A Sustainable Utopia

A Sustainable Utopia August 30, 2017

The recent catastrophic events on the Gulf Coast caused by Hurricane Harvey have led to many articles on the increased frequency and intensity of storms caused by global warming. Of course, no single storm can be said to have been caused by global warming, but the conditions that led to Harvey’s development…warmer air and water in the Gulf region…certainly contributed to its size and the resultant devastation.

Did human actions cause Harvey? No, but they made the development of storms like Harvey more probable. That is only one of the ways humans are disrupting the natural systems that make our planet habitable. What follows is a description of the problems and a prescription for the treatments to solve them.

We are trashing the planet, making it unfit for human and non-human life. I don’t need to detail the multitude of ways we are doing this. Environmental organizations have proposed various actions to slow, and eventually stop the continuing devastation. It is clear that we cannot continue on our present path indefinitely. Only the most ignorant of deniers would claim that. What is the best way to attack this multifaceted problem?

We must treat the causes, not the symptoms. The primary causes can be stated very simply:  Too many people consuming too much and polluting too much.

How do we reverse population growth? DUH! Have fewer children. There are all sorts of barriers to this, mostly cultural and religious, but there is also an element of racism/tribalism…fear of being dominated, even driven into extinction, by other races/tribes with higher birthrates. Nobody will win a birthrate war. But let’s assume for the moment that somehow, before it is too late, everyone on the planet agrees to limit family size to one child temporarily, until world population shrinks to a sustainable level…say 1.5 Billion. That’s the first step, absolutely necessary, but not sufficient to reach our goal of long-term sustainability.

Even with the one-child-per-family limit, getting the population down to a sustainable size will take several generations. During that transitional period, there will be a shortage of working-age people, and a growing cohort of retirees. Not as many jobs will be needed for this smaller workforce. But this will lead to other demographic problems. Our pay-as-you-go retirement system where funding for retirees is paid by current workers is one example. It should not have been this way. Until recently, the Social Security Trust Fund ran consistent surpluses, but those funds were “borrowed” by the government in the form of Treasury bonds. As the number of retirees grows, those funds will be needed. Cashing in those bonds will force the government to pay back that borrowed money, causing a strain on our fiscal system that could result in a budget crisis.

One possible solution: People work longer, or “semi-retire,” continuing to earn part of their income, taking some strain off the system. This could be a temporary measure until the population is stabilized and funding of the retirement system can return to normal.

But that means more people working in an age of declining jobs due to automation. Maybe the rush to automation should be slowed a bit, even if the resulting jobs aren’t very popular.

Meanwhile, we cannot wait to tackle the other problems of pollution and consumption. The first and most obvious step that must be taken is to reduce and eventually eliminate the burning of fossil fuels. Many clean, renewable energy sources are available, Some, like wind and PV solar, are intermittent. Others, like hydro and geothermal more continuous. Each has its advantages and drawbacks. We will probably need all of them, plus massive energy storage facilities for intermittent sources, and a worldwide conservation effort to reach the goal of 100% sustainable, clean energy.

The three primary human needs that must be addressed are food, housing and transportation. There are many other secondary needs…products and services that modern societies require. All of the above require energy. Example: lighting. In 2016, about 10% of the energy used by residential and commercial sectors in the US was for lighting, and most of it is inefficient. Upgrading to LED or other high-efficiency lighting would greatly reduce energy use. Transportation accounts for 28% of the energy used in the US. It is also a major pollution source. Public transportation by electric buses, trains, etc. must be expanded, but except in the densest of cities, an efficient means of “last mile” transportation is needed…to get from home to the train or bus station, and from station to work and back. An “electric rickshaw,” a one or two-passenger, robot-driven enclosed vehicle would fill the bill nicely. This will only work in cities or suburban areas. In rural areas, a larger electric vehicle, probably privately owned, will still be the most efficient solution for people to commute to work, go shopping or run other local errands.

Food production and manufacturing are also big energy users and pollution producers. The choices here get a bit more complex. Automation of production facilities frees people from repetitive, unpleasant jobs, but it also reduces the number of jobs available, especially for unskilled or semi-skilled workers. Current large-scale agricultural operations are very energy-intensive, with frequent cultivation and the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to push crop yields. Some experiments have shown that “no-till” agriculture without chemical fertilizers is much more energy efficient. Crop yields are lower unless herbicides are used, but it is sustainable, while the high-yield methods are gradually depleting the soil and poisoning the water. A smaller population will need less food.

The transition to clean renewable energy, conservation and small families will not come without at least temporary economic sacrifice. Poorer nations cannot be asked to sacrifice as much as richer ones. A more equitable distribution of wealth will be necessary. Eventually, there should be little difference in living standards between nations. This redistribution of wealth will be opposed by the wealthy and powerful, but it is essential to the success of this great transformation of human societies and activities. This is what we must do to ensure the future viability of our planet, and our species.

And finally, what will be the result of generations of “only child” families? Much has been written about the effects on a child of being the center of attention and indulgence in early life. One summation that I found is not hopeful:

“The “only children” I’ve known were spoiled, bratty, self-centered, selfish, with a sense of entitlement, difficult to get along with plus a tendency to say inappropriate things that are rude and ill-mannered. Yet being extremely hyper-sensitive and brittle about even the most remotely critical remark going in their direction.”

That is more than a bit over-the-top. I have known some charming and well-adjusted “only children.” But it is a legitimate question: How will several generations of “only children” affect our society?

There is much more to say about this. The economic effects of a shrinking and aging population will be profound, especially for capitalist societies like ours that are based on continuous growth and the primacy of profits. I haven’t even mentioned all the wars and conflicts all over the planet that could result in a nuclear exchange that would threaten all human and nonhuman life. If that happens, I guess the points made in this article are moot. Obviously, we must solve those problems too, but in doing so, we must not lose sight of this looming crisis.

It would be the greatest, the most profound transformation in human history…from tribalism and nationalism, ethnic and racial identity, to world citizenship, where every individual recognizes that his/her actions affect everyone else on the planet. I am not optimistic that this will happen in the near future. It may take some catastrophic world-threatening event to mobilize the global will to start down this path to long-term survival. The alternative is almost certainly oblivion. Eventually, we will have to address the problem.


Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in software design.  He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects.  His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two.  Many of his writings are posted on his web site, bigelowbert.com.  You can contact him at bigelowbert@aol.com.


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