Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day 2058: A Vision

From: Tensie Whelan, Rainforest Alliance

Here is an educated guess at what the world might look like by Earth Day 2058 -- not a prediction or a warning, but more of a natural extension of current trends, some of them hopeful ones:

The hot job is that of sustainable design engineer. In 2058, all products, processes, services, packaging have to be designed to sustainable standards —minimal use of water in production, manufacturing and export, minimal use of petrochemicals due to limited availability and high price, minimal use of energy inputs, and so on.

The myriad products that were once made from petrochemicals, including formerly omnipresent plastics, are being phased out. The focus is on products made from renewable resources that can be used for longer periods and recycled. This gives rise to a very lucrative market in reclaimed plastic scavenged from garbage dumps, ocean beaches and elsewhere, and recycled into essential products.

The so-called Green Revolution that produced big agricultural yields through chemical-intensive farming has now unraveled, propped up as it was by unsustainable inputs of water and and petrochemical fertilizers. The focus is now on genetics, but no one knows if humankind has opened yet another Pandora's box.

Water shortages are causing local and national conflicts, some escalating into war. All uses of water not essential for survival are now heavily curtailed. Naturally arid lands that had once been transformed by irrigation into productive farmland now lay fallow.

Farmers are learning how to farm in ways that protect water sources and wildlife, guard against soil erosion and find productivity in better treatment of labor as well as more efficient practices. Technological and chemical inputs are extremely expensive, so heavily mechanized farms are the exception, and many people are returning to farm jobs, which by law provide excellent wages and safe working conditions.

While some very large farms still exist, smaller farms are well organized into networking groups whose members exchange best practices and work on finding markets together.

In the developing world, population growth has slowed because the land simply can not support huge increases in human population, a fact that has become so apparent that people have responded wisely. Meanwhile, in some industrializing countries, massive pollution and destruction of natural resources as a result of rapid growth has caused massive social upheavals.

In response to this havoc, people in the middle and upper classes across the globe, have shifted their outlook and practices away from HAVing more, in favor of BEing more. As a result, service economies are booming. The popular businesses are training schools, trip organizers, retreats, spas, cooking classes and so on. Nearly everyone has a volunteer job in addition to their salaried employment.

The patterns of urbanization and suburbization are shifting. Cities are greener -- urban infrastructure now includes roof gardens, more energy efficient technologies, better waste management and extensive mass transport systems, both intercity and intracity. Suburbs have become part of the cities and exurbs have become depopulated due unacceptable travel time to jobs and the high cost of fuel for cars.

Climate change has forced tough choices on individuals, nations and the global community. Oceans are rising, trees are dying, insect infestations are common, species are shifting their ranges—life is in flux. Mapping and climate scenario technologies allow us to plan some of our future, but the rapid rate of change is creating severe hardship for many. The most adaptable wild species are able to respond to these changes, but conservationists are laboring to better protect the most vulnerable plants and animals, a response strongly supported by a public that has come to understand the link between healthy ecosystems and their own well being.

The nation-state continues to evolve as borders and cultures become more porous. The United Nations has evolved into a multistakeholder group of governments. Civil society and the private sector have created an international council that tackles global problems with a combination of research, policy and implementation mechanisms.

Bright, committed young people who previously avoided government service now view it as an opportunity to have an impact. A new, talented and committed generation of stateswomen and statesmen emerge.

Life is difficult but the human spirit prevails as we nurture the spirit of the planet, allowing us to survive and evolve together.

Tensie Whelan is the president of the Rainforest Alliance, www.rainforest-alliance.org