New Energy Economy: Part 4, Creating a tangible vision of the future

Now that the 2008 election finally is over, let’s go to Disney World.

I’ll explain, but first some background. The dominant theme of the long presidential campaign was change. The vote on Nov. 4 was a clear mandate for President Obama to make it happen. But what kind of change? And once we begin to define it, will we all disagree?

We need a national conversation on the topic of change, on America’s future. The conversation is sufficiently important that it should be convened by President Obama himself. In fact, along with all of the other tasks that will occupy the transition team between now and January 20, a few members of the team should be assigned to focus on our national trip to Disney World.

Here’s the idea:

Most of us seem to agree that America is standing at the threshold of a new era, a generational change and a new economy. With the old world crumbling all around us, it doesn’t take a Prius owner to accept the need for a radically new and exciting chapter in our history. The new economy has many aliases: the post-carbon economy, the carbohydrate economy, the new energy economy, the post-industrial economy, and the third industrial revolution, to mention a few. John McCaintalked about it. Barack Obama declared that a new energy economy would be his No. 1 priority as president. Bill Richardson and John Edwards made the new energy economy key planks of their presidential platforms.

A parade of speakers at Democratic National Convention picked up the theme, and so have leading Republican thinkers. Newt Gingrich, among others, envisions “a dynamic American economy producing its own energy, independent of dictators, using science and technology to create an exciting future, and continuing its role as the most prosperous and technologically advanced country in the world.” Governors from both parties — including Arnold Schwarzenegger in California, Charlie Crist in Florida and Bill Ritter in Colorado — are making green jobs and climate action their legacies.

Much of the pain we are suffering right now is a result of what we might call the Detroit Syndrome — the perverse victory of the near term over the long term. The automakers and their workers are suffering because the Big Three, unlike the Japanese, decided to keep making big vehicles with big near-term profit margins. They ignored the long-term inevitability of high gasoline prices (an inevitability that remains, despite the recent drop in prices at the pump). Ford is shutting down plants, GM is pressing Congress for a multi-billion-dollar bailout on top of the $25 billion in loans Congress already okayed for Detroit to start making the fuel-efficient vehicles they should have started manufacturing on their own initiative years ago.

To avoid the Detroit Syndrome on national scale, the country needs to embrace the future rather than trying to avoid it. Some of us are able to embrace an abstraction like a “green economy”; others need something tangible. They need to see the future. What will a post-carbon America look like? What will zero-energy homes and workplaces, transit-oriented cities, and walkable neighborhoods be like? What do we want them to be like?

Earlier in this series of posts, I mentioned Futurama, the exhibit created by General Motors at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Visitors were moved through GM’s vision of the “wonderworld of 1960“, a “greater and better world of tomorrow that we are building today.

Furturama was so successful that GM and other corporate sponsors followed up with Futurama 2 in 1964. In one exhibit, General Electric and Pepsi partnered with Walt Disney to produce virtual people who marketed their products, while giving Disney a chance to experiment with technologies he’d later employ at Disney World.

Now, we need Futurama 3 to give the American people the virtual experience of a carbon-free, energy independent, prosperous new economy. This time, citizens should be invited to help design that future. Our audio, visual and interactive technologies obviously have come a long way since 1939. Organizations such as PlaceMatters are expert at using powerful new visualization tools to help people make decisions about the future of their communities.

Obama’s people engineered the most sophisticated communications campaign in American political history. Now, they should persuade Disney, Google, Industrial Light and Magic, other New Age wizards, sponsored by today’s forward looking corporations, to build a new exhibit at Epcot Center, or a traveling exhibit, or a mind-blowing web-based adventure to help Americans experience and design life in a post-carbon world. Modern telecommunications technologies can be used to hold national town meetings in which President Obama engages the American people in a direct dialogue about the challenges and opportunities ahead. (During the Clinton Administration, the President’s Council on Sustainable Development held such a meeting in 1999.)

However we do it, it’s time for the nation to talk about the future in more precise and creative terms than merely calling for “change”. For the truly transformative change these times demand, President Obama and the 111th Congress will need to be bold. To be bold, they will need a sustained mandate from the people. The people are much more likely to give that mandate when they have seen the future and helped shape it.

The same is true worldwide. As we field-test the tools to help American citizens embrace the future, we should share them with the international community. Several new World’s Fairs are coming up. The next one, scheduled for 2010 in Shanghai, China, will explore the theme of “Better City, Better Life”. Yeosu, Korea will host the 2012 World’s Fair on “The Living Ocean and Coast”, and Milan, Italy will host the 2015 World’s Fair on the theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, touching on health, the environment and shaping sustainable human spaces of the future.” Let’s use modern communications technology to allow the world’s people to attend without leaving home.

These are critical topics when the world population is exploding, when half the human population will soon live in cities, when most already live along threatened coastlines, when oceans are dying from pollution and climate change, and global cooperation is the key to peace, prosperity and stability. We need a tangible vision we can hold on to and move toward.

So, let this time of change take its next step with a national conversation and a sensory experience of the future — an Obamarama, if you will. Let it be civil and constructive. Let it go global. Let’s see, touch and feel where we need and want to go. If General Motors could do it nearly 70 years ago, we certainly can do it now.

— Bill B.

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4 Responses to New Energy Economy: Part 4, Creating a tangible vision of the future

  1. David B. Benson says:

    My tangible vision of 2030–2050 includes

    expensive food, little red meat eaten, too expensive;

    expensive energy, smaller houses and more people in condos, fewer, shorter distance vacations;

    vast compuational resources available for everyone to talk to, 32 hour (nominal) work week except for more holidays and longer vacations.

  2. Dan Borroff says:

    David Benson’s vision is one of less is less. I feel it’s time to revive Mies Van Der Rohe’s most famous maxim, “Less is more.”

    Some of the 2030 vision is already well underway in cities like Portland and Vancouver:

    Denser pedestrian friendly cities with lots of amenities for locals and tourists alike. (Why take a vacation if you live like you’re in Disneyland already? Anyone see a newly expanded role for Disney here?)

    Rural areas that are truly rural – less exurban soulless communities. Lots of exurban ghost towns. But they’ll be back on the rise as electric vehicles that can drive 120 miles become the norm, and recharging stations are a perk to attract the best and brightest. The cheaply built exurban towns will have been ‘dozed (in addition to being reason to ‘doze-off’). The better built will be reimagined by the likes of Disney and other developers and community groups.

    Energy will be more expensive per kilowatt hour and per calorie but we’ll use much less due to efficiency measures.

    Well off homeowners will use solar panels, solar hot water & radiant heat, passive solar, and geothermal energy. It will be stored in the latest version of Professor David Nocera’s groundbreaking fuel cell. The solar panels will likely feature nanotubes that were developed in 2008. These capture energy from the infrared spectrum and channel light from oblique angles.

    Many people will telecommute to their jobs 2-4 days per week. The clean energy sector will be the main growth area of the economy. Carbon capture and amelioration of climate change damage will also likely be significant. It will be taken for granted that people must relocate from areas most impacted by extreme weather.

    We will continue to have massive CO2 & methane releases which will necessitate capture and storage.

    Relocation programs will likely be the political football, keeping the chattering elites occupied while communities suffer.

    The generation in power are accustomed to rapid change. Mainstream politics, as opposed to the ‘chattering elite’ luddites, will be modeled in virtual worlds to discover and reduce the impact of unwanted and unanticipated outcomes.

    In addition to solar and geothermal powered residences large power aggregates – offshore floating windpower, solar concentrators, ocean thermal, geothermal, and fourth generation nuclear power will provide grid-based power. There will still be room for building out and expanding those sectors and PV.

    Most of our current building stock will have been replaced or retrofitted. New designs and products will emerge that make retrofitting economically feasible and easier than it is today. Entrepreneurs who take advantage of this market will be the economic heroes of the era.

    Lightweight and fuel efficient aircraft will be reestablishing long distance air travel as an everyday experience for the masses. Although the intervening years will have placed virtual worlds in the place of jet travel.

    The rail system will be electricfied.

    Middle eastern states will have emerged as solar energy pioneers. Their support of integrated smart-grid systems to provide solar power to Europe will carry many of them through the period of economic readjustment. Several African players will be ascendant, taking advantage of slow adaptation of several Middle Eastern oil states.

    China and Russia will still be secondary, but important powers. Their transformation having been impeded by relying too closely on command and control and being dragged down by the lack of adaptability of central planning. Russia’s troubles will extend to melt in vast tracts of eastern and northern tundra and a power elite that holds onto the power they reap from their reserves of oil.

    The United States will benefit from a more market oriented approach but will still suffer from the intransigence of powerful elites whose wealth stemmed from fossil fuels. We will still be the least healthy and most inequitable of the developed nations. Our legacy of excessive incarceration will deprive us of the benefits of rehabilitating minority communities, and the loss of their most talented.

  3. Linda S says:

    Bill, I think the question you ask is key, “What will a post-carbon America look like? What will zero-energy homes and workplaces, transit-oriented cities, and walkable neighborhoods be like? What do we want them to be like?”

    If we have no vision for a better tomorrow, how can we ever hope to achieve it? If we can imagine Tomorrowland in all it’s glory, maybe we can generate the dedication it will take to make it happen. The world is changing and changing fast — are we going to direct that change or be victims of it?

    So, bring on the imagineers and let them at it. Imagine if Saturday morning cartoons, video games, movies and online theme parks all picked up on the concept — and we’re not talking “The Jetsons,” we’re talking real possibilities for a real future.

    Does anyone have any contacts at Disney??

  4. David B. Benson says:

    I’d rather not live in a Disneyland world, thank you.

    Dan Borroff — Somehow I find the idea of a nominal 32 hour work week as “Less is More”.
    But possibly the idea of having vast computational resources to talk to is an example of “More is Less”. :-)

    Anyway, I liked most of your ideas.