Last month I mentioned the challenge we have envisioning what a more sustainable world looks like. While many have tried to present us with pieces of the puzzle, very few looked into providing a comprehensive outlook of our life in the next decades from a sustainable point of view.
It’s not that surprising - after all, in such a complex and unpredictable world can we really make a forecast on what the world will look like in 2050 for example? Well, Jonathon Porritt believes it’s possible.
His new book The World We Made (Alex McKay's Story from 2050) provides us a detailed look not just into what the world could look like in 2050, but also the journey there. The good news is that if we play our cards right, we can find ourselves in 2050 in a world that is "massively improved by smart, clean technology, and committed to a much fairer, more sustainable model of economic growth.” The bad news is that the path forward is going to be messy and not very pleasant for many.
How do the two go hand in hand? Well, this is what makes this book so interesting. It’s written from an optimistic point of view that “securing a genuinely sustainable world for around nine billion people by 2050 is still possible,” but nevertheless acknowledges our flaws and the fact that we mostly learn our lessons the hard way when it comes to sustainability.
Porritt, co-founder of Forum for the Future and an eminent environmentalist and writer, tells the story of the upcoming decades through the eyes of Alex McKay, a history teacher in a small British college. This is 2050 and 50-year old McKay, who is about to leave to a new college is challenged by his students to write an account of how the world has changed since he became a teacher in the early 2020s. He decides to go for it and the result is 50 snapshots included in the book, covering every major topic, from agriculture, food and water to climate change to society and cities.
This is both a personal and a global account and these two sometimes mesh together, like when McKay’s father dies in the water riots of 2017. Still, the book is mostly about the movements, trends and events that shape the world and less about the life of McKay. Don’t expect an epic story that will bring you to tears or leave you breathless. What you can expect is a vivid, detailed, visual and extremely interesting tale of the world as it may look like in the next couple of decades.
Porritt is a firm believer in the power of technology and innovation, and so the book is filled with technology-based solutions that will help fix some of the major problems we deal with. The end of the age oil, for example, will mostly be derived by algae-based materials that will be so cheap and useful that they will replace almost all of the oil used for plastics, pharmaceuticals, paints, lubricants and so on.
With all the excitement about innovation (also due to the beautiful pictures and detailed drawings that help visualize them), this book is far from being a rosy picture of a world saved by technology. Porritt actually shows that even though technology is important, what matters most are common sense and human will. When it comes to food for example, he tells a story of farming triumph in Africa, where technology helped increasing the yields, but is mostly driven by small farmers that decided to take control of their own land and utilize small farming techniques.
Porritt also seems to be in favor of small solutions that can add up and make a difference. For example he explains how water use became so much better in 2050: “It was the small things that have made the biggest difference,” he writes, “grey water recycling, waterless toilet, hydroponic and aquaponic farming systems, drip feed irrigation.”
While enjoying the innovative aspect of the book, the part I found most interesting is the descriptions of the hardships we’ll have on the way to McKay’s 2050 relatively pleasant world. To get there, according to Porritt we’ll have to go through wars over water, famine, food riots, climate change disasters, social unrest, high youth unemployment and so on.
One of the key moments Porritt describes in the book is the Enough! movement that starts in 2018. This movement, which seems like an extension of the Occupy Wall Street movement, includes young people all over the world who occupy government buildings, parliaments, stock exchanges and other important commercial and civic centers. These riots, which are quite bloody at first, eventually lead governments to introduce radical reforms, particularly on fair taxation, climate change and protection of the natural world.
This moment is important because it exemplifies the point Porritt tries to make throughout this book – the technology to solve the problems we face is already here or in the "innovation pipeline." The main problem is still the fact that most of the decision makers, from politicians to business leaders are still led by a business as usual mindset and decline to try new approaches and solutions that seems more suitable to the challenges we face.
The book though is probably not for them, but for us, the common people. Porritt sends us postcards from the future, some are full of joy and excitement and some are full with hardship and despair. We, Porritt suggests are the ones that will choose which of these postcards will be the dominant ones in the years to come. After all, as the title suggest, the world in 2050 will be the world we make, for better or worse.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.
Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.