Imagining the Future

[NOTE: Portions of this text were first published on the Idea Explorer blog.]

Here is a minimum set of conditions that would apply to an ideal world for as long as physically possible:

One way to implement this would be to fragment the world's population into various “ecoregions,” where groups can focus on living renewably off the local resources.  Trade between ecoregions would be necessary to the extent that resources for meeting the goals weren't available, but wouldn't be allowed for anything but the basics.  An alternative is a global culture with the ability to adapt to any situation, but it would require a level of standardization and centralization that is likely to make it extremely vulnerable.  A third possibility is a mix of both, which is like what I imagine the United States started out as, and what made it so successful early in its history.

As a corollary to my minimum conditions, resources not needed to meet them can only be used if such use doesn't interfere with meeting them.  I expect that this “excess use” would function much like our current economy, where development and distribution of products would be determined largely by people's desire for them.  If the excess use was sustainable and harmless to people and the rest of the biosphere, then a society could decide to raise the definition of “needs,” but the standards for proving it would have to be rigorous and the conclusion indisputable.  It is arguably the violation of this last rule that is most responsible for the resource crisis we are currently facing.


It's easy to expect that the minimum conditions for my ideal society would be enforced by some agent of the society resembling today's governments.  I'm not inclined to automatically assume such a thing, especially since centralized control of society (either by governments or by large businesses) has just as poor a record of success as individual autonomy (anarchy).  Nor am I willing to assume that the best approach necessarily exists along the continuum between the two extremes, though at the outset that appears likely.

Part of the answer might lie in the way young children are reared.  In the book “The Empathic Civilization,” Jeremy Rifkin presents evidence that empathy, which is critical to feeling responsible for how our actions affect others, depends on the amount of nurturing infants get.  If we value each other (and other species) by, to some extent, experiencing their fate as our own, then it's conceivable that we will regulate our own behavior to at least minimize harm.  If we couple this with a healthy curiosity, that itself is nurtured (or at least not shut down, as now seems to be common in the U.S.), then learning could possibly, over time, provide the basic knowledge for people to meet their needs – if someone doesn't already have it.

No matter what we do, there will likely always be some people who are far from empathic, willing to do whatever it takes to get what just they want, no matter who – or what – gets hurt.  They will balk at any restrictions, and be willing to use force if necessary.  Instead of recognizing them as victims of neglect and treating them accordingly, our (western) culture encourages and even promotes their behavior – especially in economics.  In the workplace, we bow to leaders who are just as likely to fire us as hire us to meet their expectations for growth in their ability to consume more stuff.  Our entertainment lionizes countless ultra-violent “heroes” protecting the rest of us “sheep” who would otherwise be prey to people very much like them (there is also a disturbing fascination with criminals, who are able to break rules without consequences).  By example, we are trained to accept insane propositions, such as “you can only deal with force by using force,” and “life is a contest,” thus enabling the guiltless oppression, exploitation, or murder of anyone we deem a threat or a “loser.” Clearly, to create the ideal world, especially since our culture wields an enormous amount of power, this must change.

In the book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” Chip and Dan Heath provide a recipe for motivating people to make major (and lasting) changes in their lives and institutions based on research and using numerous case studies.  It consists of what I interpret as a two step process involving both intellect and emotions:  convincing them to want the change, and making it easy for them to take action.  Unlike using force (which demonstrably doesn't work, except in a very limited short term), convincing a person's intellect and emotions requires understanding and identifying with them – effectively, empathy – to find out how they can embrace rather than fight the change. The familiar phrase “appealing to hearts and minds” summarizes this approach.  If the amount of work needed to make the change is too great compared to the alternatives, a person may not take action even with the belief that the change can be good, so changing appropriate aspects of the environment (for example, social or physical) may be necessary.

For the purposes of creating and maintaining an ideal world (making a significant change from the one we live in now), nurturing our young and promoting emotionally and physically healthy relationships between adults and the rest of Nature could in general help create a psychological substrate for valuing others (easing the change).  To use a food analogy, this would be like getting someone used to eating nutritious food so their body is naturally repelled by the “empty calories” represented by escalating pursuit of personal power.  Convincing people to change might involve showing that the current system is on the path to killing us all, appealing to the intellect, while demonstrating the human and non-human suffering caused by it would appeal to the emotions of all but the most hardened sociopaths.  A more positive approach would be to describe real and hypothetical examples of a healthy existence where we take care of each other without fear, and pursue the development of the best in ourselves and the natural world in a positive competition whose goal is the maximum amount of life reaching its full potential.

Social Units

In a simplified model of an ideal world, we would have units of population that could meet my basic criteria.  What might these “social units” look like?

Various estimates have been made about the minimum number of people required to viably reproduce, in the context of sending humans to other planets.  The numbers seem to converge at around 160 people, with some latitude based on the number of females in the group.  Reproduction directly affects the species extinction condition, since, in the worst case, we would have only one social unit alive, and it would be responsible for all future generations.

In Nature, species are adapted by evolution to ranges of environmental conditions (“niches”) where they can optimally survive and reproduce.  So are we, but we have much more flexibility by virtue of our ability to learn.  Some portion of the accumulation of knowledge and technology built over the several thousand years of learning by specialists enabled by civilization would supplement each social unit's physical and mental (biological) capabilities and constraints to determine what kinds of environments (ecosystems) it could inhabit.  The size of the social unit would also affect this, since everyone's basic needs would need to be met.

Maintaining basic freedoms while restraining behavior that could exterminate other species would be enabled by nurturing and training.  The basic psychological substrate for basic values and learning would be created by fostering empathy and curiosity (see Enforcement).  Teaching basic knowledge, applicable to all conceivable environments and social situations, would minimize the chances of taking damaging action while enabling individuals to meet their personal needs and coordinate their activities with others to do what they can't individually achieve and improve the chances of the social unit's continued survival.  Developing curiosity into successful learning would provide the flexibility to adapt to unforeseen conditions.  Demonstrating the usefulness of the basic freedoms in furthering both the realization of values and the ability to meet basic needs would reinforce their continuation.

Depending on the complexity of the social unit's environment and the individual characteristics and experiences of its members, there will be specialization of knowledge, ability, and physical circumstances across the group.  This specialization will become more pronounced if the number of people grows, perhaps to a point where it splinters into subgroups.   This dynamic needs to be managed so that competition doesn't result in violation of the basic criteria; for example, social constraints on population growth may need to be observed until or unless a suitable environment can be found where the additional population can meet the criteria.

Meeting Needs

In an ideal world, everyone would be able to meet their needs without resorting to use of non-renewable resources.  The easiest way to do this would be to use the free services of their local ecosystems.  When populations can't do this, they have several options:  They can find a way to live on less, grow the ecosystem, expand their territory, move, or trade something they don't need for what they need.

Living with less can be done by changing choices of food and materials (to get more utility out of a part of the ecosystem that is more plentiful than others), using more efficient methods (such as building smarter or preparing food differently to get more nutrition out of foods), and developing technology that can get more use out of both the ecosystem's resources and human labor.

Growing the ecosystem is another way of saying “increasing its biocapacity,”  where bio-capacity is the annual ability of the biosphere to provide what we use and clean up what we waste.  This could involve importing more (preferably native) species, reducing pollution, and changing the landscape to be more conducive to life (such as growing or importing soil, capturing and routing water, and adding weather protection). 

Expanding territory and moving are the easiest ways to get what you need if your ecosystem can't provide it.  There may however be physical impediments (places you can't travel) or human ones (other populations already living where you want to move).  An efficient way to do this is to provide incentive to a small part of your population to take the risks for you by giving them or promising them more than they need (paid for by having the rest of the population live with less), then moving or expanding the rest of the population when a satisfactory environment has been found and the means for accessing it developed.

If other populations occupy ecosystems with sufficient additional biocapacity to help yours meet its needs, then trade may be an option.  What you would trade is resources that you don't need, but which the other population wants.  Because there is also risk involved in making such transactions (both in determining what can be traded as well as performing the trade itself), a small set of risk-takers can also be employed by one or both populations.

Now, trade connects practically every population on the planet.  Encouraged by the incentives of risk-taking to use more than they need, almost everyone is joining the ranks of the risk takers.  This has created a global culture of growth, with disastrous consequences.

 According to the recently released Living Planet Report by the World Wildlife Fund, our global population exceeded the ecological carrying capacity of the Earth (the biocapacity needed to provide what we use and waste) by half in 2007.  This means that if we relied strictly on biocapacity, only two thirds of our population would have been able to sustain its annual resource use and waste (“ecological footprint”).  We've made up the difference by “consuming” the very species and systems that do that work.  For reference, the report comes up with a minimum healthy, sustainable per-capita ecological footprint (for Peru) that is roughly half of what the world is probably using now if per-capita consumption is still proportional to population.  If biocapacity stays constant and the average per-capita consumption drops to this minimum, then our planet will sustainably support no more than eight billion people.  (This, interestingly, is very close to the peak population my own population-consumption model projects for business-as-usual with no renewable resources.)  The global population is approaching seven billion people;  if we all lived like people in Peru, I estimate we would be using seven-eighths of the world's carrying capacity.

If we could somehow manage to redistribute the world's population so everyone could meet their needs using the available biocapacity, grow biocapacity, and limit whatever extra we consume (meeting our wants) to the added biocapacity, then we would probably have the best of all worlds.  With more self-discipline, we could set aside a reserve as a cushion against external forces that might reduce what we have (such as global warming, which is almost sure to have this effect).

Implementing this admittedly simplistic plan would seem to require centralizing the population rather than splitting it up (as I've suggested in the past), but this isn't necessarily true.  A thorough analysis could theoretically be done to determine the optimal distribution of population on the planet given local biocapacities, energy resources, and projected changes in the environment on both local and planetary scales.  The analysis would have to consider how to reduce the vulnerability of connected populations to threats that could imperil them all, which I believe will result in suggesting some degree of isolation.

Far more difficult than coming up with a physically plausible “ideal world” will be convincing the vast majority of people who subscribe to an entirely divergent set of cultural norms and beliefs that it should be followed at all, and then changing their way of life to accommodate it.

Click HERE to see a related presentation.

Strategic Goals

To create an ideal world, we should work toward all of the following strategic goals:

For a healthy, sustainable society, material consumption should be kept to no more than the biocapacity of local ecosystems and no less than the amount required to maintain a functioning society. This currently translates into an average world average global ecological footprint of between 1.5 and 1.7 global hectares per person.  Because the biocapacity per person is inversely proportional to the ecological footprint per person, which itself is proportional to population, increases in consumption and population should be avoided at all costs.

The goals that I listed support meeting this objective.  The first two directly reduce the ecological footprint and its growth by reducing waste, and could eventually contribute to increasing biocapacity if we enlist other species in meeting them.  The third is based on my analysis of why we are so wasteful.

According to Global Footprint Network's "Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity, 2007," the average person in the United States had an ecological footprint of eight global hectares in 2007, or five times the minimum acceptable amount.  Because the money we spend is roughly proportional to our ecological footprint, then as a first step toward creating an ideal world, we in the United States could try to limit what we spend to one-fifth of our income in 2007.  We could then use the rest of our income to pay off our debts, assist people below the minimum to at least be able to live at the minimum, and contribute to pollution-fighting and habitat restoration and preservation.

An overall decrease in the world's per-capita consumption would seem to require a corresponding decrease in the population, which is why I've shied away from proposing it in the past.  The broad goal of replacing current consumption with renewable and replaceable resources, without requiring that those resources come at the expense of the biosphere, left open the possibility that technologies might be developed that could do so.  I now have little (less) hope that this could happen before the population peaks.  One possible alternative is to increase biocapacity enough to compensate, but this too would require time we may not have.

The fourth goal presents a possible way out of this dilemma.  Personal relationships with each other and other species have weakened considerably as our population has increased.  To the extent such relationships exist, they have become largely transactional and correspondingly abstract, thus more likely to weaken or break if there is less to trade.  Strengthening the non-transactional aspects of these relationships, bringing them closer to what our distant ancestors enjoyed, could conceivably deal with this problem.  As we become more familiar with other creatures, they might be perceived as a part of our population (similar to how some people view their pets) who could take of themselves, while helping us.  The contribution to happiness – the internal experience of approaching our comfort zone that is probably a major motivation behind our consumption – might offset the perception of loss accompanied by the reduction of consumption.  Keeping consumption at or above the minimum would assure that changes to life expectancy (also correlated to consumption and happiness) wouldn't be an issue.

Voting for an Ideal World

Elections in the United States present a regular opportunity for citizens to influence government policy.  Following are some recommendations for how we can vote to improve the chances for creating an ideal world, or at least one that will not end in our lifetimes.

Choose candidates who (in no particular order):

Vote for ballot measures that:


In an ideal world, any economy would:

To do this,

When people can't meet their needs with available resources, they must either move or trade with people in an area with an excess of resources that can meet their needs.  What they trade for the excess must be renewable or reusable (as well as the resources used to make the trade); if this is not possible, then they must move to where it is possible, or where the excess resources exist.

To ensure that the wealth area doesn't infringe on the other areas, the cost of each transaction would be proportional to its ecological footprint, with the total “money” in this “wealth economy” fixed and proportional to the total ecological footprint of the wealth area.


© Copyright 2010 Bradley Jarvis. All rights reserved.