Where there is no vision, the people perish — Part 1

The only thing as important as explaining to the public, media, and policymakers what will happen on our current emissions path is laying out a positive vision of a sustainable future.

Humanity has only two paths forward at this point:  We voluntarily switch to a low-carbon, low-oil, low-net-water use, low-net-material use economy over the next two decades or the post-Ponzi-scheme-collapse forces us to do so circa 2030.  The only difference between the two paths is that the the first one spares our children and grandchildren and the next 50 generations untold misery aka Hell and High Water.  A key element of jump-starting the first path is developing and communicating a clear positive vision for the future, as Bill Becker has begun doing.  Bill is uniquely qualified here since he helped launch one of the first green communities (see “High and Dry: The Soldiers Grove Story“).

Note: Buried in Becker’s post is a request:  “If you are aware of other projects to envision a post-carbon future, please let me know by commenting on this post.”

The best way to predict the future is to design it.
– Buckminster Fuller

For some time now I have been proposing a national vision project – a conversation among the American people about the positive future we can create if we put our minds to it. That idea may have gained some momentum last week in a converted barn on the Rockefeller estate outside New York City.

With the help of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation, we convened 30 people – a yeasty mix of communications wizards, sustainable development experts and philanthropists — to determine if they are interested in working together to launch that national discussion. They are.

I don’t yet know what shape this initiative will take, but I know why it’s necessary. As Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson put it in their book, The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World:

Today as we are besieged by planetary problems, the risk is that we will deal with them in a pessimistic and unproductive style”¦. Transfixed by an image of our own future decline, we could actually bring it about.

Have we reached the point that Ray and Anderson warn us about, helpless and depressed, immobilized like deer in the headlights by the frequent damage reports from climate scientists and apocalyptic images of civilization’s collapse? You be the judge. If you have a few minutes, go to these links and watch:

Similar dark images of the future have appeared in books and on television specials. Even Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the climate movement’s cinematic equivalent of the cerebral A Dinner with Andre, starts with a dread-invoking dose of disaster.

These days, we don’t have to rely on fiction to imagine civilization under siege. The images show up regularly in the news as the effects of climate change manifest in the United States and elsewhere, much earlier than we thought just a few years ago. Go to these links for examples from the past 12 months, compliments of the Boston Globe:

For whatever reason — perhaps there’s something in our psychology that makes destruction more entertaining than construction — we are being exposed to many more apocalyptic images than images of a post-carbon world that can be positive and prosperous, even as we deal with the impacts of climate change that already are inevitable. If Ray and Anderson are correct, the lack of balance between positive and negative visions could be our undoing.

For contrast, we might look at what previous generations have done in times of overwhelming challenge. The poster campaigns of World War II were calls to action rather than invitations to despair. One of the best-known uses of positive visioning in American history came during the Great Depression, when Futurama, the General Motors pavilion at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair, constructed a dynamic vision of “the greater and better world of tomorrow” in this “unfinished world of ours”.

Let me be clear: We need to face the very bad things that will happen if we don’t get a grip on climate change and the bad things that already are inevitable because of greenhouse gas emissions now in the atmosphere. Images of disaster can motivate us to act. But they immobilize us if they are not balanced with positive visions of plausible possibilities. In addition to “unleashing our inner ant”, positive visions give us a sense of direction for public policy and private investment. It is not enough for us to talk about green-collar jobs, a post-industrial society, a new energy economy, a carbohydrate economy, a Third Industrial Revolution, sustainable development or a Green New Deal. Those are concepts, not visions, and for many of us they are abstractions.

Effective visioning must engage the grass roots, but national leaders play an important role. As I wrote during and after the presidential election:

Nov. 26, 2007: What is the dream? If we are moving away from fossil fuels and the industrial economy and greenhouse gas emissions, what are we moving toward? Good ideas alone aren’t enough. The true test of leadership in this campaign will be the candidates’ ability to articulate a positive vision for the post-carbon America and to unify the nation around it.
Nov. 21, 2008: 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”¦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”¦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.”
Jan. 29, 2009: The best part of the economic stimulus package moving through Congress is that it calls for a significant down payment on a new energy economy. One of its weaknesses is that it doesn’t give the American people a clear, exciting vision for what that new economy can do”¦The stimulus needs compelling themes that make clear how tomorrow will be better than today and how every American can answer President Obama’s challenge that we all do our part.

Rob Hopkins writes in The Transition Handbook that we have not yet begun to tap the power of positive vision. “It is one thing to campaign against climate change,” Hopkins notes, “and quite another to paint a compelling and engaging vision of a post-carbon world in such a way as to enthuse others to embark on a journey towards it.” According to an article in the most recent New York Times Magazine, Hopkins’ vision of “transition communities” in which citizens have mobilized and transformed their towns to survive the triple crises of peak oil, economic collapse and climate change – a movement he started in the UK – is inspiring some American communities to begin future-planning, more evidence that the moment for visioning has come.

In fact, one of the revelations as I organized last week’s meeting in New York is that a number of groups already are working on visioning exercises of one sort or another. A good example is a project titled America 2050 in which the Regional Plan Association in New York is convening stakeholders to create new ideas for transportation in 11 U.S. mega-regions. This work is timely and important for several reasons. Transportation is one of the big three sources of carbon emissions, it is the principal reason we are addicted to oil, and Congress plans to review our obsolete car-centered federal transportation policy later this year. Among other engaging exercises, RPA is creating “journeys” – virtual everyday trips in which people have a variety of mobility options and make choices between driving, biking and riding mass transit.

With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, WNET, the public television network in New York, has launched a year-long multi-media project called Blueprint America to explore the nation’s options for improving transportation. Documentaries on the topic will appear on public television stations later this year. Groups such as Reconnecting America, the Rails to Trails Conservancy and the Center for Neighborhood Technologies have been working for some time on greener mobility options ranging from bicycle paths to high-speed rail. Ken Snyder at PlaceMatters has assembled a gee-whiz toolbox of state-of-the-art devices to support and help democratize the planning process.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado is working on the technologies for zero-carbon buildings and communities. Ed Mazria of Architecture 2030 is leading the movement for the designs and standards that within two decades will produce the carbon-neutral buildings NREL is researching. The U.S. Green Building Council has developed a rating system for sustainable neighborhoods, while the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) has created STAR, a community-scale rating system. An American design team is trying to raise sufficient funds for a U.S. pavilion at the World Expo next year in Shanghai, where the theme will be “Better Cities; Better Lives”.

New real-life examples are appearing to show what cities and buildings might be like in a livable post-carbon society. Pioneering architects such as Bob Berkebile, one of the fathers of the U.S. green building movement, have designed “living buildings“. Greensburg, Kansas, leveled by a tornado a few years ago, is hard at work rebuilding as a green community. Arup, the British-based engineering company, has designed a zero-carbon city called Dongtan to provide sustainable living outside Shanghai, China, for more than 500,000 people. (Unfortunately, the project has been put on a five-year hold due to leadership changes in China.) Another zero-carbon development called Masdar City is being built in Abu Dhabi. I’m guessing that several of the major corporations investing in green technologies today – among them Toyota, General Electric, IBM and some of America’s more progressive electric utilities – have their own concepts of what a new energy economy will be like.

In these efforts, we see the future emerging from the bottom up and the top down. We need creativity from both directions, with policies, tools, research and technical help from the national level empowering homeowners, businesses and neighborhoods to design the post-carbon futures that best fit their culture, tastes, challenges, aspirations and assets.

Given the urgency of the energy and climate issues and the fact that our resources are limited, regional and national planning exercises like those I mentioned earlier might benefit from collaboration, even if it’s only to share information and lessons. If you are aware of other projects to envision a post-carbon future, please let me know by commenting on this post.

We could also benefit from a 21st century version of Futurama 1939 using today’s infinitely more powerful and pervasive communications and visioning technologies. A 21st century Futurama project – conceptualizing our transformation to a post-carbon society by 2020, 2030 and 2050 — could be the spark that ignites an international visioning initiative that builds worldwide support for a new global energy economy, a useful run-up to December’s climate conference in Copenhagen.

Visioning isn’t easy. In some nations, people prefer central planning. In democratic societies like ours, visioning is a messy process. People argue and vent. Values and vested interests conflict. But it is a blessed mess, a far better variety than the mess we are creating with business as usual.

This is a perfect time for vision, a teachable moment in which we can begin transforming the old order rather than trying in vain to patch its leaks. Barack Obama seems to understand this. “In political terms,” he said recently, “we may be in one of those moments where we can get a seismic shift in how the country views itself and our future. And we have to take advantage of that.”

Yes we do.

Where there is no vision, the people perish.
– Proverbs 29:18

— Bill Becker

This report is based in part on the discussion that took place April 13-15, 2009, at the Rockefeller Brothers Conference Center at Pocantico. However, it reflects my views and not necessary those of other conference participants or the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

38 Responses to Where there is no vision, the people perish — Part 1

  1. Leland Palmer says:

    The Rockefellers’ money comes from oil and banking, mostly. Several of the huge oil companies now in existence are fragments of the original Standard Oil monopoly that was broken into pieces (but perhaps not destroyed) in 1911, I think.

    One fragment of Standard Oil, ExxonMobil, which apparently is still dominated by the Rockefeller family, is responsible for about five percent of the human caused CO2 emissions. Overall, the various fragments of Standard Oil may be responsible for much more than that.

    The Rockefellers have a long history of meddling in government, close associations with the CIA, and an almost unbelievable sanctimony when they deliver their “sermons from the mount”.

    Recently, Scott Borgerson of the Council on Foreign Relations, traditionally dominated by David Rockefeller, has advocated drilling for oil in an ice free arctic, and Borgerson recently testified before Congress, hinting that we need a fleet of nuclear powered icebreakers to do this.

    If the Rockefellers and Exxon want to help clean up the mess they have made, I think that’s great. Let them spend some fraction of the trillions of dollars they have made damaging our climate to substantively change our core technologies. Conferences just aren’t sufficient at this point, IMO. Billions of dollars reinvested in green technologies by our Wall Street financial elite might be the deciding factor in whether our climate system oscillates out of control, or not.

    One such technology might be massive conversion of coal plants to biocarbon/oxyfuel/carbon capture and storage, with accelerated research into carbon sequestration by mineral carbonation.

    Huge investments in wind and solar thermal technologies, and modifying existing coal plants to run off of solar, geothermal, and biocarbon are other things that the Rockefeller family can do.

    Conferences are great, and good luck with your vision project.

    But hard cash from our core financial elites applied to this problem might be decisive.

  2. Jim Beacon says:


    A great article, but haven’t we been calling for visioning conferences long enough? Isn’t this visioning something that Barack Obama told us he was going to do? So far, it seems like the Curse of the Beltway has got hold of him and he is listening to all the insiders and lobbyists and not really “visioning” much of anything, just falling in line with the conventional (and politically expedient) wisdom and debatable paths laid out decades ago. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu has gone on record as believing in the empty promise of “clean coal” and wants to support it in a big way with taxpayer dollars. He has also stated that he and the President “are not talking about any carbon tax”.

    You are probably in a better position than most to gauge how much genuine new thinking and visioning is going on in the Obama Administration. Can you give us your isense of what’s really happening? Can you direct us to specific people/email addresses we should be writing to?

  3. David Freeman says:

    Bravo! Excellent article with loads of useful links.

    I wish you were here in Chapel Hill, N.C. The university has for several years now been planning to develop an additional campus on over 200 open acres right smack in town. Unfortunately they spent a great deal of time and money pretending to seek community input with pr meetings disguised as charrettes.

    A fantastic opportunity is being missed. This progressive community would be very supportive of a car-free, sustainable and green campus and I just don’t understand why the university administration talks the talk but skips out on the walk.

  4. curious says:

    joe what are yoru thoughts on the venus project?

  5. paulm says:

    “I believe that true ’sustainability’ depends fundamentally upon us shifting our perception and widening our focus, so that we understand, again, that we have a sacred duty of stewardship of the natural order of things,” said the prince in a statement yesterday. “In some of our actions we now behave as if we were ‘masters of nature’ and, in others, as mere bystanders. If we could rediscover that sense of harmony; that sense of being a part of, rather than apart from nature, we would perhaps be less likely to see the world as some sort of gigantic production system, capable of ever-increasing outputs for our benefit – at no cost.”

    The prince is working on the book with co-authors Ian Skelly and ex-Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper. Juniper said he was delighted to be helping the prince on such an important project: “I hope his ideas will take the debate – about balancing the needs of the economy with those of ecology – on to a new stage. The prince believes the real crisis is one of perception, of how important ecology is.”

  6. David B. Benson says:

    Time to Act.


    Plant tens of billions of trees.

  7. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi David B. Benson-

    Planting billions of trees might work.

    It appears to be possible to do this from aircraft:

    Forests are to be created by dropping millions of trees out of aircraft. Equipment installed in the huge C-130 transport aircraft used by the military for laying carpets of landmines across combat zones has been adapted to deposit the trees in remote areas including parts of Scotland.

    An idea, originally from a former RAF pilot, Jack Walters, of Bridgnorth, Shropshire, has been developed by the US manufacturer Lockheed Martin Aerospace so that 900,000 young trees can be planted in a day.

    So at roughly a million trees a day per aircraft, we could easily plant billions of trees within a few months.

    This is obvious, this is easy. Why aren’t we doing this?

    Is it because ExxonMobil wants to drill for oil under our current polar icecap?

  8. Leland Palmer says:

    Oh, sorry forgot to add the link:

  9. Harrier says:

    I remember seeing an episode of Project Earth about dropping trees from aircraft. The method they used didn’t seem to yield the best results- I don’t think any of their trees actually sprouted. Has this method described in the Guardian had more success?

  10. Gail says:

    Jim Beacon,

    I have no inside information but from what I have observed, Obama is like a chess grandmaster. He plans many moves ahead.

    Cases in point:

    1. for all the screams about Rick Warner at the Inauguration, what was the result? Warner practically declares peace with teh gayz, and is now a major player in defusing the issue of gay marriage.

    2. The Jeremiah Wright fiasco morphed into Obama’s brilliant speech on race which was hailed even by those on the right and then, to further neutralize the controversy, Jeremiah Wright suddenly rants so egregiously that Obama just has no choice other than to, ahem, throw him under the bus, thus completely disassociating himself from any further criticism. Coincidence or strategy? Rev. Wright sacrificed himself and is the unsung hero of the election.

    3. Do you think Obama could have possibly been elected without being a devout Christian? So how far back does this put his planning?

    I am far from convinced that any leader can conceivably save us from rampant climate chaos, but if anyone can, it is Obama. How lucky we are to have him at this critical juncture.

  11. David B. Benson says:

    Leland Palmer — Fantastic! Do send an e-mail to John Holdren at the White House, suggesting some pilot studies.

  12. Leland Palmer says:

    I guess it is often used to replant by some forest services after a fire:

    Above is a better researched, apparently more recent link.

    Success rates are not as high as hand planting, but the planting rate is much higher, of course. If this is an emergency, why isn’t this being done?

    Even hand planting can plant a thousand trees a day, per person, though. So 10,000 people working 300 days a year could plant 3 billion trees, roughly. And 100,000 people, working 300 days a year, could plant 30 billion trees per year.

    Why aren’t we planting more trees? Why aren’t our soldiers, and the soldiers of armies around the world, spending a few weeks per year planting trees?

    I’ve come to the conclusion, perhaps a false one, that our financial elites and military planners want that 90 billion barrels of oil currently thought to reside under our current polar cap and other arctic “resources” and welcome global warming.

  13. David B. Benson says:

    Leland Palmer wrote “Why aren’t our soldiers, and the soldiers of armies around the world, spending a few weeks per year planting trees?”

    Suggest this to the SecDod. I believe he gets it.

  14. Pangolin says:

    I’m personally sick of “visioning” conferences and meetings about environmental anything that don’t have any funds to follow up. Barring a major lottery win most of us aren’t going to make a dent deeper than CFL’s and a water heater upgrade. Maybe we bike around dodging the SUVs or select the green power option from our utility. It’s not enough.

    From the viewpoint of Northern California, the plant a billion trees concept lacks a certain basic grasp of forest dynamics. We have LOTS of trees. Too many trees, and they’re going up in great gouts of flame, smoke and greenhouse gases. Trees are not forests and planting them where there isn’t the soil, water, or rains to support them just gets you lots of dead twigs sticking out of the sand. Once trees grow up they need to be nudged towards stable ecosystems since humans have removed many keystone species or interfere with natural fire cycles. Sometimes that means lighting smoky, cool-season fires to prevent giant firestorms in warmer weather.

    Plant trees!?! (facepalm)

  15. Gail says:

    okay, here’s my letter to the NYT magazine about their “Green Mind Issue” (which, almost certainly, they will never print):

    Dear Editors,

    I found some irony in reading the juxtaposition of viewpoints in the articles of this issue. In “Why Isn’t the Brain Green,” we learn about the research of Anthony Leiserowitz, who expected to find Alaskans more cognizant of climate change, since the residents of that state are surrounded by visible effects already. Yet, he found that by and large they, like the rest of many Americans, prefer to indulge themselves and imagine that climate change, although perhaps real, is either going to happen far away, or far off in the future, or most likely, both.

    Next “The Working Forest,” chronicles David Foster’s laudatory efforts to revive and manage the tree growth in Harvard Forest. For all his sincerity in the ethic of conservation, he seems utterly oblivious to signs of climate change in Massachusetts. Then, on the final page of the Magazine, Wells Tower describes the removal of trees from his North Carolina property, which he attributes to a variety of sources, but never once ties the conditions of disease and decay he observes as being instigated, or at least exacerbated, by climate change.

    It is time for everyone to realize that climate change is here, now, and its deleterious menace needs to be confronted head on with aggressive government policies that promote clean energy. Climate change is already strangling many prominent species of vegetation on the East Coast. This includes deciduous trees, coniferous trees, and evergreen shrubs like boxwood and rhododendron. It encompasses every age from young saplings to majestic historic specimens, and trees in wild settings as well as planted landscapes. The empirical evidence is all around us. The ecosystem is collapsing, and this slow train wreck is on track towards a rapidly accelerating mass extinction.

    It doesn’t take a graduate degree in botany to know that when a tree starts dropping leaves out of season, leaving it with a thin crown, peeling bark, and breaking branches, or a pine tree begins shedding needles so that you can see though the branches to the trunk or even all the way through, and is covered in cones in a desperate attempt to reproduce, that particular tree has roots that are already irreversibly damaged. An individual tree with such symptoms may limp along for a few seasons, but it won’t be improving, only exhibiting further decline until is is completely bare, or falls over. This is forestry 101 and anyone who takes the time to actually look around will be able to see these ominous indicators are ubiquitous in our parks, along our roads, and in our yards.

    It’s not so hard to understand why this is happening – and should be predictable – if you just think a little bit about what Darwin was getting at. It took millions and millions of years through the process of natural selection for the current abundance of diverse species to evolve. Trees evolved to survive in EXACTLY the niche they have occupied since before the Industrial Revolution, when humans started adding massive amounts of CO2 to the air, and in the process, enhancing the natural greenhouse effect. Even a “slight” change in average temperatures and/or precipitation altering the environment renders it uninhabitable to the species so exquisitely engineered to thrive in conditions that they evolved to occupy. We’ve already had that “slight” increase in temperature and lack of precipitation – and more, much more extremes are inevitable in our future. Thus this is a trend we must anticipate will continue, and quicken, until we are vulnerable to wildfires like Australia has been victim to.

    Of course there are other causes for the dieback such as deer foraging, diseases, insects, soils depleted from acid rain, ozone and other pollutants, and fungus. But for such a near-universal death rate, we must logically look to what is being universally experienced by so many species and age ranges. That would be an increase in temperature, less precipitation and especially snowpack, and further, the inability of trees to go dormant due to unseasonably warm temperatures, leading to damage during cold snaps. When sap freezes, it expands, destroying its ability to transpire, and splits the bark, allowing insects to invade.

    Why is all this important? Climate change isn’t just about polar bears and tropical frogs in Madagascar. The policy makers in Washington, and the American public, should know that their children are going to grow up in a world without nuts, or apple cider, or shade, or swings on trees, or birds. And we will be subject to deprivations far more dire than those, if we don’t cap emissions now and also start reducing fast.

    Yes, Dr. Bloom, we need nature to be happy. Take a cursory look at children’s literature, whether modern or traditional, and toys and movies and tv shows. They are filled with animal characters that fascinate them and help them learn their place in the scheme of things. It’s terrible to contemplate that today’s children will inherit an impoverished world increasingly devoid of wildlife outside of zoos, and that walking in the woods amongst ferns, or picking peaches in an orchard, will only be alive in the memories of this generation.

    Perhaps when insurance companies and utilities begin passing the costs of tree removal on to customers, or when more trees land on our cars and buildings, we will get the WWII moment Dr. Joseph Romm mentioned in “Why Isn’t the Brain Green?”. It appears we need something dramatic like the wholesale dieback of our woods, or severe water shortages and rationing in major metropolitan areas, to suddenly galvanize people to realize we face a long-term threat to our food supply from drought and desertification right here, on the Eastern Seaboard.

    In the meanwhile, I highly recommend Dr. Romm’s website,, for a wealth of information and original sources made accessible for the non-scientists among us.


  16. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Pangolin-

    Yes, lots of trees going up in flames. My brother’s house was endangered by the Yosemite/Mariposa fires last year, but this firestorm ended up sparing his house and a few square miles around it. What was it that burned in California last year? 1.25 million acres?

    Yes, planting trees would have worked better a few years ago, when the forests were stable carbon sinks. Now that they are on the verge of becoming carbon sources, carbon storage in trees is risky.

    But I think it would still work, particularly if it was combined with biomass/CCS.

    Problem: Too much carbon in the biomass, atmosphere, and oceans, from burning 300 billion tons of fossil fuels.

    Solution? Put it back underground. Seize the coal plants and convert the worst problem (coal) into the best solution (biocarbon/CCS = carbon negative energy).

    Combine biocarbon/CCS with the stabilization wedge strategy advocated on this blog. Intensively manage the forests, cut firebreaks through them. Convert all the dead trees, the insect killed trees, and the flammable undergrowth into biocarbon, and inject the resulting CO2 using coal plants modified for oxyfuel combustion and carbon capture. Deep inject the resulting CO2, until we can find a better solution.

    Plant tens of billions of trees.

    And hope desperately that is enough.

  17. Harrier says:

    Funny that you lot should mention reforestation and forest fires. This showed up today on Science Daily.

    Apparently in Alaska, there are records of warm, dry periods with less forest fires, and cool, wet periods with more forest fires than either climate should have allowed for on its own. The thing that makes the difference is the kind of trees that make up the forest.

    So if you plant the right kind of tree in the right kind of climate, you can get your additional forests while actually decreasing the risk of wildfires, even in a warming world.

  18. Gail says:

    oh that’s just so, swonderful!


    so, which trees are those that are adapted to survive drier, warmer, heavy infrequent rains with nasty infrequent but killer cold snaps?

    give me some species?

    just askin?

  19. Leland Palmer says:

    I hadn’t even considered tinkering with the species balance. Although heavily managed, these forests should be as “natural” as possible, I always thought.

    I have been thinking about the planting by aerial bombardment thing for a while, and it appears to me that with modern technology and imaging systems, it ought to be possible to plant the trees pretty much where we want them. It might even be possible to put military grade GPS systems on each seedling, and put it exactly where we want it, according to a computerized plan. I always assumed that we would be trying to mimic what had historically been in that area. Maybe people could walk through afterward and pick up the GPS packages so that they could be reused. It might also be possible to monitor the area in real time, so that no hikers or deer get stabbed by seedlings falling from the sky.

    If tinkering with the species balance is done, it should be done carefully, by experts. It seems conceivable that there could be some sort of master plan, meant to return to historical species in each area, in perhaps a hundred years.

  20. JeandeBegles says:

    Sorry, but the original thread is about positive vision for a post carbon world, not about how to plant trees.
    I have no answer for this positive vision, except that it cannot be based on modern technology only. This is a technical bias. Every plain people must imagine himself in this positive vision; the venus project is for me typical of a not credible solution.
    On the other hand there must be some dream; I have a dream is compelling, I agree.
    This positiveness must address our personnal behavior. How to display fun and happiness in slashing our CO2 emissions? Sure the message must be customized according the the targeted people. Marketing experts could help a lot.
    Our french association TACA (web site in french in the name) tries to display this positiveness through the consistency of the message: local (every one must be involved) and global (a carbon tax to drive our business and every citizen). According to the slow rise of our subscribers, it is not a magic bullet. We must share the best practices.

  21. Bill Becker says:

    Leland — You’re absolutely correct about the need for big oil to invest in the fuels and energy technologies of the future. Unless they do, they’ll be the GMs of tomorrow, made bankrupt by their focus on near-term profit rather than on emerging technologies and markets. I was delighted to see members of the Rockefeller family begin pushing Exxon last year to make serious investments in green energy. They, as well as all other stockholders in fossil energy companies, should be worried. Personallly, I’d love to see a stockholder revolt in the oil, gas and coal industries, forcing the companies to help us make the transition to low-carbon energy. Those who don’t will join the club of what I’ve called “dead industries walking”. I hope the members of the Rockefeller family who introduced their green energy resolution at Exxon’s annual meeting last year keep up the pressure and encourage other investors to do the same.

    Jim, I also agree we need much more than visioning conferences right now. What we do need is to build enormous public support for serious policy changes and investments in a post-carbon economy. Obama is advocating those investments under heavy fire that we can’t afford them in an economic crisis and that we’re indebting our kids. We need to do everything we can to build and sustain a public mandate that demands bold investments from Washington, as well as from every other level of government and the private sector. My hunch is that to trigger that public mandate, we need to do more to help the American people understand how bright the light is at the end of the tunnel. I’ve found in my work over the years that many people need to “see” and “touch” the future in order to understand and work for it. That, to me, is what visioning should be. A conference like the one we just held has a very practical political purpose that, with work, will lead to a very practical political outcome.

    Meantime, I’m still waiting for folks to alert us to more groups and institutions working on vision.

  22. Florifulgurator says:

    Wrrr… burning the bark beetled trees and sequestering the CO2? Classic techno “visioning”. Haha… Recently some techno visionaire even suggested to use microwaves to pyrolize trees. Haha? wait… pyrolysis! That’s a clue after all.

    Here’s my vision about using the dying forests:
    * Char coal producing home heating using wood pellets.
    * Woodgas hybrids with 1) swappable batteries to get immediate recharge 2) char coal production for carbon negative driving.
    Even a WWII wood gas car would be biosystemicly superior to any c21st technovisionwank I heard yet. But my vision is a micro gas turbine combined with electro motor, driven on standard wood pellets (not standard oil, haha.) Dunno if it could work.

    Put the char coal back to where the dead trees came from. Mix it in the ground and plant legumes over it. Better, first suck up CAFO manure pools with it. The result most probably will be better soil than ever before, with higher water and nutrient retention. And better regrown forest.
    One could make a huge industry out of that dead tree charcoal biz.

  23. Steve H says:

    I’m in a progressive town in Missouri (well, that narrows it down to what 2, 3 maybe), and I have, for the past few weeks, been trying to bring together the various grass roots organizations that are practicing aspects of sustainability. These include our non-motorized traffic advocates, community gardening, smart growth, and other groups to not only speak as a collective to our local government, but also to be integrated into long term sustainability planning. Not only would this group focus on those that are active, we would actually try to recruit many other groups as well. Particularly fraternal orgs, church groups, any other group that has the desire to play a role in defining the what our community will be like in the future. In just this short time, I have been able to gain commitments from several organizations. In the next month, I plan to formalize the structure of this group and become much more active.

  24. Greg N says:

    Thanks Bill, feeling uplifted.

    To be honest, I used to be a pessimist about diverting from the BAU path. And so wasn’t really active in doing things like insulating the house.

    My state of mind changed suddenly in November, for some inexplicable reason…

    It’s now full steam ahead, and I’ve personally done more in the past 5 months than the past 5 years.

  25. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Bill Becker-

    Leland — You’re absolutely correct about the need for big oil to invest in the fuels and energy technologies of the future. Unless they do, they’ll be the GMs of tomorrow, made bankrupt by their focus on near-term profit rather than on emerging technologies and markets. I was delighted to see members of the Rockefeller family begin pushing Exxon last year to make serious investments in green energy….I hope the members of the Rockefeller family who introduced their green energy resolution at Exxon’s annual meeting last year keep up the pressure and encourage other investors to do the same.

    This proxy fight between the Rockefellers and Lee Raymond was interesting, and I’d love to know more about it, the details of it. The result, I believe, was that Lee Raymond, who had directly supported a network of global warming deniers with at least 26 million dollars was out as CEO.

    But there appear to be mixed messages coming from Exxon. The Heritage Foundation and Scott Borgerson of the Council on Foreign Relations continue to advocate a new cold war with Russia over arctic resources. Borgerson, in his testimony before Congress, said things like “it doesn’t really matter why the arctic is melting” and “we have to adapt to it” referring to global warming. He also hinted that we need a fleet of nuclear icebreakers to go after the estimated 90 billion barrels of oil under our current arctic icecap. Borgerson, claiming to be acting as a private citizen, has written a series of articles touting arctic resources in Foreign Affairs (the journal of the CFR) and a series of articles in newspapers including the New York Times. It’s my understanding that this is the customary way the desires of our financial elites have been communicated to the Congress and the public in the past, by using the CFR as a “cutout”. David Rockefeller, as you know, was the Chairman of the CFR for decades, and remains the Chairman Emeritus.

    2) This dramatic and unprecedented climatic change is affecting the geopolitics of the
    region. The Arctic is home to an estimated twenty-two percent of the world’s remaining
    undiscovered hydrocarbon reserves as well as access to the fabled shipping routes over Eurasia
    and North America, both of which have led to balance-of-power struggles in the region. The next
    few years will be critical in determining whether the Arctic’s long-term future will be one of
    international harmony and the rule of law, or of a Hobbesian free-for-all with dangerous
    potential for conflict. This is a story still being written with a plot full of characters who speak of
    multilateral cooperation but pursue their own self-interest.

    It may be that some members of the Rockefeller family favor alternative energy investment, and some favor “drill baby drill”. Or the proxy fight might have been a big show, with the core policy remaining Borgerson’s vision of nuclear icebreakers cruising around an arctic that is ice free in the summer, and clearing a path through the ice for tankers full of arctic crude in the winter.

    Lest this sound harmless and fun, I believe that if the arctic melts the ice albedo feedback will likely tip the entire globe into runaway, perhaps irreversible global heating.

    Now the Rockefeller Brothers Fund host this “visioning” conference. Is this a big show, too?

  26. Bill Becker says:

    I’m more interested in talking about a compelling future than the Rockefeller philanthropies, but I can say without question that the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has been sincere in its support for many projects — including some of mine — in the sustainable development, renewable energy, climate action areas. Good people, good projects, good motives, in my experience.

  27. The biggest danger is that people will think that planting a few trees will make a real difference, so they can continue to dump thousands of times more CO2 than they save by wasting energy in cars and in electric power generation.

    The world could have handled the CO2 situation if we had not had the technological effects of the industrial revolution.

    For those who would seek a meaningful solution to the quantitative problem of CO2, look at reference (6) at

    A technological plan to cut the CO2 magnitude associated with transportation and power generation could seriously change the situation.

    If we set in motion such a real technological plan, the “visioning conference” of tree planters having no meaningful insight into the matter can go on harmlessly. (Trees will be planted; most will die and decay; there will be very little change.)

  28. S.W. Ela says:

    Thanks, Bill Becker, for a good “Part 1” on the need for envisioning. I’m sorry that the commenters, so far, have failed to address your main point.

    I’m a member of a “Transition Town” in California. Envisioning is a crucial exercise in helping to build sustainable and resilient communities. And, another useful tool is, to use Rob Hopkin’s word, “backcasting” – working from the vision to the present – as contrasted to our usual forecasting.
    I encourage readers to learn more about the Transition Initiative. The following web site (and links therein) is a good place to start.

  29. Sarah says:

    Thank you for this post! A clear, powerful vision of a sustainable future does more than inspire. It transforms people’s ability to effect real change by showing them what, specifically, they should be working toward.

    I can think of no better example of the power of this kind of applied vision than the Living Building Challenge. You mention living buildings in your post, and you link to an old document authored by Bob Berkebile and Jason F. McLennan in 2000. Jason, the creator of the Living Building concept, brought this vision with him when he became CEO of Cascadia Region Green Building Council and transformed it into a program that has already had an out-sized impact of the building community and on policy makers.

    In 2006, Cascadia officially launched the Living Building Challenge, the most cutting-edge and comprehensive green building performance standard in existence. Living Buildings are ultra-efficient and integrated into the environment. They capture and treat their own water, generate their own energy from renewable resources and provide inspiring and nontoxic environments to all who interact with them. Rather than encouraging incremental improvements to the performance of conventional buildings, the Challenge requires that building teams begin by setting their sights on true sustainability. Approaching design with this mindset results in buildings that are not only less bad, but actually good for the sites they inhabit. Over 60 projects are now actively pursuing the Challenge – each of which promises to provide a new model of super efficient, water independent and net zero energy projects. This new performance standard is beginning to affect codes and state laws, spur unprecedented levels of collaboration among building professionals and revolutionize the relationships between architects and end users.

    Not only are Living Buildings currently possible, they are fiscally responsible. A team composed of SERA Architects, Skanska USA Building, Gerding Edlen Development, New Buildings Institute and Interface Engineering, recently completed a major study of the cost premium for creating Living Buildings in comparison to LEED Gold buildings. The study found that the cost premium was much smaller and the payback period much shorter than anyone had expected. The team also identified the many ways that policy makers can lower the costs for Living Buildings by streamlining codes and creating targeted incentives.

    A sample of the projects currently pursuing the Challenge include: the Phipps Conservatory Center for Sustainable Landscapes in Pittsburgh; The Oregon Sustainability Center – an ambitious public/private sponsorship to create a 12-story, 200,000 sq ft Living Building in downtown Portland ; and the Omega Center for Sustainable Living, which is scheduled to complete the building process on May 1, 2009.

  30. Don’t forget the water for the new trees. Water is getting scarce now.

    Scaring people with visions of doom probably will just paralyze them, and persuade them to continue with their profligate waste of water and fuel to have a last hurrah before the inevitable Hell and High Water. It seems inevitable now, whether or not climate change is caused by humans.

    So a positive vision makes more sense. How about carbon recycling, to make nanotubes (100 times stronger than steel at 1/6 the weight, nearly superconducting) out of CO2. I believe it can be done, if we use wind and solar power to do the CO2 cracking.

  31. quakergardener says:

    So, it’s not just global warming and peak oil, it’s also habitat and species destruction. Dr. Bloom is only partly right: we need nature to be happy, but especially we need nature to survive. The earth’s bio-system would be fine without us. We cannot survive without the biosystem.

    Tree-planting schemes are a great thought, but working to conserve and restore bio-diversity is even better.

    How does this tie into positive vision? Here in the U.S., humans have impacted 95% of available land, causing loss of species even in conservation areas, which function as islands. Anyone in control of even a small piece of land can reduce their grass and other non-native plants, swear off the use of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, and plant natives instead. This is one of the best positive actions anyone can take–especially those living in grass/norway maple/impatiens suburbs– to reduce their personal carbon footprint, and help preserve bio-diversity as well. This is sometimes called reconciliation ecology.

    Though some local eco-systems are in trouble, many native plants can withstand greater temperature and weather extremes than can exotics. We should encourage a new human habitat vision that makes room for other species. Our new clean energy, low carbon society should include sustainable, water-saving, bio-diversity increasing practices in all our landscaping, wherever we live.

  32. Leland Palmer says:

    Instead of envisioning, it seems to me that a punitive approach might be more successful at actually fighting global warming.

    Our financial elites have given up any legitimacy to their rule by getting us, steadfastly, greedily, obstinately, and deceptively into this mess in the first place.

    The money used to fund this envisioning program comes ultimately from a family fortune based on corporations that have profited from causing a large percentage of global warming.

    It seems that the Rockefeller Foundations, and “charitable” foundations in general, are often used to avoid taxes, and perpetuate control of wealth and stock voting rights, with essentially no risk of ever losing those voting rights.

    Envisioning is great. Good luck to you with it.

    Some fraction of the 40 billion dollars that Exxon made in profit last year applied to this problem could have a lot more impact than envisioning, I think.

    What I envision is a future in which the oil corporations, the major banks, and the coal companies are nationalized, and transformed as quickly as possible into environmentally friendly organizations, in self-defense by a population whose lives and future is threatened by runaway global warming, and the naked greed that caused it.

  33. How Global Warming could lead to the EXTINCTION of Homo
    Sapiens by the year 2030:

    Reference: “The Long Summer” by Brian Fagan
    “Collapse” by Jared Diamond
    “Six Degrees” by Mark Lynas

    In previous civilization collapses, there were always people living
    beyond the range of the civilization that collapsed. That is why
    no previous collapse of civilization has ever been an extinction
    event for humans. When a civilization collapsed in the past, the
    people there wandered off looking for food. On the average,
    something like one person out of 10,000 found food elsewhere.
    The remaining 99.99% died of starvation or violence. There were
    always people living far away to start a new civilization

    Now our civilization is global and we have the means of
    transportation to wander absolutely everywhere on the planet.
    That means that the people who wander off looking for food
    (everybody, all 6.7 Billion of us) will find and eat all of the food
    available to even the remotest, most isolated and most primitive
    people on the planet. Given the example of Haiti and other places
    where food is scarce, everything that is even close to edible will be
    hunted or gathered to extinction. With the total extinction of the
    food, the humans will also go extinct. You don’t want to live
    through the end. It will be gruesome.

    Conclusion: Homo Sapiens could go extinct by the year 2030 if
    extreme action on global warming is not taken immediately. A
    population crash caused by a human population of 9 Billion could
    also lead to extinction in the same way UNLESS we have self-
    sustaining colonies on other planets, out of reach of those left on

    I recommend and demand that ALL coal fired power plants
    WORLDWIDE be shut down by the end of 2015. If there is a
    coal fired power plant still operating on 1 January 2016, bomb it.
    The situation is a lot worse than a world war. We have
    FACTORY MADE nuclear power plants to replace coal fired
    power plants with. See:
    A Government Owned Government Operated [GOGO] nuclear
    fuel recycling plant is required and indicated because nuclear fuel
    is recyclable and no longer wasteable. Yucca Mountain has been
    shut down.

  34. hapa says:

    as people have been talking about lately, there were GOBS of visionary tracts and utopias published in the 1970s, including of course “solartopia” which was just republished. there closer then to the shock of seeing ourselves from space and to reading first editions of “limits to growth” and other such insightful stuff from before the era of borrow-and-spend.

    if there aren’t as many now, that aren’t drop-out movements, then maybe it’s partly because of political changes, we’re more isolated from each other and much more money-focused, but it could also be that the shine has gone off the utopian modeling to the extreme that all big change is frightening and resisted. i do think that americans have a feeling on entrenchment that is a modern event, and predates 9/11. i don’t know to say if it’s a long bloody “culture war” or the pervasive horrors on 24/7 television news or increasingly competitive increasingly abstract lifestyle or overwork or… “having a credit card means never having to say you’re sorry”… or what. we’re just not comfortable with each other.

    so i think manuals — plans and sourcebooks — are actually today’s popular visions. they don’t require any more cooperation than you feel comfortable with. which is probably killing us, because we can’t do this without working together.

  35. hapa says:

    *”there closing then” should be “they were closer then”

  36. Totally inspiring. What are your thoughts about this global project collecting visions of a sustainable, low-carbon future?

  37. Rasmus says:

    There is only brief mentioning in the comments above of turning dead trees into charcoal and putting that charcoal back into the ground. I am talking about BIOCHAR. This is one of the few strategies at our disposal that can take billions of tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere. It can increase soil fertility and biomass productivity, starting a positive cycle of more and more carbon being put back into the ground. In order to remain in the holocene, we have to get back to 350 ppm CO2, and quickly.

    This is “reverse carbon mining” a.k.a. “carbon re-fossilization” – one of the biggest industries of the 21st century. Get the facts on biochar at the International Biochar Initiative:

  38. Leif says:

    Just bumping errorpbug off your front page.