Published at 2021, June 25th
What is the Future Earth book about? How does a sustainable planet look like and how can we help shape it before it is too late? In this article we share 5 surprising takeaways from Eric Holthaus’ book and analyze them under different lenses.
I finished reading Eric Holthaus’ Future Earth: A Radical Vision For What’s Possible in the Age of Warming about 2/3 months ago.
And like I always do, I tried hard to put myself in the writer’s shoes to avoid falling into the trap of instantaneously judging what I was reading. Creating such a distance always helps me not to make biases that would limit my learning path.
Now, after looking back at my notes, applying some critical thinking and putting things under perspective, there are 5 messages Holthaus’ book carries along that I think are worth sharing.
1. Fighting Climate Change Can Be Made Personal
Of course, we’re not speaking about people living in “developing countries”. Studies have already shown that those least responsible for global warming will suffer the most from its consequences. It is already quite personal for these people – many of whom are/will become climate refugees.
But Holthaus shares an interesting perspective on how climate change can be made personal even for those living comfortable, unaware lives in urban areas in the so-called “developed countries”. In his own words:
The more I learn about what’s happening, the harder it is for me to worry about climate change from a dispassionate and objective point of view. I cannot ignore the fact that I’m a real person raising kids who will be here for (hopefully) many more decades. In a few years, they’ll start asking tough questions. I want to have answers. That makes climate change personal. For me, that makes it about love.Eric Holthaus, Future Earth (2020)
So even for those of us living in urban areas where the Biosphere’s collapse is not yet so imminent or happening right next door. Maybe if we consider the younger generations and those to come – would they be proud to know we’re part of the generation that’s leading to planetary collapse and did nothing (or not enough) to prevent it?
2. Climate Change Cannot Be Fixed Without Human Change
Beyond the forthcoming technological advances is a revolution in human psychology – the way we view ourselves and our place in the grand order of things.Eric Holthaus, Future Earth (2020)
Holthaus words remind me of Donella Meadows.
Her name might sound familiar if you’ve done some research on the origins of the term “sustainability“.
Meadows was part of a group of researchers who ran a computational simulation focused on exponential economic and population growth with a finite supply of resources. This simulation gave birth to the “limits to growth” report, one of the first to question the impact of globalization and the reckless exploitation of natural resources.
She famously suggested that “the most effective place to intervene in a system is at the paradigm level”. Something Daniel C. Wahl, one of the major figures behind the regenerative movement, also frequently tells during online conferences and events.
What they mean is that if we change the way we perceive the world and societal structures – the maps and models we employ, and the value systems we base our intentions and decision-making processes on – we are affecting change at a subtle cultural level. Only then can alternative – more sustainable and regenerative – structures and processes come to life.
In other words, the way society is designed today is a byproduct of our ancestors’ worldviews – which we’ve inherited – and their decisions.
We design solutions, objects, and processes based on our predominant worldviews and value systems, but perhaps it’s time to question those deeper and eventually change them so new designs with (not so harmful effects) can arise.
Just recently a report came out on Scientific American entitled The Delusion of Infinite Economic Growth arguing that “sustainable” technologies such as electric vehicles and wind turbines face unbreachable physical limits and exact grave environmental costs.
This paper reinforces the idea that today’s “miraculous” tech solutions for climate change are not, and will not be enough. We need to use them while rethinking our role as humans who are part of dynamic, complex and highly interconnected systems and start looking at ourselves as part of this whole.
We won’t be able to fix climate change – and other ecological issues – without human change.
3. How to Fight Climate Change? By Imagining How the Future Will Look Like
Individually, each of us will have to go through a grieving process for losing a world we believed in our bones would always be there. Collectively, to help mourn and accept this loss, we will have to share with one another alternative visions of a shared future, stories about how climate doom is not inevitable, and what the future Earth might look like if we do what is required to hold off the greatest threat to our very existence.Eric Holthaus, Future Earth (2020)
A large part of the book is focused on telling this story.
It looks like we’re inside the “this is us” series. We go back and forth in time, over and again, while watching how embracing sustainable actions today – like renewables or sustainable agriculture – will allow us to still have hope in 2030, 2040, 2050, and so forth.
It is also interesting to note the easiness and honesty with which Holthaus speaks of eco-anxiety, i.e. people who are experiencing distress over climate change- an issue the Guardian has also recently covered.
Holthaus also mentions how we might, collectively, need to go through a grieving process once there’s a general realization that the world and social structures as we know them will need to go through very significant changes in order to reduce our deadly human impact on Earth.
4. Fighting Climate Change Means Moving From Owning to Sharing
We have to abandon the idea of ownership and instead seek consent with one another and the world we call home. Climate change isn’t the problem – it’s a symptom of the problem.Eric Holthaus, Future Earth (2020)
Exchanging services, resources, and goods in order to maximize their utility time and reduce the amount that needs to be produced will be key to a sustainable future.
Cars are a classic example: a car that’s only used for 30-60 minutes every day and stays parked for 23 hours is one that is not being used to its fullest potential. There’s even a piece at Fortune calling out our attention to the fact that today’s cars are parked 95% of the time.
Electric or hydrogen-powered cars – which have their own environmental consequences and limitations – won’t change this problem. But shared mobility, a trend a McKinsey report has recently highlighted, might just help minimize it.
The same is true for many of the commodities we’re used to enjoying alone but which are far from being optimized. Another good example is the laundry business – with the Entrepreneur dedicating a full article to How to Start a Coin-Operated Laundry.
Ultimately, we own many goods that could instead have multiple owners – or users – maximizing their utility… So the next time you need a screwdriver, before rushing to get a new one, ask your neighbor if you can borrow theirs – that’s also what the Streetbank initiative (video below) is all about.
5. Fighting Climate Change Is Impossible Without Changing the Economic Model
In a world where the richest 85 people own as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion and the wealthiest 10 percent produce 49 percent of all emissions, it’s not individual choices that are driving climate change. When we realize the rich people have stolen our planet’s habitability for themselves, we will demand revolutionary change.Eric Holthaus, Future Earth (2020)
The transition to a healthy, vibrant planet (with living, fair societies) is not possible without accepting what Meadow’s team has already brought up almost 50 years ago – that there are limits to growth.
Not to mention the extreme inequality our societies are increasingly facing – something Holthaus freely and carelessly talks about with no second thoughts.
As John Fullerton, ex-Director at JP Morgan and of the key figures behind the Capital Institute and the Regenerative Economy movement often says: we need to shift from quantitative to qualitative growth.
Any other alternative won’t be able to decouple resource exploitation and its environmental (and social) impact from the economic model.
That’s why Fullerton argues we need an economy that’s based on Nature’s very own principles and patterns. One where we recognize that, for instance, collective health – aka resilience – is strongest when wealth is more evenly distributed.