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Imagining Earth Day, 2020
Jamais Cascio   Apr 26, 2010   Fast Company  

As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, let’s take a moment to think about the 50th anniversary.

It’s the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and the world still isn’t saved.

But let’s not dwell on the present. What might Earth Day, 2020, look like? That will be the 50-year anniversary, and the celebrations will almost certainly have lots of interviews with ancient hippie environmentalists, grandstanding politicians responding to the demands of their most ardent supporters, and stuck-on-page-19 (or the virtual version thereof) reports by environmental scientists letting us know just how bad things really are. That all seems likely, no matter what the broader environmental conditions turn out to be. So let’s think through what the world might look like, environmentally, at that point.


First thing to note is that ten years is enough time for a significant social shift, but not enough time for some of the infrastructure changes that appear to be necessary to deal with environmental problems. But are we likely even to try? It seems to me that, thinking in terms of future scenarios, there are two big critical uncertainties: capacity and motivation. That is, what kind of capacity will we have to deal effectively with global environmental issues (particularly the climate), and what kinds of motivation will be there to make us willing to use that capacity?

The Capacity spectrum—from “not enough” to “more than enough”—is more about political and social capacity than about technological capacity. In many ways, the technology is the easy part; we already have the basic stuff (for energy generation, building materials, transportation, urban design, etc. etc.) available, and refinements well underway. The human side of the equation, though, remains pretty iffy, with plenty of people trying to prevent any action, and even more people unwilling to do much more than change their lightbulbs. The “not enough” side of the Capacity axis, then, describes a world much like today: insufficient will to make the systemic changes needed to make a long-term better world, and at best a preference to do last-minute fixes that don’t require much in the way of behavioral changes. The “more than enough” side of the line, conversely, is a world that’s undergone the kind of culture shift we saw in the 1970s around smoking in the U.S.—a radical change in norms taking place in just a decade. Simply put, this is the “Pull” side of the story.

The Motivation spectrum—from “weak” to “overwhelming”—includes both environmental and economic factors. Environmentally, the more we have unexpected or destructive ecosystem and climate events that can be linked in the public mind to environmental degradation (including global warming), the more motivation there will be to act. Economically, the more that we see up-and-coming competitors gaining market (and even military) advantages over the U.S., the more interest there will be to take action in regain dominance. The “weak” end of the Motivation axis is a world where there’s still quite a bit of uncertainty in the public mind about how this environmental thing is playing out, and where the continued rise of China and India isn’t closely linked to investments in green/clean industries. The “overwhelming” end of the Motivation line is a world of screaming headlines and desperate leaders. Simply put, this is the “Push” side of the story.

Let’s put them together to build some scenarios.

Read the rest here

Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.

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