• Wayne Conrad

The Sustainable Future

A balance between local production and consumption and Global Trade

Crop field
Energy drives the world. The sun provides this energy. It’s time for it to go full circle.

In simplest terms, plants gather solar energy and store it in a form which can be burned to create heat or eaten by people and animals to sustain life. Over millions of years, the energy stored in plants and animals when they die is buried deep in the earth’s crust and converted through heat and pressure to coal, oil, and gas.

As humans moved from gathering to purposefully growing their food, they also began to domesticate animals to facilitate efficient planting, maintenance, and eventually transportation of crops. In time, this partnership of farmers and animals created more food than the farmers and their animals needed. This enabled the growth of villages, towns and cities over the past 10,000 years. This period was dominated by local and regional trade of surplus and specialized goods, and the growth of human culture was driven by water, wind, fire and plants. The energy needed to produce food and goods was minimal.

In the period from 1760 to approximately 1840, both agriculture and the production of goods were revolutionized in what is commonly called the first industrial revolution. The energy that powered the world transitioned from animal and human labor to coal-fueled steam power, which enabled the development of larger scale manufacturing machines that could produce many times the volume of simple, muscle-powered machines. Coal-powered steam also led to the ability to transport trade goods faster and more easily over long distances. This expansion of manufacturing saw unparalleled growth of cities and factories, and accelerated trade nationally, internationally and globally. For the first time in history, the standard of living in the general population began to rise consistently.

This first wave of globalization continued to grow from 1850 through 1914, powered by wood, coal and oil, driving major changes in industry, urbanization, and transportation, and ever-expanding communication technologies. Trade reached 38% of global gross domestic product by 1914 and many people started to have some measure of leisure time.

The period from 1914 to 1945 was marred by two world wars and the Great Depression.

The wars expanded the military-industrial complex, which resulted in an exponential increase in our dependence on fossil fuels, and the emergence of nuclear power.

A second wave of globalization, from 1945 to 1990, brought technological advancements that increased the standard of living throughout the developed world. Ordinary people were able to achieve independent home ownership, relative financial stability, improved health and longevity, and increased time for leisure. Single wage earners could, for a time, support their families. This period saw huge expansions in world trade and world population, fueled by the inefficient use of coal, oil and gas resources. There was an equally enormous rise in the per capita use of energy and the associated pollution.

Post 1990, a third wave of globalization, often termed hyper-globalization, saw the demise of the Soviet Union, privatization, deregulation and rapid advances in information and communication technology. The main beneficiaries of this wave were emerging economies. People in the already technologically developed world were offered low-cost goods which were mass produced in these emerging states. This created an illusion of wealth through possession of many non-essential things. In truth, the long term cost of owning many of these items significantly increased, as built in obsolescence saw valuable resources converted into landfill waste at an ever accelerating pace.

People in the technologically developed world, now including China and India, started seeing a decrease in their quality of life, with significant increases in the working hours needed to support a family. Meanwhile, the illusion of wealth based upon possession of (mainly) disposable goods continued to provide a thin veil of success.

The hidden weaknesses of mass globalization are the ever-increasing use of energy per capita required to sustain this economic model, and rapid, radical swings in localized economies caused by the ebb and flow of consumer desire.

The year 2019 marks a time when individual, small and medium-sized businesses, and even large multinationals face an unclear future driven by automation, artificial intelligence, hyper-globalization, and social unrest. What is clear, though, is that the most recent wave of globalization – loosely defined as the free flow of trade, capital, people, technology and ideas across borders – is not a sustainable growth model.

Neither further globalization, with its ever-increasing global energy consumption and resultant pollution, nor drastic de-globalization and protectionism will lead to a sustainable future. A sustainable future will encompass many elements, of which a few are outlined here.

A sustainable future will see the production of goods which are designed to provide the best long term performance with the lowest use of resources, including materials and energy for the initial manufacture, their ongoing operation and maintenance, and their eventual recycling. A sustainable future will see a balance between large-scale central production and distributed manufacturing. It will see the rise of regionally distributed food production and food processing. These will reduce the impact of transportation costs.

A sustainable future will also see a rethinking of the rural and urban landscape to co-locate offices, non-polluting industries, power generation, food production, food processing, retail distribution, and provision for entertainment, medical care, and homes. This will minimize the need for commuting and the long-distance transportation of many goods. A sustainable future society must include a balance between agriculture, aquaculture, manufacturing, education, health care and a knowledge-based economy.

road to sustainable future
Photo credit: Martyn Phillips

A sustainable future must provide individuals with meaningful opportunities for education; employment; good, tasty food; quality health care; comfortable, safe housing and enjoyable leisure opportunities. To ensure true sustainability, this lifestyle for people must be driven primarily by the energy from the sun.

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