Monday, November 12, 2012

Envision 2032, the Apocalyptic Version

It is hard to envision the future. Mostly, we tend to extrapolate from the past. And for us, for this generation, that means a path of continual growth.

So, the view of 2032 that immediately leaps to mind is that it looks like now, just more, and bigger. To make this future more "sustainable", we just need to "green it". So:
  • the same number of cars, but electric, 'cause that's greener.
  • people living in the same type of homes, only the buildings are more efficient. We can imagine more density - that means, more apartments - without too much strain.
  • stores are fully stocked, but with much more organic and locally grown stuff.
  • we expect that our kids and grandkids will have it better than us.
  • the same infrastructure exists, in roughly the same state of repair. Only it's greener, too. Maybe with more emphasis on local electricity generation.
To support such a future, if the number of people is growing, the economy must grow, too, to provide everyone with these amenities. And that means it needs to have access to an increasing amount of energy. "Percentage"-type growth in fact means exponential growth.

All of our businesses use energy. Some more than others, but we use a lot of it. Look at the "heavy industry" part of the pie in my post a while back. This sector employs a lot of people; if it is to grow, more energy is required. Same goes for offices and the retail sector. Yes, higher energy prices can force efficiencies, but after a while (decades, not centuries!) these efficiency gains start to plateau - they get smaller.  We cannot count on efficiency gains to keep pace with "forever" economic growth. And, as we all know by now, if something can't go on forever, it will stop.

If energy gets too expensive, the economy has a hard time growing. This means: people start losing their jobs. Which results in debt not being repaid, which means that banks start tightening their lending policies. It also means that people don't shop as much anymore, which starts shutting down service-related industries. The government finds itself in trouble, too: less tax revenue and more demand for its services. Cuts to programs ensue.

This is the world I think we are heading for. Energy is not going to get cheaper (unless the the economy tanks, in which case, skip straight to the next paragraph). There are far more people now demanding their share. All the new oil finds are "extreme oil": hard and expensive to get at. All "renewable" sources (solar, wind) require oil to produce and maintain, and are widely dispersed (and so require huge swaths of land). We need a huge injection of capital (which is already scarce) to retool our existing energy infrastructure and our transportation networks, and right now, government seems fixated on deepening our dependence on a fossil-fuel-based economy. A massive shift to electricity generated by renewable means is not going to be easy or cheap.

I suspect that our economy is going to either stall, or shrink, in the coming decades. What sort of city do we need, to be able to handle this kind of reality 20 years from now:
  • housing bubble is finished: everyone's home is worth 50% of what is is worth today
  • more unemployed people and homelessness
  • more elderly on reduced incomes - nobody's retiring to Arizona
  • fewer government services (unemployement, healthcare, pensions)
  • no money for big capital projects like power grid upgrades, massive transit, new bridges, ...
  • no financial aid available to make your home more efficient or to subsidize your electric vehicle
  • liquid fuel is very expensive and/or rationed
  • uncertain or curtailed electricity supply
  • less choice in food (and it is seasonal)
  • fewer consumer goods: school supplies, fashion clothing, appliances 
If I put on my apocalyptic glasses, I get a vision, not of a green, shiny, eco-friendly city looking like something out of Popular Mechanics, but of something a little closer to present-day Kampala.

This kind of future means:
  • almost nobody can afford a private car
  • the trucking industry has taken a huge hit, although shipping by boat is still widely available
  • a thriving local repair industry (for everything from cars to appliances to clothing)
  • bikes everywhere, including for freight movement and as taxis
  • alternative and much smaller living arrangements, with shared cooking and bathing facilities - boarding houses are back!
  • a much bigger service industry (caregivers, gardeners, housekeepers, etc)
  • water-based transportation to link our city to where food is grown - a busy harbour
  • repurposed emtpy land, parking lots and garages for food production and/or housing
  • small farm animals in the city (chickens, goats, meat-rabbits...)
  • lots of street vending and/or covered marketplaces
  • clotheslines!
  • a well-used rail system
  • greatly reduced air traffic
  • compromised refrigeration
  • doing many more things by hand (washing dishes, washing clothes, carting stuff around, woodworking)
If we make the right choices, we can maintain things like:
  • a busy and well-stocked library (or two, or three!)
  • more local arts and music
  • a tighter-knit community that is more locally engaged, as it becomes more expensive (time, money) to move long distances and as more things need to be shared
  • people in better shape and a well-run medical system
  • good, affordable (free!) schools and a well-educated citizenry
  • tight controls on emissions and waste
  • low crime
If I look a little closer, I'm seeing that as the economy slows, we might get political extremism, hunting for scapegoats, "circling the wagons", protectionism...Hm. I'm taking those glasses off, now!

So, go back to that Envision 2032 survey.

1 comment:

  1. "If energy gets too expensive, the economy has a hard time growing. This means: people start losing their jobs. Which results in debt not being repaid, which means that banks start tightening their lending policies. It also means that people don't shop as much anymore, which starts shutting down service-related industries. The government finds itself in trouble, too: less tax revenue and more demand for its services. Cuts to programs ensue."

    -your vision of the near future looks stunningly like the last 10 years.

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