Life After the Exit Ramp
The year is 2071, and the world is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 2021 Mumbai Earth Treaty. On this momentous day, it seems appropriate to look back at the dramatic sequence of events that followed in the wake of that agreement. Today’s world may seem somewhat tame and unexceptional, but its origins lie in the wrenching decisions of the 2020s that led to what is now known as the Great Deceleration—choices that had to be made quickly, at a time when no one could be certain of the consequences.
Through the first two decades of this century, the world’s biggest economies had continued to function as if the Earth’s store of fossil fuels and other mineral resources was inexhaustible and its capacity to absorb greenhouse gases and other wastes was unlimited. Of course, few actually believed that to be true, but almost everyone acted as if it was true; the way that economies of the time were structured, their very survival depended on uninterrupted growth. It was assumed, somewhat vaguely, that our ability to provide life’s physical necessities, regardless of resource constraints, would follow the trajectory that digital technology had taken over the previous half-century, with rising efficiency, rapid doubling times, and no apparent endpoint.
Harsh realities could not be ignored forever. By 2020, rapid rises in global temperatures, the environmental outrages being committed in pursuit of exotic fossil fuel reserves, the rapid increase in frequency and intensity of climatic disasters, and the accelerated degradation of the planet’s soils, oceans, and populations of plants and animals all were making it clear that humanity faced a stark decision. Would we simply forge ahead, hoping for a last-minute technological bailout? Or could we pull back within the necessary ecological boundaries and resolve not to trespass beyond them?
Earlier, as the twentieth century was ending, ecological economists had foreseen the necessity of making such tough decisions. They had argued that for civilization to endure intact through the coming century, we would be compelled to decide between the worldviews of the “technological optimist” and the “technological skeptic.” Because the world can exist in only one state at a time, they wrote, either the optimist or the skeptic, but not both, can be right in their assumptions about our actual future. Depending on which worldview we allowed to guide our actions—and, crucially, on which worldview turned out be the correct one—we would see, in this schema (and using the nicknames assigned), one and only one of four scenarios come to pass:
* A “Star Trek” future would emerge if we acted in accordance with the technological optimists’ worldview and the optimists turned out to have been right.
* A “Mad Max” future would be our fate if we acted in accordance with the technological optimists’ worldview only to find that they had been wrong.
* A “Big Government” future would emerge if we acted in accordance with the technological skeptics’ worldview, but the optimists, not the skeptics, had actually been right.
* But an “Ecotopia” future (named with a nod to Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel of that title) would await if we acted in accordance with the technological skeptics’ worldview and they turned out to have made the right assumptions.
The names given to these alternative futures tell the story. In his Star Trek world, for example, seemingly miraculous climate-neutral energy technologies would be developed, making a life of leisure possible for twenty million human beings, a large share of whom would depart for a life on other planets or moons. In a Mad Max world, by contrast, betting on the emergence of world-saving technologies would turn out to have been a big mistake. Technological marvels, in particular abundant cheap energy sources, would never appear; the world would be run by greedy corporations, with individuals and governments powerless to control them; and the few people lucky enough to have jobs would slave away for ninety to a hundred hours a week, while everyone else scrambled for scarce food and shelter in vast, brutal slums that had once been great cities. (And, as in the film, you could get yourself killed over a liter of gasoline.)
By taking the skeptic’s road, on the other hand, the world would risk missing out on postindustrial miracles that, some believed, might still be just around the corner. This became the chief preoccupation of leading free-market proponents. If economies were subjected to constraints, they argued, the Star Trek future would always remain a fictional future, a tragically missed opportunity. We would have to resign ourselves to living out this century in a Big Government world, one in which bureaucratic encumbrances and high resource taxes protect the ecosphere but at the cost of not letting economic growth reach its full potential. Those making this argument generally failed to point out that by taking the skeptics’ route, the world could actually keep open the option to take advantage—cautiously to be sure—of any promising new developments that actually did emerge; in fact, imposing restraints on resource exploitation could stimulate the discovery of many quality-of-life improvements that might not have arisen in a society devoted to growth for growth’s sake. And whatever its deficiencies, a world that had conserved and maintained its physical and biological foundations, and its options for innovation, would be far preferable to a Mad Max scenario from which there would have been no escape.
Two years later, a group of thinkers known as the Global Scenario Group set out to broaden and deepen the analysis of alternative visions, with their publication Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead. In it, they examined a larger set of possible futures, from a world that attempts to carry on business as usual, to a hyper-local Ecotopia, to a descent into barbarism. The two most desirable of the futures required a “Great Transition” that would be “galvanized by the search for a deeper basis for human happiness and fulfillment.” That search would be global in scope and would replace wealth accumulation as “a central theme of human development.” While policy reform and technological progress would be necessary to make consumption less dependent on material throughput, the Great Transitions would be required to break what had until them been a “lockstep connection between consumption and well-being.”
In the decades that followed, the Great Transition Initiative and allied efforts on every continent turned out a large body of work that would provide the post-2021 world a roadmap of sorts. The precise route to be taken to a sustainable future remained to be worked out, but the consequences of choosing one route over another were much clearer.
After ignoring such logic for decades, the world finally woke up. By the time delegates to the August, 2021 U.N. Earth Conference gathered in the half-flooded city of Mumbai, India, it had become clear that without a dramatic change of course, our civilization was going to devolve into a Mad Max world long before salvation through technology could be achieved. Indeed, many of the world’s impoverished majority were already living in that world. The final available exit ramp was just ahead, and in an unprecedented moment of international collective decision-making, humanity swerved onto the ramp.
The hastily drawn-up Earth Treaty was limited in that it applied only to greenhouse emissions, leaving consideration of other ecological crises for another time; nevertheless, the emissions cuts it mandated— a 50 percent reduction globally, which meant cuts as as large as 80 percent in the United States and 60 percent in Europe—would be deep and steep enough to shake the world economy to its roots. The treaty kicked off a process that eventually would bring to life (at least in some respects) that fourth future, the one labeled Ecotopia. But there were many missteps and meanders along the way.
The initial policies intended to achieve those deep emissions cuts were focused on a global carbon tax, and they flopped. Firstly, the tax was widely regarded as unfair. Despite redistribution of revenues from the tax as a per-capita cash dividend, the world’s poor majority continued to suffer under shortages and inflation, while a rich minority could afford to pay any price to maintain their accustomed lifestyle. Secondly, the policy was largely ineffective. The tax was an indirect mechanism for suppressing consumption by making it more costly, but demand for those critical goods affected by the tax was much less elastic than had been anticipated. In an effort to lift prices high enough to drive down demand among the affluent, the tax had to be increased seven times in three years. But without an explicit ceiling on production or consumption (and with the annual dividend payment providing a strong economic stimulus), greenhouse emissions dipped only modestly, about as much as they had in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008-09. And, crucially, there still was no “floor” to ensure that everyone on Earth had access to sufficient resources. Stronger action was needed.
The Fair-Shares Solution
An epoch-making course change came with the 2024 Common Resources Treaty, signed and ratified by 227 nations. It imposed ironclad barrel-and-ton ceilings on global extraction of fossil fuels and other minerals. Specific extraction, import, and export ceilings were adjusted in accord with each country’s domestic endowment of resources, taking into account per-capita requirements for good quality of life. An impermeable ceiling with no offsets or other escape hatches meant that accustomed volumes of production, consumption, and wealth generation were no longer possible in wealthier nations, while a solid floor made possible a better life for resource-poor populations.
Production of superfluous consumer goods was reduced even further when a large share of resources had to be diverted into building an ecologically durable society. That effort included massive investment in non-fossil, non-nuclear energy sources; conversion to a much less energy-dependent infrastructure; building or converting to more compact, low-consumption housing; a reworking of agriculture; and rearrangement of living and working patterns to reduce the amount of transportation required. Many saw parallels to the 1940s, when large sectors of Western economies were walled off from domestic consumption in order to meet the needs of wartime production.
And the wartime comparisons didn’t stop there. This deliberately imposed scarcity, like all scarcities, triggered inflation that threatened the world’s poor majority in particular. Governments had learned from experience with resource shortages, wartime and otherwise, that price controls would have to be imposed for essential goods and factors of production. And they knew that with price controls, demand would far outstrip available supplies and that rationing by quantity would be necessary to ensure fair shares for all.
At first, rationing was restricted to energy and carbon emissions. As a model for how to proceed, governments dusted off several turn-of-the-century British proposals that had never been passed into law. As eventually adopted, the various post-2024 ration systems set strict national carbon-emissions ceilings that were lowered year by year. Every purchase of energy was then accompanied by a transfer of the appropriate number of ration credits, with each credit corresponding to the quantity of carbon dioxide (or equivalent in other gases) expected to be emitted in generating the energy. Utilities and other businesses and government bought their credits, while individuals received free quotas of credits, which were deposited monthly into their personal “carbon accounts.”
By the mid-30s, with these systems in place, anthropogenic climate impact was already declining steadily. But a problem that some had foreseen from the beginning was now becoming obvious to all. As producers and consumers became more carbon-efficient, and as they spent less on energy, they spent more on other goods and services, stimulating production that often resulted in ecological damage extending well beyond greenhouse emissions. A new strategy was needed, and it employed the concept of “ecological footprint,” which had by that time been under examination and refinement for several decades. It had finally become feasible to assign a fairly realistic footprint value to every good and service in the economy, not just to fuels and energy sources. An item’s footprint value encompassed not just the greenhouse emissions generated during production but also all of its impacts on soil, water, biodiversity, and even whole ecosystems.
So in fairly short order, in country after country, producers’ and consumers’ carbon accounts were replaced with eco-accounts. Everyone now received a fair monthly allotment of eco-points, and every good and service was assigned a point value. Like World War II-era grocery shoppers deciding whether to spend their meat points on a small piece of steak or a larger quantity of hamburger, consumers quickly became accustomed to a ration system that became the foundation of the one we still use today. For many products, the eco-point value, not the cash price, became the dominant factor in consumers’ decisions on whether to buy and what to buy. And in yet another wartime parallel, non-essential products with too-heavy footprints were excluded from the economy altogether.
On To The Next Future
Our world today includes many of the elements foreseen so long ago for both the localized world of Ecotopia and the globally integrated world of the Great Transition vision. Gross domestic product as a measure of economic health was ditched long ago in favor of various quality-of-life indices. Daily life for most of us has indeed become more local, with small communities of a thousand or so population being the basic social unit. But strong political and intellectual relationships are maintained electronically among communities around the planet, many of whom will never meet physically because of limits on long-distance transportation. (And because the data centers that support today’s “lean” Internet no longer have to bear a crushing burden of advertising and marketing traffic, they require far less energy than did early-century ones.) The worldwide consumption floor continues to ensure sufficiency. Although some people do, as was predicted, work as little as 20 hours per week, typical work weeks are still 25 to 30 hours; far less production is necessary, but human labor will always be needed to do much of the work previously done by fossil-fuel powered devices.
By fostering a sense of common purpose and burden-sharing, rationing has been a highly effective alternative to the inevitably disappointing campaigns for voluntary restraint that characterized the early years of global ecological crisis. Without national fair-shares rationing systems, international success in achieving ecological restraint probably would have been short-lived. However—and this cannot be stressed enough—rationing is not a panacea. It was never a plug-in tool for limiting consumption or creating fairness in a growth economy. Rather, it was a policy that became necessary once we had succeeded through other means in pulling our economies back within critical boundaries.
Nor could rationing alone have eliminated the pervasive injustices that plagued the global economy. Early in this century, inequality of wealth and income—both among nations and within the world’s biggest economies, especially those of the United States and China—was rising rapidly. Reversing that trend required a revolutionary transformation, a shift of power from the haves and the investors to the have-nots and the people who do the work of societies. At long last, we appear to have come close to achieving that shift in most of the world; however, an account of that experience will have to wait for another time. Suffice it to say that as difficult as it was for twenty-first-century nations to achieve sustainability and sufficiency, rebuilding the human economy in a way that eliminated exploitation and brought fair sharing of economic power was an even tougher job for us, their citizens.
This article appeared in the July 2013 issue of the journal Solutions, which includes a regular feature in which authors are challenged to envision a future society in which all the right changes have been made.
Stan Cox is a senior plant breeder at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. His book Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing was published by The New Press this month. Write to him at email@example.com.