By Donella Meadows
–December 28, 1995–
All the progress we’ve seen and all we’re promised for the future — to what is it progressing?
Most of the year we’re so busy turning the wheels of progress that we never step back to ask that question. But come a new year, just four years away from a new millennium, and the thought does arise, where in the world are we going?
That question got lodged in my brain with a report by a friend, Professor Hartmut Bossel of the University of Kassel in Germany, on two possible futures. His scenarios were produced by an unlikely combination of scientists and people from the German Protestant church. The scenarios were built painstakingly, to be internally consistent. Economics and technology had to align with values and beliefs. To the surprise of those who produced the scenarios, they could find only two. All others they tried, including combinations of the two, failed to hold together.
Here is a very condensed version of one possible future, which Bossel calls Scenario A: If you have marketable skills, you can get a job in a global corporation. If your spouse also has such a job, you can live in a house or apartment for which you have mortgaged most of your future earnings. Jobs are often eliminated by automation. The remaining ones require ever-higher skills.
If you don’t have those skills, you try to survive in an abandoned building or self-built shelter. You rely on charity or selling scrap from the dump. As soon as they can walk, your kids must help the family subsist. They have no time for school, and you don’t know how to teach them.
Nearly all services (utilities, water, waste disposal, security, schools, mail) are privatized. After initial lower costs due to competition, they have become concentrated into quasi-corrupt monopolies. Services become ever more expensive and shoddy.
If you’re working, you and your spouse both need a car, since there is no public transport. The goods you buy break down quickly, and repair is impossible. You must keep your job to be able to pay for more goods, plus water, sanitation, school fees, road tolls, etc. So you work late, don’t take vacations, and accept tasks you consider unethical.
Food and goods come from all over the world, wherever they can be produced most cheaply. To compete in the global market, nations relax environmental standards, labor laws, even democratic and human rights. Competition and declining social and environmental integrity lead to distrust, intolerance, and aggression between nations.
Bossel’s other future, Scenario B, sounds less familiar, but to me anyway, much more attractive: You live in a community of modest houses in a style consistent with local materials and climate. The houses are clustered around courtyards with lawns, playgrounds, and gardens. Elementary school, a clinic, shopping for necessities, and neighborhood help are all within walking distance. Other community functions can be reached by cycle. Public transport connects communities to each other and to bigger centers where there are universities, specialized hospitals, research facilities.
For occasional trips families share vehicles, as they share other seldom-used equipment such as power tools. With energy-conserving architecture and solar collectors, each group of houses is energy self-sufficient. Appliances and other durable products are returned to the manufacturer at the end of their useful lives for re-use of parts. Packaging is minimal and re-usable, so there is little domestic waste. It is composted for the gardens.
Transport costs are high, so local products have a competitive advantage. Anti-trust laws keep businesses small and competition alive. Because consumption is modest and waste non-existent, there is only moderate need for paid labor, or income. Work is shared by shortening the work week. People devote much of their increased leisure to public service (day care, teaching, etc.) in exchange for the right to use such service themselves. Many services are bartered (piano lessons for gardening, for example).
Each region uses its own resources according to carrying capacity and is close to self-sufficient. There are many different regional cultures, but all regions are capable of meeting basic needs, and then some, for everyone. There are no pockets of poverty nor of excessive wealth.
Business travel and tourism are rare, but people interact daily through public telecommunication links of many kinds. Appreciation for diversity reduces national egotism and makes the few necessary global agreements possible and enforceable. Those agreements have to do with basic human rights, care for nature and children, and control of weapons.
The society in Scenario A is focused on control, Bossel says, and conflict and winning. In Scenario B the emphasis is on cooperating. Society A values growth, quantity, bigness; society B values efficiency, quality, equity. In A information is considered property, a tool of power. In B information is open to all, a tool of democracy. Citizens of A gain influence and self-esteem from property and wealth. Citizens of B are respected for responsibility and integrity.
Scenario A seems inevitable to me, and B wildly idealistic. But A is self-destructive; B is sustainable, and actually, because of its efficiency and frugality, much more attainable. And B is rooted in the history, practices, and families of most people in the world. It’s a vast effort to force billions of people from B to A. It could be much easier to help everyone evolve better B’s.
How to get to, preserve, encourage B? The answer is in values, says Hartmut Bossel. The difference between these two scenarios depends on hearts and minds particularly those of people in the currently industrialized nations.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995