I am getting ready to return to my half-finished, densely-prosed book entitled (at least when I stopped working on it a decade or so ago) Humans and the Future of Earth. That is actually still a pretty good title, but, thankfully, my thinking has evolved a bit since I put it down last; and as I begin to prep my brain for returning to that topic, I am going to write a few things down.
One of the things that has emerged ever more strongly from the shadows of the earlier work is that Humans are in Control. It follows then, and I repeat ad nauseam, sustainability is the process by which we create the future we desire.
If we assume (which I will do the early part of the book) that human intentionality is a thing that makes sense, then there are some things we need to decide about the future of our planet. This post is a short list to get the juices flowing…
How much inequality are we willing to tolerate?
There is so much to unpack in my sustainability definition that it would take an entire book to shake it all out, but one of its key implications is that differences among humans and our differing qualities of life are central to sustainability. Furthermore to say that we are moving toward sustainability will require that we give strong attention to differences among aspirations across cultures and the distance between current conditions and those aspirations.
How important is a democracy?
Sustainability is definitely one of the great challenges that democracies face. If we are willing to accept less democracy, sustainability will be easier because the number of aspirations for the future that count will be less. The scale of decision-making and compromise that is implied by the aspiration to create a desirable future for humans on Earth is nearly unfathomable. The distribution of capital as we currently understand it is related to this; if we really value distributed decision making as is commonly attributed to constitutional democracies, then I think it is likely that the relationships among capital accumulation and political power will need to be addressed.
What value do we place on transparency and privacy?
This is a new one to me, but I think that it is important. Privately held organizations such as Google and Amazon, and some we probably haven’t heard of, have amassed staggering stores of data about us as individuals and as groups. A related case is data that is held by governments. Do we care about this? I am starting to; especially as I come to understand better the power of current computational methods. Different people and cultures will have different ideas about what is appropriate, but in the future that I desire, there is a lot more clarity about the costs and benefits of privacy and transparency.
What level of engineering are we willing to inflict on our grandchildren?
And lo and behold, we finally get to the relationship between Human activity and the functioning of the Earth System. We cannot go back to The Garden for the apple has been genetically modified, turned into juice and packed in a box that will survive into eternity. The path forward will call for tradeoffs and interplays among human and nature engineered systems. Human activity will play an outsized role in that balance and a great deal of human engineering is likely to take place in a reaction, rather than proactive mode. The time scales of these engineering projects will be such that it will be at least the second generation out that will feel the full brunt. The rhetoric of my framing hints toward my opinion here.