Jonathon Porritt is the author of Capitalism as if the World Mattered, one of the most useful books I’ve read on the topic of sustainable economics. He’s taken his time with a follow-up, (not counting this one) and it’s something completely different. The World We Made is a fictional history written from 2050 by a teacher and his students. It’s imaginative, engaging, and surprisingly playful.
Writing back-casting histories is nothing new. I’ve read several, of one length or another. They can be useful in determining first steps towards something that seems impossible, and the Transition Towns movement uses them as a community activity to that effect. They can also be exercises in ecotopian wishful thinking, and I have to say I was a little disappointed when I heard that Porritt had written one.
I repent of that scepticism, because The World We Made is pretty smart. For starters, it is rescued from being po-faced by making it an imaginary school project. It allows it to be informal, to express surprise or wonder that would be inappropriate in a more serious history. It’s also helped by a scrapbook feel. It includes handwritten sections and sketches, photos and bits and pieces. Some of them are quite sophisticated graphics, double-page spreads showing made-up city-scapes and inventions. Others have a pleasing sense of irreverence, like the front covers of future editions of The Economist or Time magazine.
The book wisely sidesteps the utopia problem by not promising perfection. The world is not all fixed and pretty in Porritt’s 2050. There have been major disasters and many of today’s biggest problems continue, making it more believable and less fantastic.
Most importantly, Porritt doesn’t attempt to exhaustively explain how we got from today to his imagined future. Instead, the book presents 50 snapshots of how things have changed, and it’s a broad collection. There are little chapters on water, air travel, malaria, cyber-crime, coral reefs, wellbeing economics, and the end of coal. They’re all mixed up so there is something new every couple of pages, making it a book that rewards the curious.
Having given himself the freedom to play a little, Porritt gives free rein to his futurism. There are robots, airships and yes, jetpacks. There are conservation cloning programmes, China is a democratic country and farmers plant nitrogen fixing wheat. Sometimes you read something and think ‘please let that be true’, like the pope rescinding the ban on contraception. Just to keep you on your toes, the sci-fi sounding ideas are often closer than you might think. The waterless washing machine? It already exists. The waste-to-energy power plant that’s also a ski-slope? Currently being built in Copenhagen.
Like any such work, not everything rings true. The section on virtual travel is a step too far in my opinion, with somebody walking the Santiago de Compostella on a treadmill. I remain unconvinced about the economics of vertical farms. And I had to sigh at a picture of an African slum with solar panels Photoshopped onto every roof – who would have the money for solar panels and still choose to live in a rusty tin shack?
So far, so entertaining, but the point is to explore some solutions, and there are plenty here. Participative democracy, collaborative consumption, a renewable energy revolution, all are explored in ways that make them sound entirely feasible. There’s a role for nanotechnology and GM, a global financial transaction tax and cap and dividend strategies for lowering emissions. Porritt outlines each of these simply and clearly, showing why they mattered and how they helped, always combining social, economic and environmental goals.
Whatever your leanings, you will find elements of the book that you won’t agree with. Some will say it relies on technofixes – Porritt says that “things like zero tillage and agro-ecology have had as big an impact as all the high tech stuff”, but the book explores the high tech stuff far more than the simpler solutions. Others won’t like the politics, or will prickle at the dismissal of nuclear energy. It will wind you up in places. But it will also make you think, and it may well make you more hopeful, and that’s ultimately the point.
It’s also a starting point. There are extensive notes and further reading sections at the back, and they are arranged in such a way that you actually read them, rather than use them for reference. You’re meant to be inspired by the ideas here and go and look them up in more detail. There’s certainly a bunch of things that I will investigate further. If you’re a regular reader, you will no doubt here about them.