The oldest independently-verified person was French woman Jeanne Calment who lived a pretty astonishing 122 years from 1875 to 1997. When she was born, Queen Victoria still had another 26 years on the throne and when she died Tony Blair had just been elected for the first time. Impressive right?
Well maybe not for long. All the evidence suggests we are going to be living longer. As the decades go by and medical advances continue, ages of 100+ are going to become more common.
In all likelihood people are going to start surpassing dear old Jeanne. Even if they only equal her record, it means there are people who will be born this decade who will still be alive in 2150. When you think about that, it is quite incredible. As a society we need to have this in mind when we are planning and making policy decisions.
In a time of 24-hour news, general elections seemingly every year and manifestos being made up on the fly, it may seem overboard to be planning for 2150. Especially with such immediate issues like healthcare pressure, population growth or terrorism.
The whole Greek proverb of how ‘a society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit’ can seem a bit metaphysical when we have overcrowded hospitals right now. But the crises we are facing now require a greater degree of long-term planning than our society has ever been able to muster.
I am talking primarily about climate change but also the dramatic societal shifts which are going to come with tech advances and artificial intelligence (AI).
A few years ago I tried to create a habit where I would continually leave presents to ‘Future William’ (who I always imagined to be slightly taller and handsomer). This didn’t necessarily mean long-term strategic planning. It could simply be leaving some clothes out the evening before work so I can just roll out of bed and get dressed. It could be sticking a few chocolate bars in my backpack in case I got sent out of the office and couldn’t get lunch. It might be sticking some milk in the freezer before I go on holiday so I can have brew when I get home.
All of these things were to make life easier for (the hopefully taller and handsomer) Future William.
I am proposing that our policymakers start adopting a similar approach to governance. Let’s start making a world which will be littered with presents for 2150 Citizen. A world that is cleaner, kinder and happier.
In that spirit, I’d like to propose some lovely gifts we could prepare for 2150 Citizen. Remember, this person we are helping is going to be born this decade. They are not a concept, they are our fellow countrymen and women.
The first gift would be making our future habitable. Global heating is unequivocally happening and it is beyond any doubt caused by humans. The scientific consensus and evidence is overwhelming. It already is causing serious humanitarian issues and these pale into insignificance compared with what’s coming if we don’t halt our love of greenhouses gases. If you do not agree or believe this you have either not looked at the evidence or are willfully ignoring facts.
With this in mind we need to make sure that Citizen 2150’s planet has breathable clean air, is not underwater due to sea rises and has a diverse range of species to enjoy.
The great thing about tackling the climate crisis is that we know what we need to do and the technology is already there. First things first, let’s look at that Greek proverb and start planting some trees. A report by Swiss university ETH Zürich found that the Earth’s land could support 4.4 billion hectares of continuous tree cover. That is 1.6 billion more than the existing 2.8 billion hectares.
Once mature, these new forests could store 205 billion tonnes of carbon – about two thirds of the 300 billion tonnes of carbon that has been released into the atmosphere as a result of human activity since the Industrial Revolution. This will have the added benefit of reducing soil erosion and creating habitats for thousands of endangered species.
What is the worst that can happen? We end up with loads of beautiful forests! But planting trees will not be enough and the practice is often used by large companies to ‘green wash’ themselves.
Another big step we can do is to subsidise the renewable energy industry. One of the reasons that coal is cheap is because we have used it for so long. The longer something is used, the better we get at using it and the cheaper it gets.
Giving renewables the same TLC will drive down the price, meaning that using green energy will not just be an environmental necessity, it will be an economic one. This must not be done on the backs of those on low incomes. Subsidising green energy and putting a carbon price on fossil fuel emissions have been hugely successful at reducing carbon emissions in the UK since 2010.
But the cost has been spread equally between households through their energy bills – meaning the relative impact on poor people is higher. Some 23% of households – or 291,000 homes – in Wales live in fuel poverty (meaning they spend 10% or more of their income on energy costs). We can not make this mistake again as it turns people off climate action.
Another huge driver of CO2 emissions comes from our consumption. With furniture and clothing so cheap now it makes much more sense to scrap things instead of repair them. Also, there is no reason for manufacturers to build things that last as they then won’t be able to sell as much.
What if we moved to a system where when something broke it was the responsibility of the manufacturer to fix it? The onus would be on them to make things that last. Instead of building in obsolescence into phones it would be in Apple’s financial interest to adapt and update them. Yes, things will cost more initially, but then should last for a very long time.
The list of climate-related presents is massive (reducing meat consumption and eating insects for example) but I wanted to add a few non-environmental presents for our Citizen 2150. So present two would be to give them a voice.
At the moment, our democracy is broken to the point it isn’t really a democracy anymore. The ‘first past the post’ system leads to ‘safe seats’ that never change hands and encourages people to vote tactically instead of who they would actually want to govern them. In the last election the amount of votes per seat won varied wildly. For instance, the Scottish National Party had a seat for every 26,000 votes it received. By contrast the Greens had 857,513 votes and only won one seat. Labour needed to win more than 50,000 votes to win a seat while the Conservatives only needed to win 38,000 votes to send a Tory to Parliament.
Giving Citizen 2150 the ability to choose who governs them would be even better than that Alexa home speaker you still haven’t taken out of the box.
Present three – for crying out loud give them some leisure time!
We are moving to a time when robots will be able to do the vast majority of jobs . More than 10 million UK workers are at high risk of being replaced by robots within 15 years. This does not have to be a bad thing. This actually offers a unique opportunity.
If instead of just abandoning these people to a job market that no longer needs their skills, we could do things differently and escape the fate that befell our towns after the pit closures. If we fully embraced automation and just went for growth we could potentially generate enough revenue to pay every citizen a universal basic income. This would be enough to live off and feasibly could be enough to give up work if wished.
Imagine the innovations we would make if we didn’t have to work 40+ hours a week to keep the wolf from the door. Imagine the art people could create. People could take risks and start businesses knowing that at the end of the day they would still have a roof over their heads. As our population ages we could reduce pressure on the care system by making it viable for people to give up work to care for a loved one.
This is an example of the best gift we can give ourselves and our kids – a desire to attempt new things. Let’s build a society where no good idea goes untested.
It is time to stop simply fighting the fires as they spring up. We need to start removing the kindling.