The Vision Thing III: What Will We Look Like in 2050?

A few weeks ago, one of the presidential candidates’ advisors challenged a group of climate leaders to describe America’s future. His challenge triggered a flurry of e-mails as we attempted to articulate a vision.

We talked about carbon caps and price signals and new investments in R&D. That’s fine, the advisor responded, but what it the vision? What is America’s perfect future?

I’m not sure we ever satisfactorily answered this very good question, but I found myself trying to describe what America might look like 10, 20 and 40 years from now.

2010: As the first decade of the 21st Century came to a close, the American people turned a historic corner. The growing number of droughts, wildfires, violent storms and other problems persuaded even the deniers that we were experiencing the first dangerous symptoms of global warming. Resource conflicts were growing worldwide as developing and developed nations competed for oil and other finite resources. Now, in wry acknowledgment of the world’s deteriorating condition, a song recorded by the Kingston Trio 50 years ago — The Merry Minuet — has climbed to the top of the charts again. Voters are demanding that the President and Congress chart a new course in which economic and ecological security are recognized as interconnected, and continued reliance on nuclear and fossil fuels are regarded as “threat multipliers” for national security..

2020: America’s transition to a clean energy economy is well underway. More than 20% of the nation’s electricity now is generated from renewable resources. Due to breakthrough technologies and pressure from Washington, the passenger vehicle fleet averages 50 miles per gallon, on the way to a goal of 200 mpg by mid-century. America has reduced its oil consumption by half and no longer imports petroleum from the Persian Gulf. Because conventional coal-fired power plants were banned 10 years ago, urban air quality and public health — particularly asthma in children — have improved dramatically. Americans have reduced their per capita carbon emissions by half, and greenhouse gas emissions nationwide have declined 30% from their 2010 level.

Everyone now regards energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies as tools of national security. Photovoltaic panels are as critical as M-16s; plug-in hybrids are as important as Hummers. International defense organizations like NATO have become international climate-action collaborations.

On the international scene, the United States has led the development of a “grand deal” in which wealthy nations no longer subsidize fossil energy projects in developing countries — a practice that was motivated by not by altruism but by the desire of rich nations to gain access to energy resources in poorer nations. Today, international loans and trade policies support energy efficiency and diversified, decentralized renewable energy systems to raise quality of life with simple, decentralized renewable technologies that have democratized energy production.

After the ugly deterioration of its international reputation in the first decade of the century, the United States has earned back enormous good will for using its wealth and talent to help the people of all nations attain decent living standards. Foreign aid for clean energy and water projects is far bigger business than weapons sales. The United States has joined an international “race to the bottom” — i.e., a competition to become virtually carbon-free economies. Terrorist organizations, starved for sanctuary, money and recruits, will not attack the United States, which is regarded as the leading global force for dignity, health and prosperity for the world’s poorest people..

Young people are required to give at least two years to some type of national service in the United States or overseas, and they do so enthusiastically. They are helping communities adapt to climate change, teaching in inner-city schools, setting up emergency response systems, helping build clean energy systems in developing communities. In exchange, the federal government, in partnership with private philanthropies, grants graduates of the program funds for college tuition, home ownership, vocational training or small business creation.

2030: Rural farms and communities are enjoying unprecedented wealth as the nation’s primary energy suppliers. America has grown, rather than drilled, its way out of energy insecurity. Farms are growing food, fiber and fuels; practicing conservation tillage to see carbon offsets by keeping carbon sequestered in the soil; and managing forests for carbon sequestration. Solar and wind farms dot the countryside. Bio-refineries are common in rural communities, providing high-quality jobs that have increased the rural tax base and reversed the out-migration of youth.

Every new building in America is right-sized for its use and is carbon and energy neutral. A state-of-the-art high-speed rail system provides an attractive alternative to air travel between America’s major metropolitan areas (lost luggage and airport security lines are, for most us, a thing of the past), and safe and convenient mass transit has virtually eliminated traffic congestion in cities. Urban sprawl has been stopped.

Personal vehicles, insofar as people still own them, are powered by electricity and are recharged by distributed solar panels on top of carports and garages. Many are rolling power plants that produce almost as much energy as they consume. Green industries are serving the enormous world market for ecologically-sound development and have become America’s most important job engine. Not all is perfect. Our communities, farms, forests, water supplies and public health have been feeling the growing impacts of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions caused decades ago. There have been droughts, wildfires, floods, severe weather, public health challenges. But for the most part, Americans are learning to adapt.

2050: Our cities are composed of compact “urban villages”, each a community in its own right with schools, churches, libraries, stores and other necessary services within a 15-minute walk. Roofs, roads and other paved surfaces are light in color to reduce the “urban heat island” effect. Parks and green spaces are sprinkled throughout the urban villages, further reducing the need for cooling and providing people with places to enjoy natural beauty. Public transit has become so safe, efficient and appealing that few urban residents own cars. America no longer imports any petroleum and uses virtually no oil. Coal mining stopped long ago, as coal-fired electricity grew more expensive than power from sunlight, wind and geothermal resources. Price spikes, supply disruptions, air pollution, mercury pollution, Middle Eastern wars, high trade imbalances, perverse foreign policies and “resource wars” are memories. No one asks why we’re not using fossil energy any more. Instead, we ask why we didn’t stop much sooner.

Motivated by astronomical insurance rates, communities have moved out of disaster-prone areas along rivers and coasts. Those areas now are public access beaches, nature preserves and recreational sites. Levees, dams and other “disaster control” structures have fallen into disfavor because they failed under the increasing pressures of severe weather attributed to global warming. Instead, regions have restored wetlands, replanted watersheds and put the meander back into rivers — in other words, big structures named after Congressmen have given way to natural systems to prevent disasters.


The classic American example of communicating a vision of the future is, of course, the New York World’s Fair of 1939, “Building the World of Tomorrow”.

That vision, in the words of the University of Virginia American Studies program, “promoted one of the last great metanarratives of the Machine Age: the unqualified belief in science and technology as a means to economic prosperity and personal freedom.

“Wedged between the greatest economic disaster in America and the growing international tension that would result in World War II, The World of Tomorrow was a much-needed antidote to the depression and confusion of the times. It provided the one saving grace which all of America needed – it provided hope.”

The 2008 election is not the World’s Fair. But it is a venue in which we should be talking about our national vision — an antidote to the disturbing pictures that have emerged from climate science and from those parts of the world already experiencing the effects of global warming.

11 Responses to The Vision Thing III: What Will We Look Like in 2050?

  1. John McCormick says:

    Bill, you wrote a version, your version that is, of what the US will look like in 2050.

    Since you ignored fundamental problems such as paying the $40 trillion of unfunded mandates to the near-70 million Americans (and more to follow)retiring post 2012, you have not begun to address the true vision of the US struggling to maintain cash-flow and a strong economy.

    Wind and solar factories may be a part of your version but capital demand to build and deploy those devices and patching them into an antiquated grid will tap resources and capital demand beyond your imagination but they are only intermittent sources of power in a 24-7 demand economy getting warmer and needing more air conditioning despite the insulation retrofits

    Then, there is the matter of an American public essentially tapped out on borrowing and municipalities struggling to maintain infrastructure under severe borrowing rates driven by their low bond ratings. Who will finance the replacement of US nearly 200 million vehicles? My borrowing potential is about maxed out and I have a son on the way to college.

    Bill, you have given a rosy picture that is more a cartoon than real world.

    Try again. I do not have your vision.

  2. Ron says:

    Yeah, but the century had quite a rocky start, didn’t it? First we endured eight years of Bush & Company, a steady loss of civil rights (that we’ve never recovered) and the beginning of our wars in the Middle East.

    The summer of 2008 saw riots over gasoline and food prices all over the world.

    In France, a poor grape harvest led to a severe wine shortage and higher prices, culminating in a general strike that effectively shut the country down for 59 days.

    That congressman from California shot three people in the Capitol building, killing one.

    Hurricanes Britney and Donald slammed into the East coast within a month of each other, killing six homeless people in Washington DC, and causing mass property damage from Boston through the Carolinas. The disaster exceeded the abilities of the Federal government, so the United Nations stepped in with immediate aid, manpower, and a nice loan package.

    And That’s when the real global warming panic began among the Believers – and the Deniers just ramped up their ‘this-proves-nothing’ drumbeat in response. Remember the guy who killed his roommate because he wouldn’t change his light bulbs? The drive-by shootings at drivers of gas guzzlers? It got crazy there for a while.

    But how about the election of 2008? Welcome comic relief for a bad year. First we had Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey facing off against Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, which was wild enough, but when Al Gore entered the race as an independent at the last minute the sparks really began to fly, didn’t they?

    The 3-way cliffhanger wasn’t decided until mid-march – after the UN was forced to take temporary control. Clinton was sworn in on 3/21/2009, surrounded by a platoon of marines (due to numerous assassination threats). In her speech she vowed “strident measures” to deal with global warming, and promised to bring the troops home as soon as possible.

    After losing yet another election, Al Gore accidentally overdosed on Xanex and Viagra – he didn’t die; thank the Prophets – but retired from public service once and for all.

    Mike Huckabee teamed up with Ron Paul and moved to Vermont, where they later led a secession movement (which failed).

    Sarah Palin went back to Alaska, where she continued on as governor for two more terms, resumed her role as soccer mom, and was elected to the local school board.

    The two-pronged invasion of Syria and Iran began in the fall of 2009. The limited nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel the next spring almost kick-started Armageddon, but was averted by intense negotiatians headed by Jummy Carter. A movement was begun to canonize Carter (which succeeded 10 years after his death).

    The winter of 2010 was a dark time for America. Our troops were unprepared for the fierce, record low temperatures in the mideast (a ‘nuclear winter’ effect of the Ten Minutes War). This contributed to our highest casualties since the beginning of the long Mesopotamian Conflict.

    And who can forget Labor Day 2011, when troops turned active denial (non-lethal) weapons on the crowd of 350,000 war and draft protestors, as Joan Baez sang the Merry Minuet on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial? 257 people died in the stampede. That was a dark day in a dark year.

    In 2012, the Social Security administration went bankrupt. UN loans kept it afloat until well into the Depression.

    It wasn’t until 2016, under President Schwartzenegger (after he changed allegiances to the Republican party) that the switch to renewable resources really began to take off.

    Using his greatly expanded executive powers, a series of measures were instituted shutting down large swaths of the fossil fuel economy through outright bans and prohibitive taxes. The Green Projects Administration was created to build new, ‘green’ factories, wind, geothermal, and solar generating plants, and to research new technologies.

    After quelling the labor riots, and promising all the displaced workers new jobs, the economy took an even more serious downturn. The Fed de-valued the dollar to such an extent, and so much new money was pumped into the economy, that inflation hit astronomical highs. But the depression and unrest of those years was followed by a steady improvement that has brought us to this socialist utopia we see today.

    Everything we need is planned and built for us within a 15-minute walk, or delivered by gleaming electric trains. We have no need to commute to work, or to even travel much. Our gentle, green communities are surrounded by unspoiled Nature. The ozone hole is almost healed. And lining up for our weekly bread or cheese or canned meat isn’t all that bad.

    However, scientists are now saying we are headed for another ice age, and indeed glaciers all over the world appear to be advancing, as average global temperatures drop by about .04 degrees per year. People are beginning to flee the northern latitudes, which has caused property values in the temperate and tropic regions to triple in recent years. And there has been a surge of immigration into Africa.

    Our strides in energy efficiency are being tested by the longer, colder winters, but proposals are being put forward to pump additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in an effort to curb the cooling. It’s a good thing we still have all that oil and coal in reserve ….

    What a long strange trip it’s been, eh Bill?

  3. Ron says:

    After writing down some of my recollections of the past 50 years, I got to talking with my daughter. I guess I left out a few details (I’m an old man now, ya know. 88-years-young this past summer!).

    She reminded me that the ‘nuclear winter’ of 2010 affected more than just the middle east. We saw snow in Phoenix for the first time since the winter of 2006-2007, smashing the record previously set in 1934. A little over 1.5 inches fell on Easter 2011. I still have a really cute picture of my neice’s youngest daughter “making eggs”, piling little snowballs in her Easter basket.

    I couldn’t remember who Gore’s running mate had been , but was reminded that it was Leo DiCaprio. A very forgettable actor, but my daughter remembered I guess because she later did a little work on the film “Vortex”, in which DiCaprio played a sociopath who murdered two hikers in the Sedona area. Loosely based on a true story, the movie earned an Oscar nomination.

    I remember the 2008 election being dubbed ‘The Hollywood Race’ and the mudslinging between the Clinton and Gore camps reaching epic proportions. Every little unexplained murder and suicide, and every shady business deal were trotted out for all to see.

    The 20s and 30s were a rough couple of decades for me personally, and the country as a whole. Even though the company I had worked for for 20 years had a very small ‘carbon footprint’ (as they used to call it) we were shut down in the economic and industrial reorganization of the country. A few years later, during the years of caffeine prohibition, I was arrested with several pounds of coffee and did a long stint in ‘rehab’. I found it difficult to find work after that and lived for several years with my son’s family. He was working then for a government geothermal project in Childs, AZ.

    Eventually I was able to find a job as a janitor at the United Nations facility north of Flagstaff. I married a Navajo woman, Delores Yazzie, and lived in Mund’s Park for several years until the cold winters really began to take their toll on my arthritis. Sometime in the early 30s we moved south again.

    These days we supplement our social security income (that was cut in half when we exceeded our life expectancies) by trading ration coupons for Indian-made jewelry, which we sell to Chinese and Mexican snowbirds.

    My grandkids have all been drafted into community service overseas, but should have saleable skills when they get out in a few years. They say they hate it now, but we’re building a brave new world.

  4. Ron says:

    Aw, c’mon guys; I was just playing. Nothing like that could ever really happen. I was just funnin’ ya!

    I should have said “tobacco prohibition”. You’ll still be able to have your coffee.

  5. Ronald says:

    I’m disappointed at all the things you left out. How about all the prisons being emptied because they promised to be better citizens and schools are closed, we just got libraries now because kids do their homework on there own. Or was it the other way around.

  6. Jack says:

    When we reach the year 2050 and the world has turned the corner with the health of the earth restored, it will in large part, be due to the global revolution that occured. The old nation state order has long ago ended in which nation states that mainly existed to defend the interests of national elites and status quo have dramatically changed. The new model is one of international agreements/governance with regional economic authorities. No amount of laws and Kyoto accords or other political reforms will simply result in the re-organization of national economies away from being fossil fuel based because the earth’s health depends on it. Heck, since the Kyoto accord the world has marched steadily faster up the global warming graphs. Bush’s abysmal record on global warming and environmental issues is not simply a result of his ignorance and stupidity, but is a reflection of just how contradictory the remedy for global warming is with the economic policies/plans of the power elites. That is not going to change – even as the full horror of what global warming will unleash unfolds as all the scientific data and projections become a reality.
    Much is being said about how small the window of oppportunity is to stop the mad march toward a critical mass in the global heating disaster. Unfortunately, we lack the political and economic structures required to effect an appropriate response that can bring the dramatic changes to bear to avert the disaster. The vision scripted by Bill is right. We need to have the vision, the optimism, and the courage to demand that it be fullfilled – to not do so is cynical and defeatist. But when the politicians and the power elite don’t even give lip service to providing a glimmer of hope to make the changes necessary; then what? We need to recognize that its not only the health of the earth that is broken; but when our political institution’s inability to even take the most minimal corrective measures, then our system is broken and must be replaced.

  7. Ron says:

    I had long been a global warming skeptic, but 2008 was the year I started to let myself be convinced. It wasn’t just the two big hurricanes. It seemed like every week there was a new climate-related problem. Pacific islands sinking. Maple trees dying. Mudslides in Malibu. Intense winds in Southern California. Brushfires. Food crises in Africa. A flu outbreak in England. A monster tornado in Kansas. Flooding in Asia. Drought in the deserts. Killer bees. Schoolgirls in Chicago getting pregnant. Overcrowded animal shelters. Environmentalist suicide bombers. A collapsing dam in China. Wine shortage in France. Illegal immigration. Expanding (again) ozone hole. It was dizzying.

    I watched Joseph Romm’s movie ‘Slippery Road to Hell’ and started getting nervous.

    I bought one of those new laptops with the solar panel and hand-crank thingy; recycled my old one. I also bought one of those stationary bicycle set-ups for powering the TV. I figured I could save some money, save the planet and get in shape at the same time. Electric rates got so high that I couldn’t afford to run the air conditioner, and some days I felt like Charlton Heston in Soylent Green just trying to watch the 6 o’clock news.

    I even bought a Prius, but finances got so tight after a couple years I had to let the bank have it. I had to get my old Mazda running again.

    I also installed a solar hot water heater, which was really nice, and stopped mowing the lawn. I tried not to buy anything from China. And even started taking the kids to the Gaia Church in Sedona for a while, but couldn’t afford the tithing.

    When gasoline reached $4 a gallon, milk hit $6, and meat went out of sight, I knew we had to really economize. We started keeping a few laying hens in the backyard and also eating a lot of potatos, beans and rice. Sometimes I rode the school bus into town.

    We started taking advantage of the food hand-outs at the Seventh-Day Adventist church on Wednesdays – canned pork, rice, beans, cheese, powdered milk, all packaged and distributed by the United Nations – as well as the Thursday night dinner at the Midtown Mission. We did allright, and made some new friends.

    Hillary Clinton had made a campaign promise that if she were elected oil prices would immediately go down, but that of course didn’t happen. Oil and food prices continued to rise, while the stock market tanked and my 401k turned into a hole I was throwing my money into. I cut my contribution back to 1%, but couldn’t cash it out, of course.

    She had also promised to reverse some of the disastrous energy and climate legislation that Bush had pushed through, but the war and other international concerns took precedence, I guess.

    The expanded fighting in the Mideast brought a bunch of new orders at work for mil-spec widgets and hoozits. For a while we were working overtime, and eventually I got a ‘cost of living’ raise – so things weren’t as bad as they could have been. They had been talking about a layoff just before we invaded Iran.

    Those were tough years for me and my family.

    When Hillary ran for re-election against Arnold, I voted ‘none of the above’.

  8. Ron says:


    Are you crazy? We never emptied out the prisons. We expanded the federal prison system.

    Hillary, you will remember, doubled the federal prison capacity, and then Arnold doubled it again! And that doesn’t even take into account the Homeland Security holding areas for illegal immigrants, draft dodgers, liberty cultists, and suspected terrorists. And local jails and state prisons were already bursting at the seams with all the new thought criminals!

    And when do kids have time to go to the library anymore? They go to school almost year-round, getting a couple weeks for Winter Holidays, a couple weeks for Summer Vacation, and a week for Spring Break.

    Luckily, my great-grandkids are boarded for free over the holidays while their parents do their community service work in Indonesia, so that’s been a real blessing. And the federal childcare loans that cover the rest of the year are at a very low interest rate. Of course, that’s only for a few years, and they’ll have up to 20 years to pay it back, so it’s no big deal.

    In the long run, this global government we are building will infinitely improve the lives of future generations. A small price to pay for some temporary hardships.

  9. D-pop says:

    One of the major factors that has led to these improvements in the quality of human life over the past few decades has been the realization that the single biggest threat facing humanity is humanity itself.

    The International Human Non-Proliferation Treaty of 2032 set workable standards and guidelines for negative population growth. Tax incentives for birth control and abortions, reproductive licensing, forced sterilization of the subnormal, wider use of euthanasia, international control of food and medical supplies, and other measures have been made universal through international law.

    Throughout previous human history, and especially in the 20th century, disease, natural disasters, and genocide were the primary controls on human population growth. Today, central planning and attrition make war unnecessary.

    The Industrial Revolution brought an unprecedented explosion in energy use and population, and took us to the brink of disaster, socially and ecologically. The Post-Industrial Revolution is already bringing us increased health, prosperity, and peace. Future generations will be healthier, more prosperous, genetically improved, and will exist in sustainable numbers.

  10. Tea Drinker says:

    Hillary becomes president by running as Obama;s VP, then having him killed.

  11. pipistrelo says:

    Wow , it is Labor Day! I’m enjoying my extra day off, and I am planning to doing something fun that’ll probably involve a moto trip and seeing something new in Westbrook I haven’t seen yet.
    You write something new on a Monday at the labor day? … HAPPY BlogGIng!