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The Good Life Doesn't Have to Cost Us the Planet

What if you woke up one day to find that humans eventually did make the right decisions, and the world turned out to be a pretty cool place.

For a while, it looked as though everything would fall apart. There was the triple crunch of the global credit crisis, declining oil supplies, and the threat of runaway climate change driven by massive overconsumption by rich countries and the elites in poor countries.

In 2008, humanity overshot its global biocapacity on September 23. It was the world’s earliest “ecological debt day” since humanity first started going into the environmental red in the mid-1980s. We were pursuing economic growth for its own sake, but it was completely unsustainable, and the people it was most supposed to benefit -- the poorest -- were getting a shrinking slice of the benefits. Perversely, because of the way the world economy worked, to get tiny amounts of global poverty reduction required massive amounts of destructive overconsumption by those who were already rich.

In the face of inescapable economic chaos and ecological upheaval, we finally woke to find that we already had most of the solutions under our noses. This is what a day in our lives looks like now, after things turned out right.

On waking

With less time spent working, the choice is yours -- sleep in, go for a run, read a novel. Having rediscovered the real meaning of a good life, previously overconsuming rich countries have now cured most cases of work addiction. In this “downshifted” world the phrase “rush hour” has become a half-remembered curio. Our society has begun to get the hang of how computing and IT can make for smart work, rather than generate slave work.

Those choosing the early morning run enjoy fresh air and clear paths as dramatic reductions in traffic have transformed city air and streets.


No need to sweat over every shopping decision: socially and environmentally sustainable trade are the (carefully checked) norm. The weekly food bill has gone up -- but so has the quality, and the damaging consequences of cheap food systems have gradually been rolled back. This is sustainable consumption universalized -- no more scanning labels. A few deft moves in boardrooms and government chambers helped to make food markets fair and sustainable.

For an international meeting -- step onto your balcony: video-conferencing and networking are so slick and intuitive that you rarely need to travel for work. The hours gained, backache cured, and wrinkles postponed make you more effective and committed to the work you do. But these changes are about more than work. Social networking software has thrown you together with new people -- your desktop gives you a global network, but also connects you in new -- live -- human ways to the community where you actually live.

Computer connections aside, there are plenty of benefits in the new sense of community that has evolved from the revival of local shops (where the shopkeepers actually remember who you are) and the way that residential streets and town centers have become people-friendly. Streets are safer, with some entirely car-free, and many towns have reclaimed central plots of land as public squares. A calmer environment and more opportunities for casual contact between neighbors means people gather and talk to each other more. Even in cities, people, and especially the elderly, feel less lonely.

Take some time out late morning to plan your long-awaited summer trip. While the big increases in the cost of fossil fuels have made international travel a rarer experience, it tends to be much better -- and longer -- when you do head off on your travels. In the bad old days you might have dashed off a postcard after thirty-six hours in a congested foreign capital. These days it is more a matter of picking out a few choice photos from the hundreds you’ll take on your once-in-a-lifetime three-month trip to India. Travel has returned to being a pleasure and an adventure.

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