THE BLOG

Dreaming the Future Can Create the Future

12/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dreaming the future can create the future. We stand at the threshold of a singular opportunity in the human experiment: To re-imagine how to live on Earth in ways that honor the web of life, each other and future generations. It's a revolution from the heart of nature -- and the human heart.

Then again, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, "The future ain't what it used to be."

We also stand at the brink of worldwide ecological and civilizational collapse. We face a reckoning from the treacherous breach in our relationship with nature. We've been acting like a rock star trashing a hotel room, and it's the morning after. But this hotel is planet Earth. The guest rules are non-negotiable. If we don't change our ways fast, management may vote us off the island.

We're entering an age of nature. It calls for a new social contract of interdependence. Taking care of nature means taking care of people, and taking care of people means taking care of nature.

The ecological debt we've incurred is dire. We've precipitated climate change that's within one degree centigrade of the maximum temperature in the past million years. As NASA's chief climatologist James Hansen warns, "Beyond that, we will likely see changes that make Earth a different planet." Think Jurassic Park. Hansen and many other leading scientists say we have ten years at best to make a massive global shift, an extreme carbon makeover. It's show-time.

We're entering a drastic period of creative destruction. We've already begun to trigger what some ecologists call "regime shift," irreversible tipping points. Global warming is getting all the ink, but other intimately interdependent issues equal its magnitude: the mass extinction of 30-50% of Earth's biological and cultural diversity -- freshwater shortages that will lead to wars -- the universal poisoning of the biosphere -- and the greatest extremes of inequality in modern history, a world that's 77% poor.

We're going to be busier than a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

Periods of creative destruction also present transformative opportunities to make the world anew. These tectonic shocks are evolutionary exclamation points. They release vast amounts of energy and resources for renewal and reorganization. Novelty emerges, and small changes can have big influences. It's a time of creativity, innovation, freedom and transformation.

The grail is resilience -- strengthening the capacity of natural and human systems to rebound -- or to transform when the regime shifts. As Charles Darwin said, "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change."

The driving force behind this unprecedented globalized collapse is financial. Hazel Henderson has characterized conventional economics as "a form of brain damage." We're experiencing its devastating effects right now. It rationalizes the insatiable predation of nature and people, while disappearing environmental and social costs from the balance sheet. It concentrates wealth and distributes poverty. It exalts greed and self-interest. It conflates free markets with democracy. It merges corporations and the state. Its foreign policy is empire. It has been a catastrophic success.

As Kevin Phillips has chronicled, every major empire over the past several hundred years has undergone a depressingly predictable cycle of collapse, usually within 10 to 20 years of its peak power.

The hallmarks are always the same:

- The financialization of the economy, moving from manufacturing to speculation;

- Very high levels of debt;

- Extreme economic inequality;

- And costly military overreaching.

The Dutch, Spanish and British empires followed this pattern. The US is repeating it. But as J. Paul Getty said, "Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up."

Yet there's an even deeper story behind empire crash.

Energy is a nation's master resource. Each empire has had an idiosyncratic ability to exploit a particular energy source that propelled its rise to economic power. The Dutch learned how to tap wood, wind and water. The British Empire fueled its ascendancy on coal. The American empire has dominated with oil.

The cautionary tale is this: No empire has been able to manage the transition to the next energy source. The joker in the deck this time around is the climate imperative to transition off fossil fuels worldwide. It requires the most complex and fiercely urgent passage in the history of human civilization. Nothing like it has ever been done.

Ecological regime change demands political regime change As Lester Brown wrote, "Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow prices to tell the ecological truth. We are in a race between tipping points in nature and our political systems."

Just as economics is driving the destruction, it needs to power the restoration. The charge is to transform the global economy from a vicious cycle to a virtuous cycle.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury said, "The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment." Real wealth creation is based on replenishing natural systems and restoring the built environment, especially our infrastructure and cities. It's based on investing in our communities and workforce. It's been shown to work best when done all at once. Restoration is an estimated $100 trillion market. There's plenty of work to do, plenty of people to do it, and abundant financial incentive. And every dollar we spend on pre-disaster risk management will prevent seven dollars in later losses.

The rules of virtuous engagement aren't that complicated. As Fred Block wrote in The Moral Economy, "The essential idea was brilliantly expressed in the title of a 1980s bestseller, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The guiding principles are familiar rules such as: don't hit - take turns - play by the rules - listen to the teacher - don't waste food and art supplies - and be prepared to share. These principles produce order in the elementary school classroom, and they can also assure order and prosperity in our nation's economy."

The question is: Will we change our old bad habits fast enough to beat forbidding odds? In 2006, the worm turned. David Orr calls it a "global ecological enlightenment." A big bang of brilliant, effective work is meeting with unprecedented receptivity. Yet still the pace of destruction outstrips our response. Real success will require a giant leap across the abyss on visionary currents of bold action. It will take skillful means. It will take a big heart. And in times like these, as Albert Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Many of the solutions are already present. Where we don't know what to do, we have a good idea what directions to head in. Game-changing technological and social innovations are surfacing constantly. Global digital media can spread them at the speed of text messaging. At the forefront is biomimicry, the art and science of mimicking nature's design genius. As Janine Benyus observes, nature has already done everything we want to do, without mining the past or mortgaging the future. There's nothing like having four billion years of R&D at your back. The biomimicry company Novomer looked at excess CO2 in the atmosphere and asked: What would a plant do? It would treat it as food. Novomer figured out how to use CO2 as a feedstock to produce biodegradable green plastics. That's just one glimmer of what's possible. Biomimicry is arguably the single most important design strategy to shoot the rapids of the next ten years. But it transcends gee-whiz technology. Biomimicry inspires us with nature's genius, and celebrates our kinship with the web of life. Among Navajo people, the worst insult you can say is, "You act like you have no relatives." Biomimicry invites us to act again as if we have relatives. Indigenous peoples, our old-growth cultures, are the world's original biomimics. Indigenous and traditional wisdom hold equally crucial keys to restoration. A riptide of capital is mainstreaming biomimicry and clean tech, now the third largest domain of venture capital investment. In Silicon Valley, the "watt.com" era has dawned. Compared with $100 billion for the entire Internet market, the worldwide energy market is $6 trillion. Google just put forth a $4.4 trillion Clean Energy plan. By 2030, it proposes to slash fossil fuel use by 88% and CO2 emissions by 95%. The smart money is hot on the trail of the next industrial revolution. There's mounting pressure on Uncle Sam because government policies make or break markets. Astoundingly the US has no national energy policy. That's hopefully about to change. David Orr, the nation's leading environmental educator, helped assemble a national network to deliver PCAP -- the Presidential Climate Action Plan. It's a pragmatic 100-day action plan for the incoming 2009 administration, and it's in play. But for now, the real action is happening at local and regional levels. California, the world's sixth largest economy, passed AB 32, the world's first comprehensive climate change legislation, and is gearing up to install 12.5 square miles of solar panels -- 12 times the previous largest. Massachusetts just passed the nation's most far-reaching package of renewables and green jobs legislation. Texas is about to build the biggest wind installation ever, surpassing Germany as the world leader. Multi-city and multi-state collaborations are spreading nationwide. In the coal-fired Midwest, Re-Amp's 7-state network has helped accomplish serious state-level renewables and efficiency targets. The collaboration has also stopped all but one of 24 proposed new coal plants from being built. Enough municipalities are competing for "greenest city" status to start a new sports league. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, who produced the Big Apple's 2030 green plan, said: "Shrinking the world's carbon footprint is a pro-growth strategy, indeed the only pro-growth strategy for long term." Tellingly, the nation's greenest cities are the ones with the most active citizenry -- where bottom-up meets top-down. Demand for a green-colladreamingnewmexico.org. We're now working on a future map of a localized food system. We hope these templates might be useful tools for other communities to dream their futures. I'd like to close with the words of David Oates from an essay called "Imagine" in High Country News.

"To imagine is difficult. It takes courage - encouragement; it takes opportunities carefully constructed (by me or the fates). Then something magic happens: A key turns in a lock, eyebrows ascend on foreheads -- and a new world is glimpsed, a 3-D moment that dazzles.

"A vision predicates an imaginative leap: that we are -- after all -- fundamentally connected to each other - that my fate and happiness are not private matters only, but a shared project. A tax cut takes no imagination: It's a few more bucks in your pocket. But seeing one's ownership in a community, one's own face in someone else's child, that takes imagination.

"Imagine - combining our resources to relieve suffering and to open up dead-ends of poverty and hopelessness. Imagine knowing that our fate is each other.

"Imagine: knowing that our fate also swims with the salmon and grows with the trees.

"Imagine living beyond yourself - finding the thing you're good at and in love with, even if it doesn't pay so well. That would be like coming back to life, wouldn't it? It would be like grace.

"Imagine."


Kenny Ausubel is the Founder and CEO of Bioneers
www.bioneers.org