A New Mission for Humanity

A New Mission for Humanity or The Greatest Investment Opportunity Ever

By Glen Hiemstra, 2002

First, a couple of observations.

“When the world changed in September 2001, the dream decade came to its official end.”

The other day I was talking with some one with whom I had worked on a project for NASA and the USDOT during the year 2000, a project in which we imagined transportation in 2050. It had been an optimistic look at the future. In our recent conversation, however, she said something that has been repeated to me often since September of 2001. In so many words she asked, ‘don’t you find if kind of ridiculous now to think of the future with any optimism?’

Years ago a friend and admired futurist, Robert Theobald, wrote a book with the title, ‘Beyond Despair.’ I thought of this book title after the conversation that I just recounted, and wondered what it would take to, indeed, get beyond despair.

I have a sense that the world is waiting.

Not long ago we were sleep walking through a dream decade. Unprecedented economic growth was happening on a world scale. The growth was uneven, but people could legitimately either hope or delude themselves that the new economy would lift all boats. Being information and knowledge-based, the new economy could, with the right moves, enable third world humanity to leap frog into a new millennium with a chance at a decent economic life. Perhaps not Western middle class, but not abject poverty either.

A few protesters with a penchant for puppets nattered about unfairness within global trade. The lingering concern of many scientists about global warming and planetary pollution and resource degradation could be tolerated but not embraced. Life was just too good.

When the world changed in September 2001, the dream decade came to its official end. In the months since, there has been a mad dash toward greater security and a halting struggle back to economic equilibrium. And yet there is a palpable feeling of waiting, of wondering, a nagging sense that something else has to be done. Not that we can get back to normal, but something is missing. What is it?

I believe that global humanity needs a mission. The mission cannot be merely fighting a 50-year war against terrorism as some have forecast, though terror must be defeated and removed as a motivating force. The mission cannot be simply accruing material wealth for the few while the many languish, though economic vitality is essential. The mission cannot be reaching for the stars, though I still hope we become a space-faring civilization in the 21st Century.

The mission has to be more fundamental, capable of touching everyone on the planet, equitable and just, urgent, profitable (that’s right), and applicable around the globe.

There is such a mission for humanity, waiting for us to embrace it. The mission may actually be the greatest investment opportunity in history. It is available to us over the next quarter century. If the opportunity is not taken, it may be lost forever. And it is not certain that the investment will be made, that the mission will be embraced.

We know that the retreat of the Internet economy has investors and business people casting about for the next big thing. The three usual suspects are wireless communications, genomics, and nanotechnology. The latter in particular may turn out to be hugely important, or merely an interesting research dead end. But all three pale in comparison to the opportunity, the mission.

You have heard of it before, but perhaps only associate it with the environmental fringe. It is time, I think, to bring it to the center, for the sake of the 21st Century and generations to come.

I am speaking of the ‘eco-economic revolution.’ Such a mission has been written about for years, by Paul Hawken, among others. His most recent book, Natural Capitalism, makes the case, but he began making it long ago with The Ecology of Commerce, and a decade before that with The Next Economy.

Recently, Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute and board chair of the World watch institute summarized what is preferred in making such a revolution. Brown is best known for the annual reports of the World Watch Institute, which have tended to be distressing and alarmist summaries of current environmental sins and of the eco-disasters awaiting us, always just over the horizon. Such reports have been long on alarm and short on realistic alternatives.

Now Brown has provided a compelling case for alternatives in his recent book, Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth, summarized by Brown in The Futurist Magazine, published by the World Future Society. It is a case for building a new economy, an economy that is sustainable, free market, daring, global, and entrepreneurial. An eco-economy would be ‘one that satisfies our needs without jeopardizing the prospects of future generations meeting their needs.’ To build such an economy consciously would be so monumental an undertaking that it really has no precedent. So of course we should do it.

Consider a few familiar basics. While Earth population growth is leveling faster than anyone ever imagined, it will still reach at least 7.8 billion in about 25 years. More than a billion of the current world population lives in abject poverty, on less than $1 a day. The gap between the wealthiest countries and the poorest is huge, a situation which threatens future stability, and is morally unsupportable as well.

Despite so many living so poorly, in the last half-century we have seen, for example:

  • World fish catch increase 5 times
  • World demand for paper increase 6 times
  • World herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and goats double
  • The global economy increase 7 times

Such a list can be endless. But growth like this cannot be endless. When it comes to resource depletion, economic factors tend to intervene to curb demand and create substitutes (see the price of copper, once forecast to be long gone by now). But there is little doubt that such growth curves are not sustainable for the long-term future, and more important they may not be good economics or policy in the present.

Brown believes the need to convert to a sustainable eco-economy is urgent and that we have about 25 years to do it. I would suggest that we have a 25-year window of economic opportunity that is incalculable and a mission worthy of all humanity. The fundamental reason these economic investment opportunities are not taken is that they are more difficult to capture than those of the industrial revolution, more specifically because they tend to be more diffuse and more difficult to concentrate into near monopolies. Meanwhile, industrial era near-monopolies like oil and autos cling tightly to their markets and their paradigms. But there is change in the wind, the sun, and everywhere.

There are signs around the globe cited by Brown that a shift is already underway. Most of Europe and several other countries have a population growth rate of zero, and Europe is self-sustaining in food production. Denmark has banned coal-fired power plants and is getting 15% of its energy from wind. South Korea is re-foresting. Costa Rica will shift entirely to renewable energy by 2025. Iceland, working with Shell and Daimler-Chrysler will become the world’s first hydrogen-powered economy. California has established a goal to get 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2010. Other states will follow suit.

Were we to choose a preferred future of an eco-economy, energy would be derived primarily from hydrogen and solar power. In 2000 the world spent about $750 billion on oil. Imagine the investment and growth potential if a portion of this spending is shifted to solar rooftops, fuel cells, hydrogen capture and storage, wind turbines and so on. ‘If the money spent on oil in one year were invested in wind turbines, the electricity generated would be enough to meet one-fifth of the world’s needs,’ says Brown. And with the exception of maintenance and equipment replacement costs, such sources will supply energy in perpetuity, rather than running out. Such a shift in energy sources would be at the core of an eco-economic revolution, and would make it similar to the industrial revolution that also depended on shifts in energy sources (from wood and coal to oil and electricity.)

This new energy scene would also be diversified. About forty nations have oil resources (most rather negligible), but all nations have access to wind, sunlight, and most to water for hydrogen generation. We could see energy independence on a global scale and no more geo-political battles over oil, both extremely positive outcomes.

Brown imagines a variety of expanding industries in an eco-economy.

  • Hydrogen Generation – Ocean waves and other sources may be tapped to provide some local electricity and to split hydrogen from water.
  • Fuel-cell Manufacture
  • Solar-cell Manufacture
  • Wind-farm Construction & Wind-Turbine Manufacture
  • Fish Farming & Aquaculture – we must increase fish production dramatically to feed the world, but the oceans are tapped out.
  • Bicycle Manufacture – I know it sounds too small-scale, even hopelessly silly, but electrical boost bicycles and computer controlled bikes are emerging that change the biking game. Community re-design is enhancing the possibilities for bicycles integrated into daily life in many regions.
  • Segwey Scooter Manufacture – the brainchild of Dean Kamen has a future in an eco-economy (but is not in Browns list yet)
  • Tree planting
  • Geothermal Engineering – don’t underestimate this underutilized energy source.

Many of the enterprises in this list, while important and large in aggregate, are small scale in terms of local production. They fail to immediately capture imagination and take decades to accumulate impact.

Really big projects will be called for within the mission to create an eco-economy as well. Five stand out to me. First an all-out program to transition from the fossil fuel economy to the next energy economy. This will probably be hydrogen based but may include the discovery of entirely new ways of producing energy. Second, an all-out program to shift to next generation, sustainable vehicles, along the lines of the “Hyper-car” but with hydrogen fuel cells as the power source. Third, an all-out program to bring broad-band communications the last mile to the home in the industrialized world, and to all the inhabited world. Fourth, an accelerated shift to no waste, little or no energy, little or no cost, and ‘cradle to cradle’ manufacturing. And fifth, the development of a viable global labor system that integrates the available labor of the world in an intelligent way.

In the recent work by Brown, and the historical work which preceded it, we have a blueprint for what an eco-economy could look like, how it would produce investment and income, how it would provide jobs and economic growth and stability, and how it would be both sustainable and, with concerted effort, available more equitably to the poor parts of the world. It is a case worth exploring, and I would encourage you to dig in. It is not just another list of real and alleged environmental woes and crimes, but rather a road map to a sustainable and economically thriving future. Or, as Buckminster Fuller once put it, “a world that works for everyone.” This is a positive mission worthy of humanity in the 21st Century.

Glen Hiemstra is a futurist speaker, author, consultant, blogger, internet video host and Founder of Futurist.com. To arrange for a speech contact Futurist.com.

Additional Resources
Quotes and material from “The Eco-Economic Revolution”, by Lester Brown, in The Futurist, March-April 2002. (The Futurist is the bi-monthly magazine of the World Future Society, in which I am a Professional Member. The magazine is not associated with this web site, but we recommend it).
Eco-Economy: Building an Economy for the Earth, by Lester Brown, 2001.
The Future of Energy, in our last newsletter, which describes the progress being made with solar, fuel cells, and other in other energy fields.
Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, Paul Hawken, et al.,2000. This is an earlier book on the same theme by a long-time leading thinker about ecologically balanced economics. Also very much worth reading.
The Ecology of Commerce, Paul Hawken, 1993. This book placed the concept of an eco-economy on the radar screen.
The Next Economy, Paul Hawken, 1983. This book was one of the first to describe the shift from a mass economy to an informative economy, and began laying the groundwork for the concept of an economy balanced with the Earth.

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