The following is an excerpt from Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want by Bryan Welch (B&A Books, 2010). Through telling the stories of farmers, gardeners, inventors and entrepreneurs, Beautiful and Abundant cuts through the pessimism and denial that tend to pervade today’s discussions of sustainability, and challenges readers to visualize a verdant and prosperous future for humanity and all living things. This excerpt is from the epilogue, “As I See It: Idealistically, Unrealistically …”
This is a book about forming a collective vision. It is not meant to be a book about my vision of the future and the first version of its manuscript didn’t include this epilogue. I didn’t intend to get into my own idealized, unrealistic view of the future. Then a wise friend read it and pointed out that I’ve asked readers to go out on a limb without demonstrating that I’m willing to do the same.
I want my great-grandchildren to live in a place that is …
Anyone who has traveled in the developing world during the past 30 years has seen the vast slums that engulf the cities. Slums occupy decaying sections of old cities and newly built shantytowns that often surround more affluent urban areas. About a billion people, worldwide, live in slums today, and the United Nations expects that number to double by 2030.
Slums are densely populated aggregations of minimal human shelter. Generally speaking, slum dwellers are barely protected from the weather. Their sewage is not treated. Their children are not educated. Increasingly, the world’s slums host a variety of toxic occupations such as recycling used computer parts and scavenging landfills.
Slums are not beautiful. I’m sure their residents find some beauty in them, but ugliness remains one of their defining factors. The slum’s residents want to make it smell better, look better and provide better shelter.
An absence of beauty often indicates an absence of health, and the slums metastasizing around the world are indicators of a profound economic disease. As we’ve enhanced the lives of the world’s riches human beings, economic disparity has advanced like a cancer. It’s not that the poor live a lot worse than ever. As far back as recorded history can take us, there were unfortunate people who lived without shelter, clean water or adequate food. Their condition hasn’t changed appreciably in the entire span of human history. The richest residents of the 21st century, on the other hand, live lives of luxury that kings and emperors couldn’t have imagined until very recently. The rich need not ever smell an unpleasant smell or see an unpleasant sight. From birth to death, they have access to temperate air, clean water and beautiful things. They can reach any terrestrial destination that pleases them in a few hours. They have drugs that soothe almost any pain. Almost any form of entertainment is available to them at the touch of a button.
And they live, quite often, within walking distance of a slum.
The ugliness of the slums is striking for its proximity to wealth and beauty.
To spread beauty in my vision of our human future, the poor must be elevated.
I don’t imagine a world in which economic disparity has been eliminated. I think that would be a bad idea. Economic disparity and the opportunity of improving our individual standard of living is a tremendous source of energy fueling enterprise and innovation. It’s a motivator.
But I envision a human world that no longer tolerates “inhuman” conditions. I see a world in which people don’t go hungry, because we no longer put up with starvation. Today we have enough food to eradicate hunger, but we lack the collective will to do so. We could feed every hungry person tomorrow, but we haven’t collectively decided to do so.
In my beautiful vision, we would tolerate nothing less.
The poor will, by some definition, always exist. But we have the power to change the definition. The poor should have food in their pantries, doctors in their neighborhoods and beauty in their lives. In my vision, no nation in the world will tolerate anything less, even for its poorest residents.
But perhaps I’m not setting a high enough standard. Perhaps I’m being too realistic. Raising the lifestyles of the poor is a relatively simple matter of reallocating resources we already possess. I’m not meeting my own standard for an idealized, unrealistic vision.
So I think the poor, and everyone else, should also have access to beautiful, unaltered nature.
In nearly every literary tradition across the world, untrammeled nature remains a standard for beauty. A Libyan novelist writes movingly about the virgin sand dunes of the deep Sahara. A Canadian poet describes a frozen lake in the north woods and a pygmy storyteller sings of the subtle, changeable beauty of the African jungle.
Nature’s beauty is, often, the standard against which we measure manmade art. Art elaborates on nature’s image. Without reference to nature, could we even define beauty?
I have been privileged to visit most of the planet’s ecosystems: from subtropical deserts to the floor of the ocean; from the grasslands to the tropical rain forest, the temperate rain forest, the temperate deciduous forest, the alpine tundra and the northern boreal forest called the taiga. Each and every one of them was beautiful. I haven’t yet seen the arctic tundra or a polar ice cap in person, but I’m certain they are beautiful and I hope I get the chance.
Every natural environment is beautiful in ways we cannot imagine. We must preserve natural beauty for precisely that reason, because we could not conceive of natural beauty on our own without nature’s inspiration.
People who design modern zoos use a criterion they call “flight distance.” Most animals have a prescribed distance they would run, if frightened, before they turned to look back. If a zoo enclosure is built at least a little larger than the animal’s flight distance, zoo creatures are calmer and healthier. If designers don’t allow for flight distance, the animals are neurotic, combative and less healthy.
Besides beauty, wilderness also provides us with the psychological flight distance. As long as there are empty places on the planet, our minds can flee to those empty places when they have the need.
So in my vision, every unique ecosystem across the globe would be preserved in its natural state. Perhaps we could reserve at least 20 percent of each nation’s landmass for wilderness, allocated to each biome, each ecosystem. In the United States, 20 percent of our grasslands, 20 percent of our forests, 20 percent of our swamps and at least 20 percent of our deserts would be permanently preserved as God created them, open to visitors but not vehicles. Whatever natural resources they contain would remain unexploited, by popular consent, forever, as a testament of our commitment to beauty, and to abundance.
Because I want my great-grandchildren to live in a world that is beautiful and …
As I’ve pointed out repeatedly in this book, there are two variables affecting abundance in our world. The first is supply. We depend on the planet’s natural resources. Those resources are, by definition, limited. The second variable is demand. Demand we can control.
Demand for resources is also influenced by two primary variables. The efficiency of our usage determines how much of the world’s natural bounty each of us requires. We can improve efficiency, to some extent. The second variable affecting demand is population. No matter how much we improve efficiency, there will still be an ultimate limit to how many people we can support.
After I acknowledge that limitation, I find myself thinking, well, why are we talking about a maximum human population? Why not aim for an ideal population instead.
Because I’ve already set aside 20 percent of every earthly biome for wilderness, in my mind, I might set my own ideal human population at 20 percent less than our current population of about 6.9 billion people. That would put us at about 5.5 billion people. That was the world population in the early 1990s.
What the heck. While I’m idealizing why don’t I allocate a little more room for solving the world hunger problem and take us back 30 percent, to a total human population of 4.8 billion. Just about like 1984, when I celebrated by 25th birthday. That’s a shocker, isn’t it? Our population was 30 percent smaller when Ronald Reagan was elected to his second term as President of the United States.
When I suggest something like this in public, some idiot always asks me whom I’m going to kill. I get letters from people who ask me which of their children they should give up. Let’s kill no one. Let’s keep all of our children. But if each of us reproduced ourselves once, if each human couple had two children, from now on, then the total human population would soon begin to decrease. Of course we will not prescribe death or childlessness for anyone. We don’t need to. We can simply agree, as a species, that two parents and two children make a great family.
We could have wild elephants and mountain gorillas in a world of 5 billion people. We could have oceans teeming with fish and vast grasslands where bison and wildebeest roam wild, forever. We could provide clean water for every human baby, food for every new mother and a warm, comfortable bed for every old man, always.
Well, why not?
If we commit ourselves to abundance, we can halt the irreversible tide of species destruction. We could celebrate the diversity of life and set a standard of preserving it, by the mutual consent of people around the world. All our food could be naturally wholesome and nutritious, except when we’d rather it be otherwise. We could live on farms or we could live in cities, as we wish. We could live at the edge of the mountain wilderness, or the edge of the ocean. Some of us would no doubt choose to work very little. Others would work hard to achieve something – new discoveries or greater personal wealth.
In a stable human population, corporate success will be determined by some criterion other than the greatest number of products at the lowest price. The value of scale will be reduced; the value of quality will be enhanced. Products and companies that support our shared values of beauty, abundance and the preservation of nature will earn more. Quality will be defined, in part, by how well a product or a company supports those values. Innovative, conscientious companies will succeed. Less innovative companies will try harder. Our possessions will be more beautiful and more durable.
As our population declines, territorial conflicts will become absurd. With more land, more energy and more food available each year, military conflict will seem more wasteful and more stupid than ever. We can decommission most of our armies. Rather than competing with faster jets and more powerful bombs, we will race to see who can preserve more natural beauty and attract more tourists. Who can print the most beautiful books? Who can build the most reliable and elegant machines? Who has the best skiing? Who has the best beach?
A few hundred pages back at the beginning of this book, I challenged you to form a personal vision that idealizes our future. I challenged you to be unrealistic. Now I find I’ve failed to meet my own standard. Why is it unrealistic to believe we can agree that clean air and water are important and limited resources? What’s so crazy about wanting a couple of kids, and no more? How insane is it to think we could imagine a world of beauty and abundance?
That’s what I’m going to aim for.
Reprinted with permission from Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want, published by B&A Books, 2010.