Dear Austinites of 2015,
As a resident of the Shoal Creek watershed here in Austin, Texas, in the year 2050, I write to you to share a message of hope and good news. I know you live in a time when the global situation appears to be deteriorating quickly. It’s true. It seems almost unfathomable how things could get better, given the path you are on with accelerating climate change, biodiversity loss, unhealthy personal toxic burdens, and drastic income inequality. It took a massive wake-up call to bring about this shift but, as Churchill said in the early 20th century, “You can always count on [people] to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.”
We reached a tipping point a couple decades ago when the citizens of Earth collectively demanded that we “do no harm.” In part due to the inspiration of Pope Francis, our thinking was re-oriented once we accepted that it was simply not OK to harm others – other people, animals, ecosystems. This meant no pollution or toxics releases, no harmful pesticides and herbicides, and a drastic reduction in pharmaceuticals with much higher testing standards. We accepted a credo that posits: We are all connected. As the founder of the modern Biomimicry movement, Janine Benyus told us there are no individuals – we are all colonies of cells, bacteria, genes and more. Our mutual success and well-being is the business of everyone.
This connectedness also meant we stopped tolerating our neighbors feeling pain, illness and hunger that could be easily resolved. We came to know that hunger and healthcare are not about economics they are about access. Universal access to healthy food and health care is now the norm. When it comes to potential ecological or health impacts, the precautionary principle is now our standard. This approach to risk management states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action.
You are at a great point to expand industrial ecology degrees and cradle-to-cradle design thinking. Everything that comes from the biological nutrient cycle must be able to safely return to the Earth. Technical nutrients should remain within closed-loop industrial cycles.
Here are some of the details about what is true now, so you can use these future realities to guide your planning:
- Complete life cycle assessments are integrated into all products and services. The RoHS and WEEE standards for selling electronics into Europe became a baseline approach for all product design and safety.
- Labeling and reporting are much more standardized and transparent now so ethical purchasing is extremely easy. Every bar code and product website includes data about the impact on local economies, environmental sustainability, and demonstration of their workforce values, supply chain, materials/ingredients, and certifications for both the company and product. Food products also report on animal welfare and bioavailable nutrition.
- Our economists are facile with measuring not only the returns on financial capital but also the returns on social capital, natural capital, built capital, and human capital. Because we measure and value these returns our investments in buildings, communities, art, human development are radically different than the short-sighted decisions your peers are faced with to yield quarterly financial profits only.
- We continued to nurture the culture of innovation and experimentation and from your already strong Austin Technology Incubator we expanded to a new Water Technology Incubator which supported the R&D and product development which together ushered in the era of decentralized City services.
- Many things became possible when we unlocked the energy challenge and developed reliable, safe, clean ways to harness the energy of the sun and the earth and or water, store it and retrieve it in an affordable way.
- Austin used the motivation of the billions of dollars it would cost Central Texas to avoid ever going into non-attainment with the EPA Ozone standards.
- We live in communities that generate and utilize the vast majority of our own energy, water, and organics. Private businesses provide subscription services to residents for food, water, energy and composting system maintenance for residents. Our utility staffers now spend much more time in neighborhoods maintaining the safety and performance of our decentralized network of water catchment systems and community energy nodes. They provide oversight, inspections, continuity and sharing of constantly evolving best practices.
- Parallel to that innovation we aggressively pursued innovation and policies designed to draw down CO2 to reverse climate change. One of our key activities was incentivizing biomimetic ecosystem-inspired agriculture.
Regarding mobility, I recall the City being at a critical level of congestion, detracting from air quality, time with family and loved ones and lost productivity. 2015 is the year that the Rocky Mountain Institute tapped Austin to be the lead implementation city for a “Mobility Transformation”. That effort really catalyzed the research, innovation and testing of the systems we now use including inter-operable transit data, driverless transit as well as driverless vehicles. We now have more logistics managers than drivers.
Commuting, indeed most mobility is viewed as a service to be custom ordered and on demand (the right vehicle for the right job), rather than fixed assets to manage. Oh, and we no longer use fossil fuels to power our vehicles. Mostly they are powered with electricity generated on-site. The few fuel-driven vehicles run cleanly on biofuels. Our shared-use streets are much quieter, more pleasant and safer now and loss of life due to vehicles has dwindled to at or near zero in most years.
- Most thankfully the implementation of the Imagine Austin plan led to more accessible, walkable, complete communities. Today all homes have fiber optic networks and all neighborhoods have collaborative high-tech work spaces. These spaces, suitable for co-working, teleworking to jobs across town and across the globe, attending conferences remotely and Simulcast gatherings are now the way conferences happen. We do a lot less transporting of bodies and a lot more transmitting of images. This newly liberated time allows for more exercise, outdoor pursuits and being civically engaged.
- People refer to their watershed and bioregion as much as they do their political district and other jurisdictions. One of the unique features of this governance is all upstream and downstream bioregions are recognized as inextricably linked and must make resource decisions together.
- Interdisciplinary teams comprised of multiple City department, nonprofit organizations and private business interests work together to approach geographic areas holistically. The efforts of Restore Rundberg and Spirit of East Austin foreshadow the new epoch of collaboration you are entering.
- Food production is nearly all generated from Organic plant-based sources and lab-developed proteins.
- Logistics have been worked out such that nearly all food is grown locally or delivered direct to homes and businesses. People spend very little time in grocery stores.
- Nearly all organic waste is harvested, processed and re-applied within bioregions. Sophisticated next-gen composting toilets are the standard now. We can hardly believe we utilized drinking water for flushing toilets and allowed those soil-building nutrients to be whisked away rather than used locally.
- One of the core things that is different now is our approach to education. Since wearable technology and embedded data receivers make information universally accessible, learning facts and testing is no longer the focus. We now orient our personal development around relationship building, effective communication skills, health and wellness education, development of compassionate and ethical beings, as well as ethical, critical problem solving and design thinking.
Of course we have our own set of challenges to deal with now. Our cities employ large numbers of data integrity units, cybersecurity officers, identity management investigators, and artificial intelligence courts. Ethics management is our chief concern these days. At least we are not worrying about whether we will have enough water or food to eat or whether the planet is going to shake us off like a dog shaking off water after emerging from Lady Bird Lake.
We hail the heroes of your era who are speaking wisdom and truth. We hope you will encourage others to take seriously the research and teachings of Janine Benyus and the legions of biomimicry developers including Austin’s own Cathy Zarsky of Biomimicry Texas. Make sure people connect with the important works of Paul Hawken author of important works such as DRAWDOWN, Blessed Unrest, and The Ecology of Commerce where he coined the term restorative economy. Encourage and support the social entrepreneurs and the people demanding fair treatment for all citizens regardless of their skin color, income, religion, nationality, education or other factors. We urge you to hold them up these visionaries you are not content to just write compelling books, but to be actively engaged in shaping the future of our culture and planet. Please celebrate and support them and help their ideas spread. You’ll be glad you did!
Brandi Clark Burton grew up in Austin,Texas and imagines the above future largely based on developments in her home town but hopes that Austin’s future can set a new standard for cities everywhere. Brandi has been a social entrepreneur in the spaces of mobility, civic engagement, ethics education, environmental engagement and more. She is also an inspiring public speaker and trusted green advisor. After founding the Austin EcoNetwork and serving as Chief Inspiration Officer for more than a decade, she now serves in the role of Senior Policy Advisor to City of Austin Mayor Adler. Brandi is proud of the Community Climate Plan and 288MW of solar power purchase agreement that were approved during the first 9 months that this new 10-1 City Council has been in office and she looks forward to much more progress and innovation.