Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Why Not?

Last night as I was falling asleep, I started trying to imagine a better world -- the world as it could be. Change, good change, always begins with a vision.

I started with the assumption that Obama gets elected President and that he takes global warming seriously and puts policies in motion that actually save us from our own folly. We will still have at least twenty more years of weather getting worse and another twenty or so to get back to where we are today. Assuming. Hey, this is my fantasy, I can assume what I will! As far as I can tell, that is the very best we can hope for at this point.

So we assume that, thanks to timely action, global warming is minimized and peak oil is moot. Does life really change or does the future look like today but with wind turbines instead of coal plants, electric cars instead of gas?

Well, we are in for economic hard times. Almost guaranteed. The current cost of oil is going to have prolonged effects and even if we start switching to other forms of energy seven months from now, that conversion will take time. So recession at best, economic collapse at worst. Let's go with the middle ground -- depression, which is, in all probability, the most likely.

Let's assume it goes like this: With prices up, discretionary spending is down. Businesses go bankrupt. People lose jobs. Dow Jones begins sliding and picks up speed as former millionaires find themselves selling Bentleys at auction. At the same time we are in an economic hole, we are being hit by more floods, more fires, more droughts, more tornadoes, more hurricanes. Insurance costs go through the roof. The housing market reaches even lower lows and we see even more foreclosures. The number of homeless is staggering. Houses sit empty and squatters move in, sometimes multiple families occupying a mansion which, in it's former life, was a vacation home for the super-wealthy. Authorities look the other way. America is gasping for breath, but it survives the storm.

What has happened to Average Joe in all of this? Remember, we're working on the optimist's version of the future, here. Assuming Average Joe still has his house, still has a job, still has his car -- how has his lifestyle changed? He has learned to conserve -- doesn't drive the kids across town to soccer practice and ballet lessons anymore. Doesn't use an electric can opener when a manual one will do. Doesn't keep the house as cool in the summer or as warm in the winter. He has even found ways to generate his own electricity -- from windmills and solar panels to power-generating seesaws and stationery bikes. He puts in cisterns and uses his roof and gutters to collect rain water which he uses to grow vegetables where his lawn used to be. It's the rage anyway -- the new act of patriotism. He spends more time outside and finally gets to know his neighbors After All These Years. His kids, bored now that they're home and Dad won't let them play video games nearly as much, start hanging out with the kids down the street. They make themselves a clubhouse in a neighbor's tree and drop water bombs on the unsuspecting. Mom has converted the garage to a workshop. She makes quilts from old clothes on her foot pedaled sewing machine, which she then barters for clay pots and pine needle baskets made by people down the block. As communities become more and more self-sustaining, people learn that co-operation is the key to survival; crime and poverty all but disappear.

Now this is all fine and good for small-towns and suburbs, but what about downtowns? What about cities? They go through a slightly different transformation. Think of all the space that will be freed up if our malls, shopping centers, and big office buildings go bankrupt and are abandoned. All those buildings can be reinvented. Imagine living spaces interspersed with shops, churches, schools, and medical facilities, all in one building. Imagine rooftops and former parking lots planted with vegetables, and parks landscaped with fruit trees. Imagine streets with bicycles and pedestrians instead of fume-spewing automobiles. Imagine gardens tucked into every available niche and window boxes with herbs on every store front.

But even this rose-colored vision is doomed unless the world at large realizes at long last:

Resources are finite.
Population growth is inimical to quality of life.
We either live sustainably or die.

We can get there from here. Maybe we will. Why not?

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