CROWDSOURCING SUSTAINABILITY

The world that is…and what it *could* be (part 2!)

by | June 25, 2021

This is the second half of a 2-part newsletter (here’s part 1). And it’s the longest newsletter I’ve ever written.

Turns out it takes a while to paint a picture of a totally transformed future world. So if you happen to be pressed for time now, I’d encourage you to revisit it later.

Hope you enjoy!

Quick recap of part 1

Compared to where we could be, the world we live in today is both unhealthy, unjust, and, quite frankly, embarrassing. Our air is poisonous. So is a lot of our water. Inequality is extreme. There’s now more man-made stuff than there is life on earth. The heat keeps coming. And ecosystems are unraveling.

The path we’re currently speeding down is extremely dark.

The thing is, one way or another, the status quo is ending. Change is inevitable.

And, as far as we know, a lot of what that change looks like is still up to us.

Heart-wrenchingly, given the trajectory and damage already done to our ecosystems and climate, there is a certain amount of destruction, displacement, suffering, and death that will continue to grow in the next couple of decades.

The unraveling of these foundational environmental systems will continue to make it way harder for life to survive and thrive.

At the same time, the transformational changes we’ll inevitably make to human systems in response to this crisis will make people’s lives way better in many ways.

The combination of these two overarching, rapidly changing, interdependent systems will determine humanity’s quality of life.

To both minimize the risk of these systems completely failing and maximize our quality of life, we must make transforming the human systems as quickly, safely, and equitably as possible the organizing principle of society.

One of the keys to starting this process is to vividly imagine the best possible future so we can start building it. What would it look like if everyone’s lives were way better? What would it be like to live in a world where human systems had been rebuilt so they worked for everyone, reflected our values, regenerated environmental systems, and prioritized people’s quality of life?

Why? Why focus on a seemingly implausible future?

Mario Andretti is one of the most successful race car drivers of all time, earning the title “Driver of the Century” in 2000. When asked what his #1 tip for success was, he said:

“Don’t look at the wall. Your car goes where your eyes go.”

Apt advice for someone going 200 mph while turning a corner.

Perhaps just as useful for a society that finds itself speeding out of control.

We’ve been looking at the wall for decades (or possibly driving with our eyes closed) and are getting closer and closer to crashing into it.

But if we want to succeed we need to start looking where we actually want to go so we can make the turn.

Now, I’m not saying it’s going to be perfect at the finish line (it’s not).

Nor am I saying it’ll be a smooth ride to get there (It won’t. It’ll be incredibly challenging and we’ll lose a lot along the way even if we do everything right from now on).

And I’m not saying it will be a fair ride (the effects of global heating are already heartbreakingly unfair and they’ll get much worse).

What I’m saying is this: civilization doesn’t have to hit the wall. Instead, we can make the turn and save and improve billions of lives.

We still have so much to save. And so much to gain if we do this right.

There’s a brighter future waiting for us at the finish line if we wake up, turn our heads, keep our eyes on the prize, and quickly move towards it together from here on out.

The tricky thing is, to most of us, the finish line doesn’t seem to be anywhere in sight. It’s never been on our radar because hardly anyone ever talks about it.

For us to get to this finish line – for us to rebuild a safer, healthier, and more just world – we need to show people that it is a possibility – no matter how slim. And that, if we do it right, it would be f*%!#*% awesome in many ways compared to today.

“All good thinking now bases itself on the reality that we have crossed a threshold and are in a new era. And that the amount of change that is certain is far greater than the amount of change we usually consider possible.” – Alex Steffen

What might the world be like in 2040 or 2050 if the millions of people working to rapidly rebuild a safer, healthier, and more just future succeed at every turn?

Sights

Imagine what it would look like if we redesigned our cities and communities for humans instead of vehicles.

Everywhere you go, you’d see less gray and more green – more life!

WATG’s green block (Fleet St. London)

Fewer cars and more people – people riding bicycles, walking, or using the new and improved clean, fast, electric, and comfortable public transit.

69 people by bus bicycle or car

 

Efficiency of moving 69 people by bus, bicycles, or walking vs. cars.

So say goodbye to traffic and many parking spaces!

And say hello to entire streets reclaimed for the community and local businesses – who doesn’t like a meal, drinks, or live music outside with friends?

roslindale village people over cars

This of course means you’ll see more people out and about, more outdoor events, and more social interactions happening in common spaces around your community.

Right now, Paris is planning on getting rid of 50% of their parking spaces and investing $225 million to make their city better for people and the planet with the freed-up space.

Here’s how the famous Champs-Élysées may soon transform into an urban garden:

 

To see more of the envisioned “ecological transformation”, there’s some really cool shots in the slightly longer video below:
 

Imagine cities designed so that, no matter where you live, you can reach everything you need or want (apartment, office, parks, restaurants, grocery store, hospital, school, etc.) in just 15-minutes of walking or cycling.

Also, nobody in cities really needs to own a car at all anymore thanks to mobility-as-a-service where you get access to every mode of transportation in one subscription, including car rentals for longer trips. All of this will be in one place, it’ll be cheaper, and it’ll be more convenient than owning a car.

It goes on!

Imagine a world with healthier and more sustainable buildings like those that meet Passivhaus or Living Building standards. And as mass timber is adopted, we’ll increasingly see and spend time in beautiful buildings made out of mother nature’s sustainably forested wood instead of CO2-intensive cement and steel.

mass timber city

 

Mass timber city designed by SnøhettaHeatherwick Studio, and Sidewalk Labs.
Haut, Netherlands wooden building

 

The Haut, the Netherlands’ tallest wooden residential building. Arup

Imagine living with fewer ads, concrete walls, and unnecessary heat. Instead, there’s more public art, green roofs, and trees whose shade helps keep cities way cooler and healthier.

Imagine a society that isn’t destroying ecosystems, and wildlife anymore with an inherently extractive and oppressive economic system. Instead, we’re protecting and restoring them with an economy based on circularity and regeneration that simultaneously meets everyone’s basic needs.

doughnut economics

 

Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth

Think: less deforestation, more reforestation. More migration pathways for wildlife. By putting people to work on restoring coastal ecosystems around the world, we helped protect millions from the worsening storms and sea level rise.

And space dedicated to the US’s #1 crop, conventional lawns, sharply declined. This means less time noisily mowing said lawns. People also spend less time rounding up leaves (aka nature’s compost). There’s now more space dedicated to native plants, trees, pollinators, other wildlife, and gardens.

Imagine every girl getting an education and women having the freedom and resources they need to make the best choices for themselves, their families, and their communities.

There’s more!

Imagine a world that doesn’t burn deadly fossil fuels anymore.

No more fossil fuel power plants, mines, or wells slowly killing the communities around them.

No more fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure destroying Indigenous communities. (In fact, much corporate and government-owned land initially stolen from Indigenous peoples has been rightfully returned to their unmatched stewardship on the path to healing relations and ecosystems.)

No more poisonous pollution coming out of cars, trucks, trains, and school buses.

No more environmental racism.

Instead of burning fossil fuels or wood to heat our homes (…and inadvertently harming our neighbors), we’ll use electric heat pumps.

And instead of harming ourselves and our families by burning gas or biofuels in our kitchens to make food, we’ll use clean or electric cookstoves.

The world will be powered by the sun, wind, water, and earth’s heat.

And it will be so cheap and accessible that everyone in the world will finally have electricity.

Just by switching from poisonous energy to clean energy sources, the average person will live one year longer. And be healthier throughout life.

So the future also looks like getting more quality time with your friends and family.

(not to mention the extra time people now have since the 4-day-work-week has been widely adopted because of the myriad of benefits for people through improved quality of life, their companies via productivity, their communities via civic engagement, and the environment.)

Not surprisingly, because of this re-prioritization of health, well-being, nature, and community, people are not only happier and less stressed but, wait for it, they’re better looking. (Wait did we just stumble upon the missing piece of climate change communication? Make people hot – not the climate!)

Anyway, people are enjoying all the extra smiling faces and natural beauty in this future world – it’s all part of the package 🙂

Sounds

Let’s start with what you wouldn’t hear anymore: the noise from internal combustion engine vehicles that are powered by thousands of explosions happening under the hood every minute.

Instead of the constant explosions, you’ll hear more:

  • People chatting away.
  • The clanging of utensils.
  • Laughter.
  • Music.
  • Birds singing.
  • Peaceful silence.

All of this will reduce stress we don’t even know we have while enhancing connection and well-being.

Smells

You’ll smell more delicious food when you’re out and about since restaurants put outdoor tables where there used to be cars.

But more importantly, you won’t be smelling poisonous exhaust anymore from vehicles, power plants, buildings, or the stove in your kitchen.

Can you imagine?!

Instead, everywhere you go, you’ll be breathing in clean, fresh air.

Our public spaces will be filled with trees, shrubs, vines, and flowers – giving our noses and lungs the good stuff.

In hindsight, of course, all of these changes seemed like no-brainers. What took us so long?

Thankfully, common scents ultimately prevailed.

Tastes

Your food will probably taste better…should I have led with that?

For decades, industrial agriculture destroyed our soils, and crops were bred for size, appearance, and shippability. All of this made our food less nutritious over time.

By re-prioritizing nutrition and by switching to regenerative agriculture, we started the process of healing our soils again, instead of destroying them.

Conventional farming vs regenerative agriculture

Better soil = better food.

(Highly recommend you watch the informative and uplifting documentary “Kiss The Ground” for more on regenerative agriculture👇)

 

Also, you still get to eat good chocolate. And drink good coffee and wine. We still have these things because we didn’t let it get too too hot for their respective plants. (We appreciate everything more than we used to.)

Most people have a small garden now too or make use of a community garden to grow a bit of their own food!

Ultimately, we got back to the basics. We don’t put toxic chemicals or pollution into our bodies anymore. That means clean air, food, and water.

Touch

There are more handshakes, high-fives, dancing, and hugs!

…huh, maybe more sex too?

Thanks to more leisure time, public spaces to connect, easier and cheaper ways to get from A to B, and people-centric urban planning and architecture, there are more natural interactions, social events, and time spent with friends, family, and your community.

For decades people had been becoming less connected and more lonely.

But that trend was thankfully reversed as community, connection, and strong relationships have risen hand-in-hand with this incredible transformation in human systems.

What else?

  • More integrated, abundant, and accessible nature combined with more time means more lying in the grass at the park or feeling the sand between your toes at the beach.
  • More trees in our cities provide us with more cool, shady places to sit and relax outside on the scorching hot days.
  • More wood in our buildings and plants all around make for a lot more interaction with our surroundings.
  • With the circular economy, there’s no more single-use plastic in our hands or homes. It’s been completely replaced with more sturdy, appealing, and re-usable alternatives.

Most important of course is that irreplaceable, much-needed human touch and connection. This is a world with more love 🙂

Bringing it together – How will all of these things make us feel?

SO. MUCH. BETTER 🙂

Most people would intuitively agree with that given what’s been outlined above. But let’s back it up with a little research.

I think it’s safe to say that nearly everyone wants to live long, healthy lives with as much happiness and flourishing as possible.

That begs the question: how do you live a life like that?

Harvard researchers conducting the longest, perhaps most comprehensive study ever on happiness, say the #1 key to happiness is strong relationships.

“The good life is built with good relationships.” – Robert Waldinger

Another prominent team of researchers identified the communities around the world where people live the longest (now known as the “Blue Zones”). They studied them to discover what their secrets are.

They found that the keys to living a long, healthy life are:

  • Living in environments that nudge you to exercise naturally, without thinking about it.
  • Eating mostly plants and not eating too much.
  • Having a purpose. Knowing why you wake up in the morning.
  • Having daily stress-relieving habits.
  • Having strong connections with family, friends, and community.

Today, many of us live in a system and culture that push us to do the exact opposite of these things.

The future world we’re striving for will be designed to make doing these things far easier and more normal like it is in the Blue Zones. They’ll be the norm, rather than the exception. And people and the climate will both be better off for it.

To briefly show how the keys to living a long, healthy life are integrated into the better future world:

  • Natural exercise: walking or cycling to your destination in the future will be much easier and far more common. Gardening will also be more popular.
  • Eating mostly plants: it will be much easier to do this as the food system improves. And easier to only take what you need.
  • Purpose: Finding meaningful work in an economic system that better reflects our values and rewards those improving society, will be far easier to find.
  • Relieving stress: plants are natural stress-relievers for people so having more of them integrated into our built environments will help. Also more time and places for happy hours!
  • Strong connections: a cultural shift to well-being, less time at work, more public gathering spaces, and better mobility options all mean more time with family, friends, and community.

Some other things you may feel:

  • Smarter (less pollution = better memory and cognitive abilities).
  • No cognitive dissonance. Instead of harming others simply by existing in the system, our actions are regenerative and aligned with our values.
  • Safer, less stressed financially because of lower energy and healthcare costs. The public stopped wasting money on war and fossil fuel subsidies and re-invested it in communities’ safety and well-being.
  • Less loneliness – more belonging.
  • Less anxiety and despair about the present and future. More hope.
  • Relieved and proud – you are a part of the generations that are saving and rebuilding civilization.
  • Restored faith in humanity.

Turns out prioritizing human well-being instead of an inaccurate proxy for it (GDP growth), and supporting the ecosystems that our well-being depends on, rather than destroying them, made life way better for people. Who woulda thought?!

Final Thoughts

The vision of a better world outlined above is incomplete in several ways.

It’s focused on the positive changes to human systems to show how much better our lives could be in many ways. But it largely sidesteps the worsening blows we’ll face from the increasingly extreme and unstable environmental systems that civilization is built on. Overall, these environmental systems will continue to decline before they can get better. And they will bring unprecedented, disruptive challenges that require both adaptation and resilience.

We need to rebuild a safer, healthier, and more just world in order to have the capacity to weather the proverbial and literal storms coming our way.

Perhaps the most important thing about this transformed society is that it is deeply, systemically rooted in connection and care for each other as fellow human beings. And for all life on earth. We have a newfound strength in our communities and solidarity around the world.

To pull through, we had to move past today’s individualistic paradigm. We finally saw that we’re all connected and interdependent, we started healing our broken relationships, and now we come together to help each other in the hard times.

This means prioritizing human rights. It means protecting people and places where we can. But it also means being honest and smart about the reality that some places are becoming uninhabitable – no longer safe. Here, we must work together to find the best possible solutions, led by those affected. It means planning for, welcoming, integrating, and supporting the millions of people who will be forced to leave their homes.

It also means true accountability and righting wrongs.

The people who knowingly caused this humanitarian disaster must be held accountable for the fabric of society to stay strong. And countries that are historically responsible for the problem must be proportionately responsible for the solution by helping those people and countries that are hit hardest.

Is this future world still possible?

I don’t know. But I believe there’s a still chance if we transform rapidly and minimize warming. For perspective, there’s supposedly a 5% chance of limiting warming to 2°C. And a 1% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C.

Even if we can’t get 100% of what I outlined above because of historic emissions, tipping points, or the inertia of our ongoing emissions, maybe we can get 50, 70, or 90% of it.

That’d make human systems pretty damn good, compared to today. And really really amazing, given the unthinkable alternatives of the path we’re currently on.

No matter how bad things get or how bad future prospects look, there will be a best possible future to strive for.

And I believe that will always be worth doing.

There are so many other things to say about this better future. Some I already know I’m missing or oversimplifying. And there are surely more that aren’t on my radar but are on yours.

I want to encourage you to build on this vision of a better world. Or imagine your own from the ground up!

As Eric Holthaus writes in “The Future Earth”:

“For systemic transformation to happen, we need to ask ourselves:

What is my vision of a better world?

What steps need to happen for it to become a reality?

Starting today, where do I fit in that vision?”

I’d encourage you to stop, reflect, and write down the answers to these questions. (And please do share these best-case scenarios widely with others!)

There’s a better world waiting for us.

And we’re closer to it than we think is possible. Because momentum is growing and boundaries are changing.

With each step we take and every win we secure, the next one will be bigger and happen faster. Progress will happen exponentially.

Let’s not forget that rapid transformations have happened before.

And that we’re far more capable now than we’ve ever been.

We just need to find the courage, love, hope, and determination to keep speaking up and moving forward with others – one step at a time – to make this better world a reality.

Remember these two things:

“The problem human beings face is not that we aim too high and fail, but that we aim too low and succeed.” – Michelangelo
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

What we collectively believe and act on will, to some degree, become self-fulfilling.

The world needs good people to step up right now.

More than ever.

And I believe you will.

In solidarity with millions of amazing people around the world.

To help build a better future that works for everyone.

This post originally featured in the Crowdsourcing Sustainability newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter below!

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