Which Future?

One of the articles in Generation NExT (IC#43)
Originally published in Winter 1995/96 on page 59
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

The following scenarios were developed in detail and with care by an association of systems analysts and representatives of the Protestant church. Hartmut Bossel of the Environmental Systems Research Center at the University of Kassel in Germany, led the team, which considered both the actual dynamic processes going on in the world and their mutual interactions.

Scenario A: Competition & Globalization

If you are not privileged to participate in the global economy, you will try to survive in an abandoned building or a self-built shelter near a waste dump. You rely on charity or on selling scrap from the dump. As soon as they can walk, your kids must help in the family business of survival. They have no time for school, and you are unschooled, so you can’t teach them.

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 an apartment for which you have mortgaged most of your future earnings. Jobs are increasingly eliminated by automation, and the remaining ones require higher and higher skills. Governments privatize nearly all services (utilities, water, waste disposal, security, schools, mail, etc.). After initial economic advantages due to competition, these services become concentrated in quasi-corrupt monopolies, which provide expensive but shoddy service.

Increasing production and consumption are overriding objectives, and industries that are especially effective in this regard enjoy government support. Settlements and infrastructure reflect this policy.

You and your spouse both need a car, since there is no public transport, and shopping, schools, work, and recreation areas are some distance away. The goods you buy are designed to break down quickly, and repair is impossible (or unaffordable). Your life requires continuous consumption, and you have significant expenses for water, sanitation, school fees, road tolls, etc. You must keep your job, so you work late, don’t take vacations, and take on tasks you find unethical. There is no sense of community; you have to look out for yourself.

Food and goods come from all over the world, wherever they can be produced in the cheapest way. To compete in the global market, nations desperately relax environmental standards, labor laws, even democratic and human rights. There is an accelerating exploitation of natural resources. Many regional cultures disappear with the destruction of their means of livelihood. Life expectancy in all parts of the world drops because of environmentally caused diseases. The international community tolerates dictatorial regimes, environmental destruction, and civil wars as part of the "natural" struggle for survival in the global market. International competition and declining social and environmental integrity lead to increasing distrust, intolerance, and aggression between competing regions.

Scenario B: Partnership & Decentralization

You live in a village-like community. Modest houses of various sizes and shapes in a style typical of your region, a style imposed by local building materials and climate, stand in clusters around courtyards with lawns, playground, and gardens. Many families keep small animals to recycle kitchen and garden wastes and to contribute to the food supply.

Older folks live with natural or "adopted" relatives and help in the house or garden or with childcare. The size and shape of the community is defined by the terrain and the need to have shopping for necessities, elementary schools, and neighborhood help within walking distance. Other community functions are within cycling distance, and public transport connects town centers to each other and to bigger centers. Those bigger centers offer centralized services (university, specialized hospitals, research, etc.) for a larger region. For occasional trips, families share vehicles, as they share other seldom-used equipment (power tools, boats).

With energy-conserving architecture, solar collectors, and other renewable energy sources, each group of houses is fairly energy self-sufficient. Only reusable packaging, recyclable materials, and reworkable products are used. Domestic wastes consist essentially of organic materials, which are composted in the gardens. All durable products (appliances, machines) are returned to the manufacturer at the end of their useful lifetimes for disassembly and re-use of parts. Construction materials are recycled.

High transport costs give local resources and products an economic advantage. Anti-trust laws keep businesses small and regional competition alive. Difficult-to-produce high-technology goods (pharmaceuticals, computer chips, etc.) are imported from centers that specialize in those products.

Due to a significant reduction in unnecessary production, the total need for paid labor in this society is strongly reduced, but then so is the need for income. Work is shared by adjusting the length of the work week. People devote part of their increased leisure to public service (community administration, teaching, etc.) in exchange for the right to use such service themselves. A barter economy for a whole spectrum of services develops (piano lessons for gardening, for example.)

Each region is adjusted to its carrying capacity, does not exploit the resources of other regions, and is essentially self-sufficient. As each region adjusts to its carrying capacity, the North/South gap disappears. A multitude of unique regional cultures develops. The nation-state loses importance. The common global environment and common goal of human survival force some binding agreements on basic human rights, care for nature and future generations, and global enforcement if necessary.

Telecommunication and high transport costs reduce business travel and tourism significantly, but information networks let individuals interact with other peoples and cultures. Tolerance and appreciation for diversity reduce national egotism and make global agreements easier to implement.

Possible Futures

Hartmut Bossel and his colleagues made a vigorous attempt to outline other plausible futures, including combinations of these two, but they could not make them internally consistent.

This observation seems to confirm the systems characteristic of synergetics, in which subsystems are "entrained" by larger dynamics, allowing only distinct configurations to appear. In particular, the two scenarios summarized above have such different operating beliefs and principles that it is unlikely they could co-exist harmoniously.

Scenario A is unsustainable and self-destructive. Scenario B is sustainable, and though it may look impossible from the point of view of those caught up in Scenario A, it is in fact already rooted in our history, families, beliefs, and indigenous societies. Its operating principles are those of nature, "a firm that has not gone into bankruptcy for 4 billion years," as Frederic Vester says.

How to get to Scenario B from here? First it must be recognized that a scenario is not only a simplification, it is a snapshot of a dynamic, evolving system. We’re not tying to get to a static state but to a set of guiding principles, said Hartmut.

Systems knowledge and interdisciplinary education will help. A widespread appreciation of complexity, diversity, and the potential of self-organizing, evolutionary processes can replace the current popular drive toward simplicity and control. The principles and worldview of Scenario B are much more sophisticated than those of Scenario A.

Said Hartmut, this transition has to happen in hearts and minds, particularly those of people in the currently industrialized nations.

These scenarios and the subsequent analysis were presented by Hartmut Bossel at the annual gathering of the Balaton Group. Donella Meadows included this report in the latest issue of The Balaton Bulletin. The Balaton Group (officially the International Network of Resource Information Centers) works towards building a sustainable society, primarily by supporting the work of its members.