If Hollywood movies are anything to go by, the future is to be avoided. From "Planet of the Apes" to "The Hunger Games," from "The Day After Tomorrow" to "Children of Men," the future on film is one of environmental collapse, oppressive technology, poverty and social division — or worse.
The acme of the gloomy-futures genre is "The Road," Cormac McCarthy's 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, later made into a film. The story follows a father and son as they journey across a ruined landscape where all non-human life has been wiped out by some cataclysm, leaving those who remain to fight over a diminishing supply of stored food and eventually, of course, human flesh.
For me, the most sinister element of "The Road" is that the precise nature of the cataclysm never is revealed. The vagueness of the disaster seems a deliberate comment on fear of the future: We fear the unknown, and the story exploits this to the full and takes it to its most horrific conclusion.
Fear of the future
Futurephobia takes its power from vague and undefined threats — some non-specific apocalypse looming somewhere out there. It can limit creative thinking and prevent companies from seeing sustainability for what it is — the biggest driver of future value. The antidote is to be as tangible about the future as possible, and to focus on positive solutions.
This applies to any future sustainability challenge you could mention. Take soil quality as an example. One aspect of declining soil quality is the systematic depletion of micronutrients such as zinc and manganese from the soil. This can reduce yields and make food less nourishing. I was surprised to find out recently that a major cause of this is urbanization. As more people move to cities, more food is transported to those cities, moving nutrients away from where they are harvested and into waterways and landfill. Knowing this gives me some hope that the problem can be solved and gets me thinking positively about how.
Jonathon Porritt's latest book is "The World We Made." Written from the perspective of a sustainable 2050 and exploring the events and developments that shape the world from 2014 onwards, the book demonstrates that a sustainable future is already within our grasp, and that the seeds of that future can be seen all around us now. It explores, in concrete terms, future transformations in health and wellbeing, in technology, in energy production and use and many other realms of human experience and endeavour. Porritt has described a shift in his thinking as a result of writing the book, in which he became much more hopeful that a sustainable future is a possibility or even a probability.
Example: Solutions for water scarcity
Water is in great demand for production of food (agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global freshwater use), energy production and for running people's homes.
Our civilization's thirst is draining ancient aquifers and drying out watersheds. The great Yellow River in China, sixth longest in the world, ceased to flow for 230 continuous days in 1997 as a result of extraction for farming. As the number of people on our planet grows, we need more water, and projections suggest that water demand will be 40 percent greater than supply [PDF] by 2030 unless serious action is taken. A depressingly familiar tale, in which doing good business becomes increasingly difficult.
But a combination of much more careful irrigation, conservation of water so that far less is wasted, purification so that clean water is available to all and desalination of seawater to increase supply, will mean there should be enough clean fresh water for everyone in the future. If this sounds like a pipe dream, then consider just three recent developments.
PepsiCo, a company hugely dependent on water for the products it makes and sells, has halved water use and increased yields for potato growing by combining drip irrigation with the use of environmental sensors and network technology. Probes in the soil measure moisture content and transmit data every 15 minutes. This is combined with data from local weather stations to tell the farmer via smartphone how much water the crop needs.
Drip irrigation is particularly useful in hot or dry climates where water evaporates very quickly, and its use has grown more than six-fold over the last 20 years. In India and China, the world's two largest irrigators, the area using drip irrigation has grown 88-fold and 111-fold respectively. Drip irrigation is scaling up dramatically and promises to help secure supply chains wherever water is scarce.
Second, and in a completely different sphere of life, the waterless washing machine is already being used in commercial laundries. It uses small plastic beads to remove molecules of dirt from clothing, cutting water use by 80 percent (it halves energy use, too). It's surely just a matter of time before the same technology makes it into the home. Combine that with waterless toilets, graywater recycling, rainwater capture and storage and you have a very water-efficient home in prospect.
Third, desalination of seawater is becoming widespread and costs are coming down. In the five years since 2009, capacity has increased almost 60 percent and continues to rise. 150 countries use desalination of one type or another, the leaders being Australia (following the "Millennium Drought" of 1997-2012), Israel, Saudi Arabia and U.S.A. Scientists and engineers around the world are working to make desalination cheaper and more energy efficient, and in 2013 a pilot project using renewable energy for desalination launched in Masdar, U.A.E.
Countless innovations and initiatives such as this are going on around the world right now. The challenge is huge, but the prospect of sustainable water use looks distinctly more realistic when we focus on the solutions rather than just the problems.
Author William Gibson is responsible for perhaps the most-loved quote in the field of futures studies: "The future is already here, it's just not very evenly distributed." Every time we see a sustainable solution, we should celebrate it as an element of the future we want. It could be a raft of marine parks where fish are protected from fishing in New Zealand (almost 10 percent of New Zealand's waters are protected in this way). It could be new methods of indoor farming using specially tuned LED lights, which produce 20 harvests a year with little waste, little energy and no need for chemical fertilizer or pesticides. Or it could be a new type of aluminum can that gets close to using only recycled materials, heralding a future zero-waste economy.
Focusing on the positive signs can move us from fear of a vague but tragic fate to a conviction that the action taking place now will have an impact. Concrete examples that signal the sustainable future to come may not make great movie viewing, but they are a fantastic starting point for engaging with the future, and creating the world-changing sustainable innovations that will succeed in the long term.
Top image of Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee in "The Road" via Dimension Films.