Friday, March 29, 2013

The future is already here

Economic growth in most mature economies, such as Western Europe and Japan, has slowed down considerably. This should not be seen as a problem but as an opportunity. In most of them, and of course contributing to it, populations are no longer growing; in fact, popula­tion is decreasing in many countries or is stable or grows just because of immigration. This also means that these countries will be more positive towards, or will be coerced to accept, immigration.

Important technological developments, compatible with a sustain­able society, are already in the pipeline and will continue. Organic farming is already practised widely in Europe, up to almost 20% in Austria and Sweden. Even poor countries like Moldova, Bhutan and Rwanda are keenly adopting organic agriculture and consumers are responding by buying more and more. Wind energy is rapidly expand­ing and solar energy is finally close to a massive breakthrough. Some countries are increasing their use of biomass, without threaten­ing nature; for example, Sweden uses close to 40% renewable energy, of which biomass is a substantial part. Ecological houses or villages, passive houses (i.e. those without any active heating or cooling) and chimney-free or effluent-free factories are spreading.

Another interesting, and perhaps surprising, experience is the return of (some) wildlife to urban environments. There seem to be more deer in suburbia than in the wild. The Peregrine falcon breeds in London. Plants crack the asphalt and birds adapt their song to the noise of the city. New ecological niches are developed. Rabbits, raccoons, muskrats, skunks, and other small mammals, red-tailed hawks, ospreys, kestrels and other birds of prey are often spotted in densely packed neighbourhoods in New York. In 2007, a beaver was caught building a dam on a river in the heart of the Bronx, marking the animals’ very first return to the area since the end of the fur trade (Greenwire 2010).

The Internet and globalization have brought people closer; free­dom and human rights have become more or less global values. The respect for the environment is growing all the time and so is the awareness of our dependency both on the environment and on each other. The realization that some problems need global solutions is widespread.

Most people in high-income countries have already understood that a constant chase for more will not make one happier; most know that relationships and society are more important for the well-being of humankind than increased consumption. Human actions still follow mostly old patterns, but soon there will be a dip in Christmas shop­ping, not caused by economic crisis and/or guilt, but simply by lack of interest in more shopping. Gradually, people seeks to reduce risk, consumption and expansion and value safety, stability and proximity more.

The ever-increasing size and concentration in corporate businesses is already now counterbalanced by small-scale solutions, most visible in the food sector. On the one hand, the giant companies get bigger in terms of production, whole sales, processing and retail. On the other hand, as a counter reaction partly from consumers and partly from producers that are left behind in the process, new markets are created for speciality products. It is hard to know whether these local products will continue to be niche products. The strength in the ‘local’ is that it supports local economic development and that there is clear identity and responsibility for the production. It is rather the scale and the relationship that matter and not the distance as such; tightly knitted social networking on the Internet, in that sense, can also give the same feeling as shopping from the local farmer. It is more about connected­ness than about physical proximity.

Movements such as the Transition Movement, initiated in the early 2000s in the town of Totnes in the United Kingdom, primarily focus on the process of ‘energy descent’, the transition that is seen as inevitable after reaching peak oil and to counter climate change. The initiative spread quickly, and, as of May 2010, over 300 communities are recog­nized as official Transition Towns in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Italy and Chile. Transition US has the vision ‘that every community in the United States will have engaged its collective creativity to unleash an extraordinary and historic transition to a future beyond fossil fuels; a future that is more vibrant, abundant and resilient; one that is ulti­mately preferable to the present’ (Transition US 2012).

Local currencies are also spreading. The idea is to build strength and interdependence in the local economy by keeping money circulat­ing in the community and building new relationships. Apart from being an economic project local currencies also have a symbolic power, taking power from both nation-states and global markets into the hands of local communities. The association Jord Arbete Kapital (JAK) in Sweden operates an interest-free bank since 1965 with 37,000 members. It expanded rapidly in the early 1990s when Sweden underwent a serious financial crisis—as a result of a real estate crash—with interests soaring at 500%. ‘If my sister wants to borrow money, she can borrow it without interest,’ says JAK in a film.

I believe that all these initiatives are laudable by themselves, but they are not enough. Ultimately, one has to change the logic of the economic system, and here I speak about what influences the daily choices of individuals as consumers, labourers or companies. Future develop­ment is largely shaped by those choices. To educate consumers and companies in sustainable or fair consumption or production is good. To change the system that determines the incentives is even better.

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