BBC.co.uk features an extensive “future news” section, which I highly recommend visiting. I’ve always wanted to be a ‘futurist,’ someone who can provide the conceptual framework for an idea to be implemented with future technology, leaving application up to whoever can do the best job. Futurology (to differentiate it from futurism, an unrelated artistic movement) is the study of possible outcomes that haven’t happened yet, extrapolating present-day trends toward their logical conclusions. In the case of technology, this has been going on for over half a century, and influences the real world more than you’d think. The original Star Trek TV series inspired the design of the flip phone, its fictional medical scanning devices influence designs for injectionless vaccinations, and the set used for the spaceship’s bridge was so well-designed that the US Navy copied it for its communication center in San Diego. Tablet computers like iPads and touch-screen consoles first appeared in Star Trek the Next Generation in the 1980s.
Other important aspects of the fictional future first appeared in Star Trek. In the show’s vision of the future, all of humanity is united and no one pays any attention to ethnic or national divisions. There is no money or economy either, as humanity has presumably discovered a way to produce limitless food and energy. Such visions provide a utopian goal for the far distant future, but in the short term, we have a very good idea of the actual problems that we will encounter in the future.
To return to the idea of trends, the unsustainable growth of human population and economic activity will result in continued environmental degradation in the future. As futurologists tend to do, we can plot the opposite extremes of the range of likely future outcomes- one in which the worst possible choices (as of right now) are made, and another in which the best possible choices are made. It is generally quite reasonable to assume that the actual future will lie somewhere in the middle, although global warming’s predictions vary from one study to another (the UNIPCC in particular is criticized for being too conservative.)
The future may frequently seem bleak, but I’m here to bring you some encouraging news this time. The futurologists of today are hard at work on technology-based solutions to many of the systemic problems of the world today that are contributing to these highly negative projections.
Recently—since I’m a nerd—I got lost looking through all of the new concepts for sustainability using technology that either exists already or is in development. Many of these concepts are quite feasible, requiring only courage and capital to get going. Other projects are even underway right now. Here are some of the coolest ones I found:
Urban design projects in China: The Great City in Chengdu, China, designed by a Chicago architectural firm, is under construction as we speak. It is designed as a dense urban core with high walkability and transit access to other urban areas in the region. Surrounded by green space suitable for farming or recreation, it is expected to house 80,000 people and produce up to 60% less carbon pollution (and substantially reduced water use and garbage output) than a conventional development of the same size. Both the designer and the Chinese government hope that it can serve as a prototype for other sustainability-oriented urban designs in China. I personally hope it can serve as a prototype for sustainability-oriented urban designs all over the world, as high urbanization in developing countries will necessitate development of denser neighborhoods. Urbanization, done with attention to carbon pollution and resource use, can play a huge role in improving the quality of life of city dwellers in the 21st century. What about places that are already urbanized? Well…
Making older cities more sustainable: I have a prediction that in 100 years’ time we will look back on the way we designed our cities around personal cars as one of the dumbest ideas in human history. Urban sprawl like in Los Angeles, with its tangled web of freeways, is a fantastic way to waste two non-renewable resources at once: the gasoline you fuel your car with, and your life as you sit in frustrating, socially-isolating traffic for hours a day. Thankfully, the best way to fix this problem is quite simple, and was mastered over 10,000 years ago.
Take a look at this artist’s impression layout of the Neolithic settlement of Catal Huyuk in Anatolia (my archaeology degree throws its intellectual weight around!). This settlement at times housed 8,000 people, and it had no streets at all. The BBC article I linked at the beginning of this bullet applies a concept as ancient as society itself to Los Angeles- make the city built on a human scale rather than an automobile scale. The benefits are far-reaching, not limited to a reduction in pollution (although even this by itself would justify the change in my mind; look at the smog). When people are out of their cars because they live within walking distance to work, the benefits come pouring in. People are in better shape, at lower risk of death, reducing their carbon footprint, and interacting with one another in a way that builds community and social capital instead of road rage and stress.
Cities feeding themselves: Take a look at the Catal Huyuk rendering again and you’ll notice agricultural fields just outside the settlement. Since ancient times, cities and towns have been built near good farmland because people need to live near one another to take advantage of specialized labor and for the protection that a larger group offered. In modern times, most of this has changed, except for the farmland part- we still need to eat. Urban populations don’t necessarily live near where their food comes from anymore, they are sometimes thousands of miles away. Dense urban populations in the third world and the carbon emissions associated with factory farming and long-distance food shipping have created the demand for farming to return to urban areas. These already manifest themselves in community gardens, even here in the United States through organizations like Common Good City Farm in Washington, DC (and as the article mentions, places like Cuba where abandoned lots are cultivated by opportunistic citizens).
Technology plays a crucial role in the development of urban farms because many cities are not located near ideal farmland. Non-optimal farmland can still be cultivated, but the concepts of sustainability necessitate minimal inputs of fertilizers and imported water. Enter the hydroponic vertical farm! These concepts are not especially new, but the technology to make them feasible is just coming around now. Imagine living in a high rise right next door to the farm where your vegetables are grown. They would reduce the mileage required to ship food to a city by orders of magnitude, and urban greenhouses could make non-seasonal foods such as citrus available in temperate latitudes year-round. I’m personally very excited about the idea, and I hope they become commonplace in the coming decades. Imagine an orchard in downtown Arlington, generating electricity, purifying water, and clearing the air while providing local, low-carbon produce. It’s not so far-fetched… a vertical farm is already under construction in Sweden.
I’m inspired by reading about things like this. It’s too easy to get depressed when all the climate news is so dire, and all the progress toward solving it seems too slow or too half-baked (to put it mildly). When I read about technological progress like these ideas, I’m hopeful that people will realize the feasibility of some of the bigger, more daunting systemic changes that are necessary to create a sustainable world. After all, once vertical farms or eco-cities are shown to have moneymaking potential, you can bet that you’ll find hundreds of startup companies scrambling to build them, and innovation will proceed at an even quicker pace. Just remember that every idea on the future news page (including some I haven’t detailed here for lack of real-world implication thus far) may seem ridiculous at some point, but many of them are in progress as we speak.
Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future as something that need not be feared is very important for those of us who are educated about all of the interacting climate crises. When challenges are staring you in the face, pessimism is easy, optimism is difficult. And nothing worth accomplishing involves taking the ‘easy route.’
“Star Trek speaks to some basic human needs: that there is a tomorrow — it's not all going to be over with a big flash and a bomb; that the human race is improving; that we have things to be proud of as humans.” – Gene Roddenberry