At the end of our last classroom meeting, the students in Environmental Geography worked in small groups to imagine a future in which our lives are not beholden to the extraction and incineration of eons-old subterranean hydrocarbons.
Informed by a semester-long exploration into the histories of our shared present, and banged out in a day, this is our draft manifesto for a more sustainable future. I have to say, I’m pretty proud of these kids:
To achieve a carbon-neutral future, we cannot continue to divorce ourselves from the global and historical flows of energy and capital that impact the lives of people all over the world. In imagining a more sustainable future, rather than reinforce this perceived isolation, we must collaborate with those who have been most impacted by the current regimes of extraction and exchange that make our world.
Hegemonic nations like the United States often utilize indigenous and third world peoples’ resources for their own development at the expense of local populations and their environments. This is not a true form of democracy, as it does not engage with a plurality of the world’s underrepresented voices. In imagining the policies that will reshape the globe, we must resist this unipolar world vision, and listen to and learn from an expanded field of global constituents.
To accomplish our vision, we must recognize and respect the declarations of non-human systems and non-human life. Although they cannot speak, their lives must register in our futures. We are well past Aldo Leopold’s 1949 “Land Ethic,” with his call for an expanded community that includes “soils, waters, plants, and animals.” Yet each day we move away from this notion and towards an environmental ethics framed more by dominion than by interrelationships. We must encourage people to recognize non-humans by clearly describing the consequences of our actions—not only in local terms but also in terms of global and regional impacts.
It is possible to have forms of abundance without mass extinctions and ecological destruction. To do so, we must create new infrastructures and reimagine old ones. We must eliminate our reliance on the oil infrastructure. In a world without oil pipelines, we would not have to construct such complex networks that displace or damage those who inhabit the affected economies and environments.
Rather than simply destroying all of our deteriorating or outdated infrastructures, we must implement alternative infrastructures that are more efficient and safe. Dismantling this infrastructure and constructing alternative infrastructures will create economic opportunities across the society.
Beyond deconstructing the oil infrastructure, we must imagine assembling new alternatives, and incentivize the production of more efficient forms of energy supply, including but not limited to wind, solar, and hydroelectric power.
Additionally, our sustainable future requires imaginative approaches to other landscapes of everyday life. Cities and suburbs must account for not just their energy use, but also the energy that goes into building them. Instead of utilizing entrenched construction techniques, we must use more energy-efficient materials for homes and other buildings, and even encourage our homes to produce their own energy. Instead of focusing on the development of heating and cooling machines, we must instead emphasize the use of materials that manage thermodynamic gains and losses naturally.
Transportation networks, which account for so much of the world’s energy use, must be reimagined. In addition to a focus on more energy-efficient vehicles like electric cars, and more investment in mass transit systems, we share a commitment to integrate the many connective tissues that facilitate our daily lives. We must reimagine them not as the wasted spaces between destinations but as interwoven, roof-to-roof green spaces with forests and complex ecosystems thriving in the canopies above.
We are aware that if improperly organized, carbon-neutral abundance could still result in an issue similar to the so-called Tragedy of the Commons. There would therefore need to be an oversight regime, consequences for violators, and an investment in a global alliance to help monitor the carbon emissions of companies and states. This alliance must have the power to sanction those who endanger our common futures.
We often pair the rapacious appetite for the land and natural resources that fuels our current global reality with a vision of the future that requires asceticism and abstention. We contend that this is a failure of imagination. From a more energetic engagement with outdoor activities like hiking and swimming to an increased focus on interpersonal social and physical relationships, a sustainable future need not be boring.
However, to protect our collective future, the world population must nonetheless work to redefine which values we retain and which we must give up out of necessity. This requires new structured and localized economies infused with global diligence and commitment.
Through these modifications we must aim to eliminate environmental racism and minimize the slow violence of racial capitalism. The effects of these limitations would benefit the many social groups that have been the victims of the prioritization of hydrocarbon infrastructures.
With effort, this future is possible.