Editor's Note: This article is part of a regular section in Solutions in which the author is challenged to envision a future society in which all of the right changes have been made.
By 2055, the 92-year-old man lay ill and dying, but fairly comfortable, in his bed. He had a choice to make: should he go to the hospital, where superb medical care might prolong his life for a year or so, probably doubling his lifetime health-care costs in the process? Or should he die in the comfort of his home, well attended by family and America’s national health-care service? Health care was a right, but with it came the responsibility to take care of one’s health and to use the care system judiciously. Struggling with the decision, he reflected on the present and the past.
His granddaughter was due to begin her mandatory two years of national defense duty and had to choose between working in the area of food, water, energy, or ecosystem security. The most exciting security work was now taking place in sub-Saharan Africa, one of the regions suffering the worst from climate chaos. In much of the world, the new green revolution had proven successful at combining local and scientific expertise to build agroecosystems based on perennial polyculture that were resilient to extreme weather events. In addition to producing food, fiber, and fuel, these agroecosystems were designed to increase biodiversity, sequester carbon, purify water, and regulate the microclimate, all without external inputs. Extreme weather brought serious technical challenges, many best addressed at global research centers, but the system relied mostly on a bottom-up approach, spreading from farmer to farmer, with extension workers facilitating the process. Dissemination throughout Africa was complicated by tensions between neighboring ethnic groups who not long ago had been engaged in bloody wars triggered by food and resource scarcity. It helped that the nations historically responsible for excessive atmospheric carbon stocks shouldered the cost and risks of transition.
The old man’s son had been in the first wave of recruits for the new defense service, but his work had been here in the United States, first dealing with the aftermath of the crisis decade—a seemingly endless bout of droughts, floods, and hurricanes that had finally woken people up to the reality of climate chaos. Food production plunged, people starved, infrastructure was destroyed. Many thought that the end had come, but that decade’s events turned out to be unusual even for the new weather regime. Food prices increased tenfold in response to a 10 percent drop in supply. There would have been enough to go around, but the market economy allocated food to those willing to pay the most. The rich kept eating their steaks and fueling their cars with ethanol, while the poor suffered serious malnutrition.
It turned out that the crisis years had a silver lining. First, the weather events totally changed the prevailing paradigm—people around the world realized that continued economic growth on a finite planet was impossible and that the ecological costs of continued growth outweighed the economic benefits. Something had to be done. Second, the extreme inequality and ecological degradation changed his nation’s goals. People realized that maximizing monetary value, growing Gross National Product (GNP), was perverse. The contribution of agriculture to GNP had skyrocketed when food output plunged, which made no sense whatsoever—less food made society worse off, not better. Furthermore, converting corn to ethanol to run a limousine for a rich person while the penniless masses starved was unethical, even if markets deemed it efficient. People made it through the crisis by helping each other. Society realized that it had to prioritize community over the individual and ecological sustainability and social justice over consumption. The government redefined recession as increasing levels of misery, poverty, and unemployment.
His country almost didn’t make it through the crisis. Rioting was serious. Out of control mobs even lynched many politicians, bankers, and other wealthy people who they blamed for our problems. With their monopoly of the airwaves, the corporate-controlled media called for mobilizing the military to protect the wealthy. Fortunately, the federal government took over many radio and TV stations, as did local governments and even citizen groups, broadcasting the message that we had to help each other to get through crisis times and coordinating people to do so. As the situation gradually got under control, corporations demanded back their ownership of the airwaves, which launched a national debate about why they had been given ownership to begin with. In the end, rights to the airwaves were restored to the public sector and civil society at the local, state, and national levels. Some of the airwaves were then leased out to the private sector, with revenue used to fund public/civic media. Better programming on commercial-free channels proved critically important in reducing consumerism and promoting civic duty. The Great Transition would have been impossible without it.
Reclaiming the airwaves raised a larger debate about the private ownership of wealth produced by nature or by society as a whole, leading eventually to the rebirth of the commons. In 2030, the Commons Act was passed, which declared all resources created by nature or society as a whole to be the shared wealth of society, including future generations. No more windfall profits for oil companies. This made it illegal to use natural resources faster than they could regenerate, to emit pollution faster than ecosystems could absorb it, or to deplete nonrenewable resources faster than we could develop renewable substitutes. Erosion of farmland was now treated as theft from future generations. It took some time, of course, to transition to better farming practices and agriculture based primarily on perennials. Now however, throughout most of the landscape, carbon sequestration was rapidly rebuilding the soils.
Anyone who used common property for private gain was now forced to compensate the rest of society through taxes and cap-and-auction systems for natural capital, including waste-absorption capacity.
It also proved critically important to restore the monetary system to the commons. The old man still remembered when he had first taken out a mortgage. Most people back then thought that banks simply loaned out the money that others had deposited, not realizing that banking laws required deposits to back less than 10 percent of actual loans. The bank had written him a check, which created $150,000 out of thin air, with an interest rate much higher than economic growth. He had paid back more than $300,000 before he owned his house. When businesses back then had borrowed money for productive investments based on hard work, interest payments had siphoned away much of their profits. This practice ensured a steady transfer of wealth to the financial sector, away from productive sectors, and virtually guaranteed economic collapse as debt grew faster than the economy. Now only governments—through municipal, state, and national currencies—had the right to create money, and they mostly spent it into existence for public goods or loaned it interest-free for socially important activities such as farming. As the market economy began to shrink, taxes were kept higher than money creation, to control inflation. Progressive income-tax rates now gradually approached 100 percent on the last dollars earned by the richest citizens, with additional taxes on speculation. Those who earned a lot stilled consumed a fair bit more than others, but because of the support they provided the public sector they were no longer ostracized.
The ostracism of the selfish was another key component of the Great Transition. Early in the twenty-first century people had glorified the wealthy, but the images of the wealthy wasting food while the poor went hungry made people see such behavior as sociopathic. They began to scorn the rich, or worse, which made it possible to dramatically increase taxes on the rich. It also made it decidedly unpleasant to be wealthy, at least in respectable society.
The other major element of the Great Transition had been putting the market in its place. The crisis made people realize that for essential resources with no substitutes—such as food, water, energy, health care—small changes in quantity led to huge fluctuations in price. Furthermore, in the swine flu epidemic of 2018, monopoly profits had made vaccines too expensive for the poor, ensuring the spread of the disease and facilitating its evolution into forms that even killed many of the vaccinated. It turned out that making access to basic needs a human right had enormous stabilizing effects on the economy, which made it much easier for businesses and households to plan ahead. People liked stability. Markets were well designed for managing surplus production and nonessential commodities, but not for basic needs.
During the crisis years, other countries had been in similar turmoil. Environmental refugees were everywhere. Small wars were breaking out. Large wars were imminent. Far-sighted thinkers in the military had realized that there was no military solution to a problem like this. If people could not meet their basic needs, they would get violent. If others helped them meet their basic needs, they would be allies and friends. The government thus redefined national defense and national security. Mandatory service guaranteed employment for the young. The old man’s son had first worked on the production of long-shelf-life staple crops in the plains states and their perennialization. He had then reenlisted to focus on the short-shelf-life fruits and vegetables once imported from abroad, now fertilized by humanure (sterilized first in biogas generators) in 80 million victory gardens around the country. The old man remembered the joy he had experienced growing bumper crops in his own backyard and the social prestige of sharing the surplus with the less fortunate. He had even won the neighborhood award for carbon sequestration in his garden plots several times. In his older years, however, he had let more of his yard return to native ecosystems, habitat for pest predators, food for his honeybees, and a pleasure for his eyes.
He had had an eventful and rewarding life. His small home was a bit crowded with his wife, two children with spouses, and two grandchildren, but they brought him immense pleasure, especially in his illness. It was better to stay here and die in their company. He knew his body would nurture the garden, build its carbon. With his help, his son might even win the surplus production prize next year.