Heaven on Earth in 2050?

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Does the Earth have any chance of surviving this century? Is there enough conviction among people to prevent its certain destruction? Is everyone waiting for that big catastrophe to happen after which nations will sit up and do something serious? Is there hope that someday the Earth could nearly be as beautiful as it was hundred years ago? Yes, there is hope, but not before it gets really bad.

Sir Jonathon Porritt, renowned environmentalist, has come up with an innovative way to grab everyone’s attention to the impending catastrophe. Using fiction, his new book ‘The World We Made’ imagines extreme suffering before it gets better in 2050. The book is meant to incite people to demand transformation from policy makers who don’t seem to care enough. The book’s purpose is to tell the story of how we get our world back from the brink of collapse. The book answers the big question on everyone’s mind and lips today – How does a sustainable world really look like?

So, what does the world look like in 2050 – “It’s a good world to be living in — massively improved by smart, clean technology, and committed to a much fairer, more sustainable model of economic growth.”

Are people scared enough to live sustainably? Not really. Then, how do we get them to start becoming friends of the Earth? This can happen but “We have to be able to demonstrate just how dynamic and aspirational such a world could be — and that we’ve still got time to deliver it.”

Unlike all the doom and gloom books, this is perhaps the first positive, actually overtly positive, book. The author has used the fiction route although the book is heavily based on futuristic science, many of which are already in labs like the MIT. It’s told through the words of Alex McKay, a teacher looking back from 2050, to tell the story of how we got from where we are today to an upbeat, dynamic world. It is part history, part personal memoir, Alex’s story charts the key events, technology breakthroughs and lifestyle revolutions that make the world in 2050.

However, the journey to 2050 is terrible. Alex expects lots of ‘shocks to the system’ along the way – caused by accelerating climate change, threats to food supplies and so on. The good news is – those shocks massively reinforce the case for radical change. The tipping point is in 2018 when the world gets as worse as it can get. After that there’s a gradual improvement.

The book will interest those who love to follow how science and technology will radically begin to determine how human beings will eat, learn, sleep and enjoy. It looks ultra futuristic but is backed by believable facts. It has taken the fun of imagining the future up many many notches. Richard Branson says: “Jonathon Porritt’s book dreams big, as if our future depends on it. And it does.”

Benedict Paramanand, Editor of SustainabilityNext chats up the author during the book launch at the Infosys campus in Bangalore recently. Jonathon Porritt is arguably one of the most active and influential in shaping the conversation and policy on sustainable future. His Forum for the Future (www.forumforthefuture.org) is very active in engaging experts, business persons and policy makers to expedite action.

You have been in this field for 40 years. When was your tipping point of turning from a pessimist to an optimist?
It’s not quite like that. I have never been a pessimist. I have always believed that we would understand the opportunity to use technology and use our commonsense and use our ability to foretell. This is special to our species, it’s not often recognized that we would begin to use all of that to change. I was always hopeful about that but obviously 40 years on, hope gets a little bit frayed around the edges.

The reason that I have done it this way is to remind people of what hope means – it means that you hang on to the idea that not only is a better world possible, but it’s real. Clearly, 2050 is not yet real, but its real as in its deliverables – all the elements in it are deliverable. I thinks that’s missing today, I have never described myself as either optimistic or pessimistic but hopeful. I have been more or less hopeful in different parts in my career, now I am very hopeful.

With this book what do you expect the outcome to be? Do you have a plan of action, is there a starting point?
There is a starting point. I have written the book with reference to three audiences. One are the young people because I want them to get angrier, more committed to change. Second is the business community because the book is all about how good business thrives as you make this transition and thirdly it’s about people you love technology, innovation, invention, creation and all that kind of stuff.

You are steering away from politics, government?
Yes, by and large it’s a waste of time. I spent 10 years of my life advising the British government as the chair of the Sustainable Development Commission. I enjoyed doing it but I learnt a lot. I learnt that it’s best if you can to give politicians permission to do things rather than expect them to do it themselves. Business is crucial to this because if business says, actually we like this, this is a good way of thinking about creating wealth for the future and politicians somehow take comfort from that.

If young people become much more outspoken in their demands for more sustainability, politicians love to think they are talking to young people. They will know what language to use and feel that they need to connect with young people.
Policy making comes second and technology comes first? It happened with Internet ….

It’s not always quite as sequential as that because governments still need to frame the market place to encourage those technologies. So if you think in terms of tariffs here in India and the policies being adopted by the government and the state to promote renewable energy , that could have happened a long time ago but didn’t, is still very important to getting those technologies come to scale. If you have to do everything against the market it’s very hard to do it. Markets needs to be shaped by governments to promote that transformation.

But the possibility is shown by technology first
Yes, absolutely. For me the trick is to show politicians what this looks like. We had such a funny example, in Forum for the Future we do a lot of work in community energy. Last year we took a whole bunch of people, including some NGOs, some politicians to Germany, to show them what was going on in Germany. The politicians said that this is amazing; this is Europe’s most powerful industrial nation which is way ahead of most European countries on community energy. So, if you show them what it looks like the politicians can say, got it, this technology really stacks up, really makes a difference. You can use technology to inspire politicians to help them frame the markets differently.

Dharmastala model, have you thought about how this can be scaled?
It depends on how capital markets work, how investment flows into society and what financial instruments do we need to get to scale. Different countries will follow different routes here. Essentially, around the world, there is no shortage of money to invest in good, bankable, long term propositions . For me, if governments get behind this, de-risk the investment for investment firms, pension funds and insurance companies, it is possible to scale. You have to have a conventional investment strategy to get to scale.

Can micro finance become big scale?
It’s pretty big in the world today, it’s bigger than people think, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t get bigger and bigger. This is exactly how those assets can be underpinned by community finances of one kind or other. When I talk about community energy which is quite close to micro finance, it depends on getting very small contributions from local people to invest in their solar or wind farms. So I see no reason why it shouldn’t.

You cannot wish politicians away at the same time you have to move with your starting point; you think we need something like a Jasmine Revolution, student revolutions in Berkley

In 2018, combination of things happen, firstly the gap between the rich and the poor continues to get worse and worse and creates massive tensions in society. Secondly, the climate change story eventually gets through to young people they realize that this is actually so bad for their future that they have to intervene and make something happen. I was in Brazil six weeks after the riots, not one single decision maker in Brazil had predicted that they would have riots of that kind. A small riot about bus prices turned into a vast social outpouring, it was anger about corruption, poor governance and host of other issues. Millions of people were in the streets; today technology means you can go from a spark to a massive confrontation in an incredibly short period of time.

Young people all over the world rising up and occupying government buildings, media stations, parliament, until such times that decisions are made to change the system. You may say that’s crazy but I don’t, I think you only need that kind of determination on part of the young people to change things. So yes I am absolutely convinced that political action is the necessary underpinning for technology breakthrough.

Do you think in the next 5-8 years the leadership profile globally is going to be the youth?
No, I don’t think so. That’s why we have to have a bit of an uprising in 2018 and it doesn’t work first time by the way, they come back for another bite in 2027 because people in power are very good at making as though they are doing something but not really doing it. I honestly don’t think politics is going to change in the next 5-8 years.

The only country where I think sustainability will be taken increasingly serious in the next 5 years will be in China. For a very interesting reason that China is very scared about social stability, very nervous about the growing number of people who are now saying – we think it’s reasonable to expect to breathe normally, not have our water supply polluted. 48,000 riots in China every year, 60% of them related to the environment. It’s quite clear that the new leadership will have to start addressing these issues. They have already introduced a carbon trading scheme, there is a possibility of introducing an internal carbon trading scheme across the entire country in 2015. This is extraordinary.

Is that the leadership the world is looking at?
Hence, a chapter says – China leads the way. That’s controversial but China knows what disaster looks like, they know they haven’t got enough land to feed their own people, they know that they are running out of water, they know that climate change is already eroding their productive farming. Most of them are engineers, they don’t deny facts like politicians in most countries including India, who actually tend to deny empirical evidence because it doesn’t fit the model.

Where does India fit into that model now?
Being absolutely honest with you I don’t see India playing a leading role on the global stage.

I think the hope has to come through two areas, scaling up stories from renewable energy. That could be the nub of this incredible change process and secondly there is no reason why India shouldn’t use its extraordinary advantages in IT, biotechnology and the whole host of high tech solutions to the world’s problems that would give it a position in the global economy. India is in a good position on renewable energy. It may even help in future energy security as well.

You think solar cost will become a tipping point?
I do. I have spoken to the Chinese manufacturers; they are amazing, every year for the last 3 years in Abu Dhabi, the world future energy summit. The big Chinese manufacturers, every single one of them is now saying that there is no reason why cost won’t continue to fall for the next 5-10 years. They see continuing cost reduction 6-7% cost reduction in the next 5 years that’s staggering. Then you are way beyond a dollar a watt, the grid parity moment. So you imagine the point at which solar, PV in particular, CSP is going to be more expensive. Imagine if every single community can be installing that in ways that out-compete conventional energy systems, why would you do it?

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