A Radical Time to Be Alive
International economist Ravi Batra of Dallas has a good enough track record predicting major global changes that he made The New York Times best-seller list – and the news pages – for correctly predicting the low inflation, falling oil prices, mergers boom, and soaring stock prices of the 1980s.
So a sigh of relief may be in order: The SMU professor’s latest major prediction involves a coming “golden age” for America. There’s just the small matter of getting through the revolution we’re headed for first. Of course, not all futurists are as pessimistic (in the short term) as Batra, who has taught international economics at SMU for several decades. Sure, most of them think we’re moving toward a time of more chaos and a whole lot less comfort in this country. Certainly most don’t deny that global warming is likely to cause massive upheavals. And in the developing world, starvation seems to be making a comeback unprecedented in 20 or 30 years. But in the long run – hey, things just may work out.
Whatever part of the world you live in today, it seems that humankind’s chickens are coming home to roost – in flocks that look positively Hitchcockian. Unchecked, our species now has the power not only to melt the polar ice caps and put a hole in the ozone layer but to use up the finite resources of our world – and we’re not just talking global warming. Experts across a variety of disciplines believe that the ocean food chains are collapsing. A combination of factors means the populations of almost two dozen countries are in immediate danger of starvation. The widening gap between rich and poor, the growing power of the drug cartels in Mexico and some South American countries and of organized crime in the old Soviet Union countries, the threat of Islamist radicalism in other parts of the world – all are destabilizing influences across big swaths of the planet. Water is in increasingly short supply in many areas just as weather patterns have grown more deadly in what seems a very short time frame.
And then there are fuel prices that have sent food costs skyrocketing worldwide by 50 percent to 100 percent in just the last year and have jacked up the costs of everything from plastics to transportation, handicapping auto and airline industries as well as the economies of many countries, and – the horror – even making American suburbanites rethink their drives to work, if not their whole worldview. Maybe you’ve already reached bad-news overload and buried your head in the sand – or in that escapist video game or television show. But say you’re a thinking person, maybe even a fighter, ready to think globally and act locally. How do you take on problems of such magnitude? In a society where you can Save the Manatees, Adopt a Highway, just say no to urban drilling, help fight cancer, support the work of the Red Cross, support the troops, join Greenpeace, hammer for Habitat for Humanity, lose sleep over imported terrorism and/or homegrown fascism, reduce your carbon footprint, increase awareness of genocide in Darfur, recycle, re-enlist, and deal with the crisis of the week regarding what you’re eating, breathing, buying, wearing, driving, and holding up to your ear to order a pizza – where do you start? What should you really be worrying about? And how are all these potential crises working together in the big picture?
That’s the question that we put to big-picture thinkers from inside and outside of North Texas. None of the pictures they drew were pretty, but they were fascinating and potentially helpful in figuring out our role in the world. Half a century from now, the Metroplex may be one big peaceful community without significant income disparities, needing neither soup kitchens nor gated communities. Or it could be a near-lifeless desert pocked with small villages that ration water and don’t see much of their cross-county neighbors, with suburbs abandoned and SUVs converted into greenhouses for subsistence farming. Grimmer still, North Texas cities could be post-apocalyptic battlegrounds, where criminal acts by a desperate majority are committed, largely outside the walls of security-fortified enclaves like Southlake and the Park Cities (which may not be far from the way some residents there see the rest of us already).
Then again, Fort Worth and Dallas might look a lot like they do today but with more bikes and trains and a lower standard of living for many (no public assistance program or Social Security and a large elderly population supported by fewer working-age folks) and with about as many mosques as churches dotting the streets. Regardless of which scenario plays out, one inescapable conclusion is that as the world grows increasingly interconnected and the developing world continues developing, there will be more pressure on resources like water, fuel, and food. And the United States’ position at the top of the heap as a financial and military power as well as a top consumer of all those things is threatened. Fortune magazine recently published an article about how we have about seven years to get used to the idea of China overtaking us as an economic superpower.
“We in the U.S. are going to have to be willing to stop using as much of the world’s resources,” said Rick Halperin, a history professor at SMU. A longtime board member of Amnesty International, Halperin speaks around the world on human rights and the death penalty. “The average person in Dallas-Fort Worth and the U.S. does not yet grasp how their life is affected by scenarios in Myanmar and Ethiopia,” Halperin said, “but they are going to have to get it, get that the majority of this world is not white, it’s not rich, and it’s not free, [and] that the lifestyle in this country is the aberration and not the norm.” It will be in our own best interests, he said, “to consume less or help raise the standard of living in countries around the world.” In a way, Halperin and the other long thinkers believe that broad grassroots pressure, on some fronts, could actually do what all the activists are saying – help save the world.
Batra predicted the rise of Islam back in the 1960s, but just didn’t know what the catalyst would be until a revolution in Iran felled the U.S.-backed shah. Several other much-criticized but mostly on-target predictions later, Batra is now predicting a massive revolution here in the U.S. against greed and the rapidly escalating concentration of wealth. His long-term prediction for the U.S. is one of peace and prosperity – but not until after a painfully deep recession triggers that revolution and an ensuing period of chaos. The rise of Barack Obama, with his platform of attacking concentrated poverty, is a sign that those changes are coming, Batra believes. “July is the start of a long period of global economic turmoil. Now that the turmoil is here for everyone to see, my worst fears are confirmed. An economic collapse is on the way,” Batra said, repeating what he had said on Air America’s “Thom Hartmann Program” in June.
“But the climax,” he said, will be “a golden age, where extreme income and wealth disparities disappear to eliminate poverty on earth. … We will soon see a revolution and then, 20 to 40 years from now, economic democracy and the end of monopoly capitalism. Economic democracy will prevent the rise of billionaires.” In his new book, The New Golden Age – The Coming Revolution Against Political Corruption and Economic Chaos, Batra said the rise of Islam – a trend that many academics and authors have predicted, based on global demographics – will coincide with a “new consciousness” in the U.S. that will lead to intolerance for corruption and greed. Eventually what Batra labels “economic democracy” will produce a system that allows politicians to run for office without having to raise money and perhaps be bought off. This economic democracy will provide for full employment, productivity, and peace that we’ve not known for a long time, said Batra, who was raised Hindu but does not consider himself a member of any particular religion (“I believe we are all children of God and have no religion at all,” he said.)
A critic of U.S. monetary policy since Reaganomics took hold in the 1980s, Batra believes the years of Americans being duped by a business-controlled government will be long gone by 2058. He credits his predictions to close analysis of history and economic cycles; the same formula had him accurately predicting the current downturn in the housing sector a few years ago.
The end of capitalism as we know it? Hardly, said Michael Hemesath, a professor of international trade and health economics at Minnesota’s Carleton College, a top-ranked liberal arts school. While the current run-up in food and fuel prices as well as the housing crisis and other troubles hitting the U.S. are cause for concern, he said, those issues – including global warming – probably won’t turn our world upside down.
Those fears of “the end of life as we know it” are like other seeming crises that may have changed us but not destroyed us, Hemesath said. Just as every wave of immigrants to U.S. shores in the last 100 years has spawned fears, in fact Americans have survived and mostly been strengthened by its once-reviled immigrant groups. Yes, Hemesath agreed, pressure on the typical American lifestyle is bound to increase as the middle class grows in China and elsewhere. But in the midst of dealing with our own economic woes, he said, “it is very important to keep the long-run worldwide view in mind. … Arguably the most important economic story of the last 30 years is the triumph of market-based capitalism as the only viable long-run economic system.
“Today there are many millions of individuals who have access to healthcare, education, and housing as well as luxuries like cell phones and cars, that they could not even have dreamed of less than a generation ago,” he said. “These economic benefits are allowing many of the world’s poorest to achieve the economic security and concomitant personal fulfillment that those of us lucky enough to live in the developed world take for granted.”
In short, the market capitalist wave has caused so many millions of boats to rise – including our own in the U.S. – that it will keep doing so, despite some problem areas that may need our extra care, such as Africa, Hemesath said. Halperin doesn’t think it’s going to be so easy. Like most scholars interviewed for this story, he thinks the gap between rich and poor will continue to grow. And he expects the struggle to be ugly, with Americans fighting to hold onto their creature comforts. Besides competing with other countries for resources, cities and other entities in the U.S. may soon be fighting with one another over things like water – especially if global warming continues to make much of this country hotter and drier than in the past.
Andrew Dessler, a climatologist at Texas A & M University, agreed with that last part. “Adapting to higher temperatures is a piece of cake compared to adapting to a world without water. If you run out of water, your only option is to take someone else’s,” he said. Somewhere between Hemesath’s boats that keep rising and Batra’s revolution-then-nirvana predictions lie Jeff Ferrell’s thoughts on where humans – and Cowtonians in particular – are headed in the next few decades.
Like most futurists, he believes that all but the richest residents will find 2058 to be far less comfortable than 2008. In the case of Texas and the rest of the Southwest, many researchers predict that rising fuel costs – which will put today’s $4-a-gallon gas in the quaint penny-candy category – will combine with increasingly volatile weather patterns, to make some areas hazardous to the health of older adults, especially by driving up the price of air conditioning. That will potentially reverse population gains in Sun Belt states as people head for more temperate regions.
“In 50 years, the lifeblood of movement, diversity, and interaction that keeps a large city like Fort Worth together will have dwindled to a trickle – the city will have collapsed under the weight of its own sprawl and its addiction to oil and the automobile,” said Ferrell, a professor of sociology at Texas Christian University and the author of Tearing Down the Streets, a book that criticizes urban automobile policy and proposes an alternative future. North Texas, he said, “will pay a heavy price for its failure to develop public transportation and for [policies that have] allowed – encouraged, actually – the sprawling development of the Metroplex.”
At some point in the coming decades, Ferrell predicts, oil-based transportation will come to be considered a costly luxury rather than an affordable necessity. Alternative human-scale forms of transportation such as walking, biking, and even riding horses will become viable ways of life once again – just as is happening in more progressive parts of the country. In many places, local and state governments are substantially increasing funding for things like mass transit, bike lanes, and bike racks. A bill that passed the U.S. House and is pending in the Senate would allow employers and employees to write off some of the expense of biking to and from work. By 2058, Ferrell said, the economic realities of $20-a-gallon gas and $1,500 monthly electricity bills will humble even the most devout Hummer owner, ushering in a whole new way of thinking about transportation, home heating and cooling, and consumption in general. Wind turbines will be as common as city water towers, and the new owners of TXU will lobby for them, not for the right to build archaic coal-fired plants.
The old-is-new-again modes of personal transportation “will necessitate new ways of thinking about time, locality, personal style, and the rest,” Ferrell said. “Riding a bicycle, for instance, changes more than your transport – it changes your sense of pace, your understanding of the city, your interactions with others, and your balance between journey and destination.” Those considerations may also change the whole notion of a single Metroplex, he said, since the cities will be much farther apart in travel time (or expense) than they are now. Instead, small self-sufficient villages with locally grown food will likely dot the area.
The wide-open lanes of I-30 and other major highways could shrink as traffic lessens, with some of the excess pavement even being fashioned into huge gardens, Ferrell predicted. He also suggested that Fort Worth residents might go years without traveling to Austin or Houston – or flying anywhere, unless they are well-heeled executives or family members traveling in response to life-or-death crises. Airline travel may well become an out-of-reach luxury for Americans, as the cost of a domestic round-trip ticket (currently well under a week’s worth of pay for the typical Tarrant County resident) increases to several month’s worth of pay by 2058.
If air travel once more becomes the reserve of the well-to-do, dumpster diving might no longer be the territory of the homeless and desperate. That last prediction’s to be expected from Ferrell, who chronicled dumpster diving and criticized Americans’ consumption culture in his book Empire of Scrounge. And some of Texans’ most treasured possessions, their SUVs, may come to be looked on as just another kind of dumpster to explore for salvageable parts, he said, their once-prized skeletons tossed aside or used as mini-greenhouses to grow local food (because food shipped or flown from elsewhere will become too expensive).
The revolution in thinking will lead to a shake-up in social status, too, Ferrell predicts. The do-it-yourself localism espoused in today’s organic food stores and in publications like Mother Jones and The Utne Reader – that is, growing your own food or buying it from nearby farmers – will go mainstream. Community gardens, craft work, and locally owned stores will replace the strip malls of today’s far-flung suburbs. Bicycle mechanics, master gardeners, handymen and women, and even dumpster divers will rise in social status as their skills become more valuable, Ferrell said, whereas shopping sprees at North Park will be something your mother or grandmother did. Unless you live in the Park Cities or Westover Hills, of course, in which case you’ll probably have a wall separating you from the rabble.
Nearly all the trendy suburban enclaves of today (think Colleyville and Keller) will lose their value, the TCU professor said. Real estate values have already dropped more dramatically in outer-ring suburbs throughout the U.S. relative to core cities in large part due to the explosion in gas costs, according to recent housing data published by the Wall Street Journal. As James Howard Kunstler tells it in his semi-fictionalized World Made by Hand, the far-flung suburbs will become the real estate equivalent of the SUVs that once served them – the new ghettos, with homes sitting vacant but unsold, stripped of valuable materials. Inner-city areas in Fort Worth and Dallas, already undergoing a major renaissance, will become even more sought-after addresses, as cash-strapped suburbanites decide “urban” isn’t a bad word after all. And gated communities for the most affluent, of course, will grow and become more insular, with their own schools and police forces. “This segregation of social life will result from the ever-growing gap between rich and poor,” Ferrell said. “If today is the new Gilded Age, defined by the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy few and the impoverishment of the rest, 50 years on is likely to be the new age of castles and moats … .
“Perhaps the one remaining common experience will be the prepackaged culture of [Dallas] Cowboys games or Hollywood glamour, as delivered on the living room television screen,” he said, “if, that is, the little wind turbine in the backyard can generate enough juice to keep it glowing.” Dessler, the A&M climatologist, said it’s tough to predict what daily life will be like in a hotter, drier, less air-conditioned North Texas. “I think it is safe to say that significant climate change will make everyone poorer, owing to the high costs of climate impacts and the adaptation to them,” he said. “Whether that means our lifestyle is equivalent to someone in the 1970s, or the 1950s, or the 1850s has not yet been written.”
It’s easy to feel poorer right now, with the cost of bread, meat, and other food staples 50 percent higher than a year ago – meaning burgers instead of steak for some families and meals skipped altogether in other households. But as with so many things, people in many other places wish they had it so good. In fact, looking at the world picture, it’s hard not to think, like Chicken Little, that the sky is in fact falling. Just this year, two dozen countries have seen protests and riots resulting from those skyrocketing food costs and fuel prices. The United Nations says that increases in basic living costs are threatening global stability. A U.N. report released this month identifies 22 countries immediately threatened with starvation because of shortages, soaring food prices, and zooming fuel prices.
In some ways, poor people are simply being priced out of the food market, due in part to the buying power of the growing middle class in China – and to the fact that farmers in many cases can get more money for their crops from ethanol producers than from food brokers. A long list of groups, including the Red Cross, have warned that in Ethiopia, where three out of four people live off the land, mass starvation has set in on a scale that could surpass that of the great famines of the early 1980s. In Somalia, malnutrition is epidemic, as people are too poor to purchase rice and other essentials, and their own crops and livestock have withered in the drought. Drought and out-of-control food prices may be short-term problems, but consider that one major food source that has sustained people throughout human history is in the midst of its own massive crisis. Pollution, rising temperatures, overfishing, and other pressures are threatening the health of the world’s oceans in major ways.
In fact, fish may disappear from the diets of middle-class Americans and the ocean ecosystem become destabilized unless more aggressive measures are taken to stop overfishing, said Boris Worm, a biology professor with Canada’s Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. The shortage will be most acute in places like inland Texas, where seafood must be shipped in.
Worm’s 2004 study found that without aggressive intervention, fish and seafood populations would collapse by 2048. At the time of the study, some 29 percent of ocean species were in collapse – a figure that could mean a 90 percent drop in catches by 2048.
Since the study, Worm has been encouraged by the measures taken by the U.S. government and some others to stop overfishing. This could give marine life time to recover. But it’s not enough yet, he said.
“Our rapidly increasing knowledge and awareness of this problem is helping to adopt a mind-set and measure that will help us to ensure a safe supply of seafood and healthy oceans,” Worm said. “The critical question [is] whether we are globally continuing to overfish resources or try[ing] to protect them for the future.” On the landward side of the food equation, ethanol is a troublesome but probably more easily solved part of the problem. In the short term, however, the developed world is drawing increasing criticism for what, a few years ago, seemed like a “green” response to fuel shortages – turning corn, beans, and other crops into fuel for automobiles.
The U.S., along with Brazil and other countries, has promoted a rapid increase in the production of ethanol. But Jean Ziegler, a U.N. expert on the right to food, has called for a five-year moratorium on producing biofuels, which he refers to as “a crime against humanity.” “The effect of transforming hundreds and hundreds of thousands of tons of maize, of wheat, of beans, of palm oil, into agricultural fuel is absolutely catastrophic for the hungry people,” Ziegler said. Hemesath, the Minnesota economics professor, agrees that government policies like those protecting farmers from competition and encouraging ethanol production are causing problems. But he believes that workable solutions will be found to the world food shortage and that those who predict disaster are alarmists.
Economically speaking, he said, the market should kick in soon with innovations and government policies that increase food supplies and end the love-fest with ethanol embraced by both U.S. presidential candidates. “As an economist, I have a tremendous faith that markets, millions of individuals acting in their own interests, will prevent the kind of global food crises that could result in starvation,” Hemesath said. As economic growth continues in the developed and developing world, aided by productivity-enhancing technology, the share of income all people spend on food will drop, the professor predicts. “This is the historical experience of the developed world, and I see no reason why it should not also be true in the growing parts of the developing world as well,” he said. “In short, I think the whole issue of a ‘global food crisis’ will be gone. … the world is quite capable of feeding itself at a relatively modest cost.”
The current obsession with the food shortage issue reminds Hemesath of the “hysteria” 40 years ago over population. Ecologist Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, predicted hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in the 1970s. They didn’t. In The End of Cheap Food, Gwynne Dyer, a respected Canadian journalist, declared that the green revolution – the scientifically developed new and crossbred crops that helped Mexico and Asia stave off starvation in the mid-20th century – is officially over. Those developments, along with mechanization of farms and other technology, led to a huge drop in the real price of food in the early to mid-20th century. In developed countries, families went from spending more than a third of their income on food to only about a tenth. But Dyer says we’re headed back toward that pre-World War II level of food prices relative to income.
“It will probably be back up to a quarter within a decade, and it may go much higher than that, because we are entering a period when three separate factors are converging to drive food prices up,” Dyer writes in his book, noting that the U.N. predicts that by 2016, developing countries will be eating 30 percent more beef, 50 percent more pork, and 25 percent more poultry – all animals that need grain. “The global poor don’t care about the price of meat, because they can’t afford it even now, but if the price of grain goes up, some of them will starve,” Dyer writes, adding that the ethanol “war” will draw the lines in the sand between rich and poor like never before.
He quotes economist Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, who told Congress, “The stage is now set for direct competition for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles and the world’s two billion poorest people.” Sneakily, the trauma of the next phase in global food crises could be initially disguised as profit. Higher food prices, Dyer notes, will be a boon to millions of farmers. But as the ratio of food prices to income reaches levels not seen since the early 1800s, the ugliness and desperation won’t abate – at least not in our lifetimes, he said.
The technological solution to mass starvation that Hemesath is banking on won’t come in time to help people in the poorest countries, of course – or to stave off political instability that may result from the food problem. Even those who are skeptical of the idea of a long-term food crisis aren’t optimistic about the “basket cases” throughout Africa and in other regions, where millions could die of starvation and disease well before 2058. And besides the humanitarian tragedy, there are cold, hard strategic issues as well: Social scientists know that poor, desperate people are easy marks for demagogues, easily led to see terrorism or violence as answers.
The ripple effect from places such as Darfur – labeled by U.N. experts as an unmanageable mess enveloped in violence from a plethora of unidentifiable splinter groups who daily rape and kill and steal trucks, food, and whatever they can get their hands on with no retribution – could spread far beyond the Sudan, especially since even very poor people understand that people in the developed world are living much more lavishly. That means the Western world must get dramatically more involved in caring about the infrastructure of the developing world, Halperin said. “You cannot live a lifestyle of comfort and luxury surrounded by billions of people in poverty,” he said. “We just cannot see problems in Eritrea as an Eritrean or Horn of Africa problem. These are problems with global and profound ramifications for DFW and everywhere in the U.S.
“There are massive numbers of marginalized people with limited or no technology, so they are at the whim of repressive government, and their numbers are only growing. If there is no increase in democratizing these countries, the economic instability will only spread,” Halperin said.
Most scientists agree that global warming is going to cause some political destabilization, as temperatures and sea levels continue to climb, climate changes wreak havoc on farming, and populations are displaced, with the worst effects expected in the coastal areas of the Third World.
But does that prospect, in 50 years or less, outweigh the catastrophe facing billions of poor people today? Should the world spend its finite resources on trying to stave off climate change, thereby protecting resources for future generations, or on saving the lives of people starving right now? All the scholars interviewed for this story agreed that measures should be taken to reduce greenhouse gases by curbing fuel use, especially in Texas, which leads the nation and thereby the world in per capita electricity use and gas consumption. The state even boasts of being an energy hog, with Gov. Rick Perry quipping that the largest source of carbon dioxide isn’t his state but rather Nobel Prize winning environmentalist Al Gore’s mouth.
But not every scholar believes that avoiding environmental problems in 2058 justifies taking the most aggressive action today. The reality that some scholars are beginning to accept is that truly transformative action is highly unlikely, and even aggressive curbs on carbon dioxide emissions by the U.S. and other top polluters like China won’t put a major dent in the problem. “I seriously doubt that even the rich countries are politically capable of the kinds of reductions promised by some politicians and pushed by some environmentalists – and the developing countries are not likely to make the growth trade-offs that would be required to significantly lower CO2 levels,” said Hemesath. “I think we need to adapt to whatever global warming will occur.”
The Copenhagen Consensus, a much-discussed compilation of global priorities by a Danish scholar and several others, concludes that the costs of doing all we can now regarding global warming would probably exceed the benefits. Their thinking is that the massive expense of complying with, say, the Kyoto Treaty could be better applied to helping the poor right this minute.
A competing doctrine, the British Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, touts “intergenerational equity.” It claims that the large-scale environmental damage that will probably hit around 2058 justifies spending 1 percent of the world’s income, or around $700 billion annually, to cut carbon emissions.
Hemesath sides with the “rational prioritization” of the Copenhagen approach. That might mean less money is invested, for instance, in preserving mangroves – forested wetlands that protect coastal areas and the ecosystem at large – than in harvesting shrimp in those areas (which depletes the mangroves). A report issued this year showed that the world has lost about 20 percent of its mangrove forests since 1980. “Global warming concerns focus on future generations while there are desperately poor generations living in the world right now,” Hemesath said, although his own economic theory is that market forces will solve the starvation problem anyway.
To the picture of a hotter, poorer, hungrier, more chaotic world, add a major demographic trend: Islam. The religion is spreading faster than any other. Worldwide, non-Muslim populations are aging and in many cases shrinking, while the Muslim strongholds are young and growing fast.
Mark Steyn, a controversial conservative writer and pundit whose book America Alone has made the public affairs show circuit, suggests that a growing Muslim population will include extremists who embrace violence. The author says his demographic research points to a kind of Islamic takeover as Christianity wanes and capitalism falters. Cultural and religious clashes involving a fast-growing Muslim population in Europe have been happening in Europe already, Steyn said. But he also believes that the United States is in a better position to deal with that than Europe is proving to be.
Hemesath said Steyn’s research is hard to dispute. “Regardless of what one might think of his political analysis, he does a nice job of looking at the demographic destiny of the world in a clear and succinct way,” he said. “The United States’ proven historical ability to assimilate immigrants [will be] a very valuable bit of social capital that most of the EU, possibly save Britain, lacks,” he said. Many liberals have called Steyn’s predictions xenophobic and alarmist. But even non-Muslim Americans who celebrate diversity might find rapid growth of the Muslim community in this country worrisome. Most Muslims here and around the world, have nothing to do with terrorism or the violence propounded by radical “Islamists” who have turned the religion to their own ends. But with continuing uproars and instability among Muslim-dominated countries in the Middle East, it’s an uneasy development for many.
Of course, younger Muslims here are increasingly being assimilated into the broader culture and are changing their own religion in turn. Batra believes that 50 years from now, Islam in turn will have undergone a broad reformation. “Those Muslims who pursue their dreams of dominance over others will be abandoned by their countrymen,” Batra predicted. “Islam will become a lot more cooperative with non-Muslim nations in about two decades, and its militant wing will fall.”
Even if they can’t find a consensus about what’s going to happen in the next few decades or what problems leaders and citizens should be focusing on, futurists and economists agree generally that significant worldwide change is happening.
“Right now is … the most radical time in world history to be alive, because technology has reduced the size of this world to a pea,” Halperin said. “Even 20 years ago, the world learned about Tiananmen Square through fax machines. “The internet has the potential to help people realize what’s on their own plate and how good they could have it if governments, including their own, responded to them,” he said. “But this isn’t going to happen without education.” At TCU, Ferrell said, now is the time to be bravely creative in rethinking transportation, consumption, and living space. Of course it will take a lot more than recycling and a group hug to make those things happen. It means giving up ingrained, comfortable parts of our lives – the solo car ride home, that air-conditioned four-bedroom home, a homogenous neighborhood where we feel safe inside the buffer zones of big yards and security systems.
But in the long run, if we can just look that far, Ferrell said, “this process promises not ‘denial’ of luxury but hope and enjoyment – regaining a sort of do-it-yourself ethos, embracing simple and natural pleasures. Over time, [it will] offer us more comfort and fulfillment than do our present arrangements.” In the end, it may be that all those big issues – poverty, the environment, weaning our dependence on the automobile and fossil fuel, global warming, economic justice in the redistribution of resources across continents, new technologies for water and food, saving the oceans, better international responses to crises of starvation and genocide – are what we need to pay attention to. Because it’s only the combination of long-term, relentless grassroots pressure that has driven governments – and for-profit businesses – to make progress on things like promoting sustainable development, and “thinking globally,” as retailers respond to public desire for organic food, recycled products, environment-friendly houses, sweatshop-free clothes, and all the rest.
And if SUVs being turned into greenhouses seems preposterous, remember how unthinkable it would have been just a year ago that the price tag for SUVs would drop by a third or more, in response to the equally unthinkable explosion in gas prices. Just 50 years ago, the invention of the television remote control had Americans in awe before their rabbit-eared sets, the microchip was a mysterious technological breakthrough, and the first commercial flight across the Atlantic had people dreaming about maybe someday boarding a plane. How much easier is it to imagine a world in a grain of sand when you’re used to being able to load every song you’ve ever liked onto an MP3 player no bigger than a Pop Tart? “Our challenge in developing an alternative, sustainable future is to think and do the impossible – that is, to imagine and put into practice ways of living that may seem absurd or ‘unthinkable’ from within present arrangements,” Ferrell said. “The only time we have left is now. We must start today to ‘do the impossible,’ to habituate ourselves to more sustainable and less destructive ways of living.”
Kendall Anderson is a Minneapolis-based journalist who has written for Fort Worth Weekly and The Dallas Morning News. She can be reached at KendallRAnderson@gmail.com.