Dear 2015: More Fun With Less Stuff

By Ed Church

Edward Church is the Executive Director of the Institute for Environmental Entrepreneurship. He has a 30-year career in the nonprofit, for-profit and governmental sectors and a Ph.D. in Sociology from UC Berkeley.

Oct 6, 2015 | Smart Cities | 0 comments

This blog post is a response to the Dear 2015 group blogging event prompt:

The year is 2050. Write a letter to the people of 2015 describing what your city is like, and give them advice on the next 35 years.

For more responses, see the Dear 2015 Event Page.

Dear 2015,

Over the past 35 years, three big factors have had a hand in setting the stage for us in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2050:

  • we’ve begun to cut our use of fossil fuels by about 50% toward the necessary 90%;
  • we’ve begun to come to grips with limits on natural resources;
  • our lives are adaptations to climate change.

And we have found that, amidst the daily challenges, we have what a button from 2015 said, More Fun with Less Stuff.

You would see a lot of changes in our urban form and the way we use technology, but we’re also changing our economy and the way we live our lives. Some of you in 2015 will recognize what large scale change looks like. You will remember 1965, a year in which the Santa Clara Valley was still called “the Valley of Heart’s Delight,” covered with 60,000 acres growing fruits and vegetables. That was the major driver of the economy and there were several national brands’ canneries supplying thousands of jobs. By 2015, it had become Silicon Valley, mostly paved, with only 5% of that area still under cultivation. A lot had changed.

You also saw changes in laws, regulations and customs. In 1965, disposal of industrial toxics was confined to property owned the by companies, unfortunately leeching into nearby ground water, requiring millions of dollars of cleanup. Cigarette smoking was common in bars, restaurants, and hospitals. Racial exclusion in housing, schools and jobs was commonplace. Those women who worked outside the home did so in lower-paying jobs requiring minimal education. Gay folks were still in the closet. Some people in 1965 thought these things would never change. But, through a combination of advancing knowledge, new regulations, and evolving culture, they did. Those three elements have come together in the decades since 2015.

We talk about 1965-to-2015 because we wanted to remind you of a level of change in all aspects of society that could be used as a yardstick for the change since 2015. We “Millennials” are the largest population group since the Baby Boomers, and now, in our 60’s, we’ve seen more change than they did. But, we will need more from our parents and grandparents in 2015 to make the transition to our “post-carbon society” in 2050 less traumatic and more productive.

For 400 years, our planet’s material gains had been achieved through the use of fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. Thanks to lots of research, by 2015, the need to reduce green house gases was clear, and had begun. But, nowhere near enough. To avoid turning the Earth into a desert, by 2020, the California standards for reducing GHG were twice as deep. Investment in fossil fuels had mostly ended, and by 2025, petroleum and coal companies that survived did so by turning their scientists and production to renewable energy.

In 2050, we mostly have no private cars. For long trips, we use our gas rations and rent gas-powered cars. But usually, we walk, because we started in 2025 to redesign our cities for walking instead of cars. Biking or public transit is our next choice for getting around. And if we need it, we can call an automated electric car on our cell phones (yes we still have those). It costs a lot, but they pick us up, drop us off, and then head off to get someone else. City streets are quieter, narrower, and there are no drunk driving fatalities, as there were by the tens of thousands in 2015.

Airplanes run on bio-fuel, mostly from algae, but there are far fewer flights, to conserve airplane stock and wear and tear on airports. Travel to business meetings or presentations has been cut by 75% relative to 2015, enabled by widespread use of video conferencing.

Almost all heavy trucks and other movable machinery are powered by biodiesel, some from recycling food waste, some from algae and some from synthetic compounds. Still, truck use has been cut in half since 2015, mostly because we are consuming less stuff, and restoring or reusing what we have. We have cut our waste flow by 80%, which saves truck trips and natural resources.

Most buildings have been dramatically retrofitted for energy efficiency, and all buildings constructed after 2025 are built to Living Building standards for beauty, and efficiency in energy and water use. They have also been built to durability standards developed in 2020 and for flexible conversion between residential and commercial use, to preserve the carbon “embedded” in them from construction. We realized that we had to repurpose buildings, instead of razing and rebuilding, as Europe has done for centuries.

Roof-top solar panels have become standard, as have what you called “purple pipes” for reusing gray water. But, much of the water we get has already been reused from other sources, filtered, and used again. We don’t use water just once. Nor do we rely only on roof-top solar. We also have roof-top wind, both of which feed battery storage as well as being used immediately. And, we have community micro-grids, to share our collection space and to back-up each other.

And there has been a lot of building, not just along the Central and Northern Pacific Coast, but in increasingly temperate sections of Colorado, Idaho and Montana. Cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix, where “heat emergency” dates are increasing from 10 a year in 2015, to 30 or 40, are losing population. Predictions are for the hotter areas in the West and Midwest to begin emptying out, as the Rust Belt cities did for economic reasons that are much less compelling than constant 120 degree days. These areas might lose 10 million residents, who will move to more temperate zones.

In 2015, you were becoming much more familiar with the demands of reducing fossil fuel use (though you have to do lots more, please!). But you still hadn’t understood the demands of reaching limits on natural resources. In 2015 India’s middle class was about 50 million; by 2025, it became 583 million. China’s middle class in 2015 was 150 million, by 2030 it became 1 billion. Understandably, they sought the same material “good life” Americans did. But these middle classes were eight times bigger than America’s. There was “good” and “bad” news, however. India and China experienced food crises, and air and water pollution to such an extent that they used “only” five times as many natural resources as Americans. Many of the minerals used in industry, electronics and agriculture are now in short supply, which is why we reduce their use, repurpose, repair and restore. These latter three all provide highly local jobs, which is fortunate, since we no longer use the cheap fossil fuels to move materials across the globe with abandon.

We Millennials really started to develop the “sharing economy” in 2015, as we turned strangers into acquaintances via the Internet, and we (followed by Generation Z folks) pretty much stopped relying on private cars by 2020. The use of social media, complemented by what in 2015 was called the face-to-face “meet-up” continues today in 2050, but since we are living closer-by each other, work and socializing in person seems to dominate.

And, when we get together, what do we eat? Think of telling someone in 1965 that your diet in 2015 has lots of sashimi, vegan entries and tofu burgers. We’re heavy on the veggies, but also include farmed insects, urban-raised chicken and turkeys, and farmed fresh water fish, as they did in 2015 in many parts of the non-Western world. By 2015 the oceans were beginning to acidify from decades of acid rain and warming from climate change. Coral, then small fish, then larger edible fish started dying off. Some species died from ingesting plastic beads and bags. Now, for fish, we rely on urban aquaponics and fresh water farming. Beef and pork use so much land, and require such environmental mitigation, that they are relatively expensive and consumed only infrequently.

Our economy is mostly local, within a 100-mile radius or so. The cost of transportation is fairly high without fossil fuels, and the limits on natural resources combine to reduce both production and consumption. In the early 2000’s there was a button, “More Fun. Less Stuff.” That explains at least part of our economy. We tend to make things locally, share them, fix them when they break, frequently in groups. For us Millennials and the newer generations, this is a cultural preference which meshes well with the needs of the planet.

Look at the Baby Boomers, who struggled with questions of race, gender and sexuality. We Millennials never understood that (like the Boomers never understood our tattoos) and neither do our children. Race, gender, sexuality simply never mattered to us; we hang out together; we need each other. Again, this meshes well with how the economy has localized.

We need you in 2015 to finance this transition to the post-carbon society. You started developing “green bonds” for debt financing of energy efficiency, production and storage, as well as for urban buildings and infrastructure. Your next step was to harness positive “impact investing,” equity ownership with a truly triple bottom line. But that didn’t reach scale until 2025. If you had combined impact equity and impact debt to finance the transition in 2015, we could have mitigated more carbon, and begun the process of adaptation much more smoothly.

We look to you, our parents and grandparents to remember the words of Warren Buffett, investor and philanthropist, and one of 2015’s richest people:

“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

Thank you, your children and grandchildren in 2050.


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