09/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Door Number 1 or Door Number 2?

Recently Katharine Walton asked me, "What is your vision of our world or our country in 10, 20, or 50 years?"

Door #1 (Making the Shift to Sustainability):
We proactively manage the transition away from fossil fuels and Make the Shift to Sustainability. In ten years time, global warming and natural catastrophes are significantly worse, but we have drastically reduced global greenhouse gas emissions. The world is united behind efforts to replace old inefficient and polluting industrial processes and machines with new green and efficient ones, and we are actively replacing fossil fuel based technologies with renewable energy technologies and other carbon-neutral energy systems. Mass transit systems expand dramatically to help ease the transition from today's inefficient private cars to new super efficient shared cars, commuter buses and trains. World population, including all Third World countries, is declining significantly under the leadership and financial support of the Western world. At twenty years, global warming effects peak due to delayed system response, and then the world's climate starts to slowly return to normal. At 50 years there is a global renaissance throughout the world! All of this was brought about by the fact that sustainability and optimum ecosystem health have replaced maximum short-term gain as the number one goal of business and government. This is orchestrated through a coordinated system of taxes, fines, global regulation, and rebates to support those businesses and processes that are performed in sustainable ways while penalizing those systems and processes that continue to do business in ways that deplete the natural world, pollute our air and water, or release significant amounts of greenhouse gases, making it financial suicide to run a business in non-sustainable ways!

Door #2 (Business as Usual):
We continue along our current path of maximum oil drilling and military intervention to insure access to the world's dwindling oil resources. Our national debt continues to accelerate and the value of the dollar plunges due to mounting debt in the US, lack of confidence from lender nations, and the need to offer ever higher percentage rates to entice other countries to finance our debt, which makes it absolutely impossible for the US to maintain its debt payments to the various lender nations. As our dollar plunges, OPEC drops the dollar standard and no country will finance our debt (we are too big of a risk now). With the declining dollar exacerbating the effects of oil depletion, the cost of oil climbs over $1,000 US dollars a barrel, and the cost of energy makes it prohibitively expensive to manufacture or transport much of anything inside the USA. Our dollar crashes so badly that we can't afford to buy the raw materials from other countries to make the products we need within our own country to maintain our infrastructure (natural gas distribution systems, freeways, electric power utilities, water utilities, etc). Most of the US economy collapses totally and it ripples throughout the world. Catastrophes brought on by climate change exacerbate economic problems in countries all around the world and the global economy collapses. Like Cuba after the Soviet collapse, we go back to animal and human powered farming, natural healing methods, and a local-trade based economy because our dollar bills are worthless. The cities degrade and crumble without an economy to support city based jobs. Climate changes wreak havoc and there is no remaining centralized government (it went bankrupt and collapsed along with most of the US businesses). Starvation and plagues sweep through our cities and there is a mass exodus to the countryside. Land barons welcome people to work the fields as share croppers and serfs. Since the oil dried up, everything from tilling the fields to growing cotton and weaving cloth becomes very labor dependent and people basically go back to a medieval lifestyle. As the oil dried up and the ships stopped moving goods between the continents, massive numbers of people starved in areas that were previously fed by once healthy ocean fisheries and huge shipments of food from far away lands. The oceans were totally fished out with all major fisheries collapsing, and huge areas of once fertile lands turn into desert as a result of climate change. In the US, China and India, the heavily irrigated fields that once fed millions of city dwellers become desert again as aquifers are depleted, the electricity to drive the well pumps becomes too expensive to support farming, and the ships that once brought new pumps and spare parts stop sailing. The Earth experiences massive overshoot and die off, settling down to a population of roughly 1/2 billion people (1/16th of what it was at its peak).

Back in the mid 1800's, many millions of people decided that slavery was an evil whose time had passed, and they put Lincoln in power to end it. The world never would have defeated Hitler if it was number ten on the priority list. Making the Shift to Sustainability will not be easy, but it is doable and it is much better than the alternative. We showed in the past that we could rise to the occasion and do the right thing! Let's wake this world up and DO THE RIGHT THING!

Matthew Stein is the author of When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency from Chelsea Green. For more information, visit and