place trust in our elected officials. For the most part, our natural systems are prospering, and the migration to urban centers has made room for new natural ecologies in many of the abandoned rural areas.

We no longer have the need to argue over the reality of climate change, nor the need to deliberate about continuing or not continuing to use fossil fuels. The consensus is behind sustaining an economic system that supports life and our environment, rather than the other way around. Social programs for the masses are considered mandatory. A hybrid socio-political economy of social democracy and capitalism now supports human life and allows affluence for those who either benefit society or the environment, but not those who harm either. Prosperity is measured by a person’s health, his spiritual well-being and overall happiness. These are the things we strive for. Material wealth is far less sought after or attained. We ended our dependence on the things that were once harming us.

Despite living more modestly, we are far better off. Life is good in 2050.

Jay Beeks earned his MBA in Sustainable Business from Marylhurst University. He is currently finishing his PhD in transformative studies from the California Institute of Integral Studies. His research interests and work history include engineering, environmental science and science management on designs for fossil fuel, nuclear and renewable energy facilities.

Photo credit: Idaho National Laboratory via Flickr, Creative Commons license