Environmentalists tend to paint a dark picture of the future. It's only by showing us how bad things could get that we might do something about it today, they reason.
The problem with this approach is that it's disempowering. When people hear they can't help, they get depressed. As Jonathon Porritt, a leading British environmentalist, puts it, "they head down to the pub and say 'I might as well give up right now.'"
That's why Porritt, who has written plenty of dystopian books, is trying something different with his latest novel. Instead of a world that's fallen apart, he presents one that really has its act together. The world in 2050 is better than it is today (see the slide show for some examples).
"A lot of green books disempower people first, and then try and cheer you up. What I was trying to do was to say is 'this is a credible prospect for a brilliant world in 2050. Let's start in a good state of mind and make that happen'," he says.
The World We Made is narrated by a teacher named Alex McKay who spends the book explainiing to his students how a better world came about. He goes through 50 areas—from energy to agriculture—showing how humans managed to solve each problem.
By 2050, we have all the clean energy we need: solar is so cheap that we can put it anywhere, there is an "energy Internet" that distributes power between continents, and coal and oil have faded away because they're too dirty and expensive. We have an agricultural system that provides food for all (because of technologies like nitrogen-fixing wheat that don't need today's heavy inputs). Water systems are sustainable, because of new irrigation, purification, and desalination technologies. Population growth has flattened out (because family planning is more accepted). And so on.
We've even fixed climate change and reformed capitalism. In 2020, the world came together in Houston to sign an international agreement, primarily because the United States understood it was losing ground to China in clean technology. By 2050, tax havens are outlawed, there are taxes on financial transactions to replace ineffective national tax systems, and 450 million people work in co-operative companies. Collaborative consumption is flourishing.
Speaking from London, Porritt says there are three trends that make him hopeful about the future. One: a pipeline of technology in areas like energy and water "that's just incredible." Two: the fact that technology is more distributed than before. "We don't have to wait for top-down government or big business to sort everything out for us," he says. Third: "There's a sense that the old order has run its course. There's no new thinking coming out of the established [political] system at the moment."
Porritt insists he isn't some "insane Pollyanna who says everything is going to be absolutely fantastic by 2050." His point is to show that today's technologies and ideas can really bear fruit in the future, if we embrace them fully.
"I haven't moved away from my knowledge of just how huge a challenge this is. I'm just trying to get people to look at the challenge in a different frame of mind. It's a psychological gambit, if you like," he says.