The following is an excerpt from ‘The Great Transition’; a strategic plan by the New Economics Foundation to transition to a more sustainable, equitable and fulfilling society by 2050. It’s a beautiful story of what we can make of this world if we stop pretending we have no control.
A tale of how things turned out right.
There we were back in 2009 feeling as if the four horsemen of the apocalypse were bearing down on us. The global economy was falling apart, we were accelerating towards the cliff edge of catastrophic climate change, and our oil-addicted economies were set to go cold-turkey as their fossil-fuel fix grew much more expensive and harder to get hold of. At the same time the world was divided by great wealth and extreme poverty; overwork and unemployment; hunger and obesity; and even the relatively rich global minority found themselves consuming ever more but without any noticeable rise in their well-being.
It was all going horribly wrong. Then, suddenly, common sense kicked in. We realised that we had one chance left. If we blew that, there could be no turning back, no excuses. It wasn’t as if we hadn’t been warned, or that we didn’t know what was going wrong. Change became the name of the moment. The Great Transition began. Afuture was mapped out that would allow the country to live within its fair share of global environmental resources. We even worked out how to manage the Transition in a way that improved our well-being, enhanced community life, and promoted social justice.
And, after it all turned out right, this is how an average, working urban-dwellers day in the UK panned out.
With less time spent working in the formal economy and more flexibility over when we work, the choice is ours – take the kids to school, go for a run, read a book. With a new focus on real wealth and well-being, previously overconsuming rich countries have now cured most cases of the twin evils of work addiction and unemployment. The huge debts and interest payments that kept us chained to our desks have been designed out of the system by new forms of credit and ownership, for land, homes and other big ticket items. Because we’re more content, having more time for ourselves, friends and family, we need less income too for the false consumerist promise of buying happiness. More flexible working practices have made it much easier for us to work part-time, take sabbaticals and tailor where and when we work. We’re using technology cleverly to make for smart work. Those of us choosing the early morning run enjoy fresh air in our lungs and clear paths as dramatic reductions in traffic have transformed city air and streets – the result of a successful shift to mass transit systems and the new popularity of walking and cycling.
When we do need to buy things, there’s no call to sweat over every shopping decision: business and Government have got it together to make socially and environmentally sustainable trade the (carefully checked) norm. They have also ensured that both work and incomes are much more equally shared. The weekly food bill has gone up – but so has the quality, and so has our ability to pay for good, healthy food. Also we’re saving lots of money later in the day, and are no longer struggling under unsustainable levels of personal debt. The damaging consequences of cheap food systems have gradually been rolled back. This is sustainable consumption universalised – no more scanning labels. A few deft and well-planned moves in boardrooms, Parliamentary chambers and the Inland Revenue helped to make food markets fair and sustainable.
Flexibility and technology have massively reduced our need to travel for work. The hours gained and stress lines postponed make us more effective and committed to the work we do, particularly as our successful organisation is likely to be one creating real social and environmental value. But these changes are about more than work. Social networking software has thrown us together with new people– our desktops give us a global network, but also connects us in new – live – human ways to the communities in which we live.
For those of us happy to live without a computer, there are plenty of benefits in the new sense of community that has evolved from the revival of local shops (where the shopkeepers actually remember who we are) and the way that residential streets and town centres, liberated from suffocating traffic, have become people-friendly. Streets are safer for children to play in, with some entirely car-free, and many towns have reclaimed central plots of land as public squares. A calmer environment and more opportunities for casual contact between neighbours make public space more accessible to all. People of all ages gather and talk to each other more and, as a result, even in cities people, particularly older people, feel less lonely and vulnerable. Crime has fallen too.
We can take some time out late morning to plan our summer trip. While the big increase in the cost of fossil fuels has seen international travel become a much rarer experience, it tends to be much better – and longer – when we do head off on our travels. With more leisure time and good cycle and public transport links, low-impact local excursions are a much-loved part of many people’s lives. But with our experience
of both cities and countryside transformed by investment in really great public spaces – whether it’s the park or local recreation ground, the village hall, local pub or café, theatre or cinema – we feel less need to get away in order to unwind.
A journey to work? Problems are as big as we make them: it used to be said that we wouldn’t give up our cars. Cars were bought; roads were built; resources (including our own wallets) were burnt in pursuit of a very particular form of mobility that becomes less enjoyable and more polluting the more people take it up.
But by raising revenue from polluting and inefficient fossil-fuel-run cars to invest in alternatives, governments were able to completely transform people’s experience of cities and towns. Owning and driving cars to meet most of our mobility needs has come to seem simply eccentric. Lifespan and quality of life have dramatically increased. Transport options range from trains, trams and quiet clean buses, to on-demand rural shared taxis and simple car-share schemes that meet the range of needs we have throughout a year.
In the evening, time released from long working days, and the fact that fast food and ready meals have gone up in price now that they reflect their full ecological costs, has seen a revival of home cooking. With lots more single households there are some twists. More people get together to take turns to share informal meals in a neighbourhood. In fact, everywhere, people are relearning skills that for much of human history were second nature, but which had been largely lost in just a couple of generations.
Stories and music are as old as campfires. For a time we forgot it, but being actively involved in making entertainment made us feel much better than just passively watching others perform. Perversely, though, the fashion for reality TV talent shows early in the twenty-first century triggered a widespread revival in people wanting to do things for themselves so, in any case, we started to spend fewer and fewer hours in front of the television. It’s now common in pubs, clubs and in any available hall to find groups of friends showing films they have made on inexpensive, easy-to-use equipment, and putting on a wide range of music and other performances.
The urge to take part goes beyond arts and culture. Even politics has become a way for us to come together and make our voices heard. Political power, once locked away in distant centralised institutions, is now embedded in local communities. Taking part in politics now means debating issues with our friends and neighbours; open public meetings where anyone of us can have our say on the issues that matter to us.
Just as people are happier to go out more locally during the day, because towns have become more pleasant places to be, the same is true at night. As in countries like Italy, in the early evening people of all ages take to strolling around town, just for the sake of it. The increase in spare time means people start reviving half-forgotten festivals and celebrations, as well as creating new ones to mark everything from important global events, to the seasons, local history, people and important events. There is much more partying in general, and not just for the young.
A revival of distinctive local economies also brings more character back to different areas, making it worth travelling around the local area to visit other unique local festivals, bars, restaurants, cinemas and theatres. Clone towns dominated by identical chain stores and outlets are consigned to history.