Imagining a World of Sustainable Abundance

Here’s an early example of my efforts to use narrative as a tool for vision building. The story was originally presented at TEDxNASA@Silicon Valley.


Today is January 29, 2055.   It’s a crisp sunny afternoon in Asheville North Carolina where we’re gathered at the home of Miguel Jose Rodriguez. Miguel turns 100 years old today.

He’s sitting right over there. I  know you can’t believe this spry looking gentlemen wearing a crisply ironed guayabera and sipping a locally produced beer could possibly be a day over 80. That’s one of the advantages of living in 2055.

From all the noise you can tell Miguel is not alone today. Far from it. Five generations of his family have come together to celebrate this most important day.

Most of them didn’t have to travel very far. You see in this future, where work is distributed and often virtual, young adults don’t scatter in search of the good life.  Families stay closer together.

So today, some of the younger partygoers walked the few blocks back to the family home. Others rode their electric bikes.  Most of the older folks took the incredibly efficient mass transit. No one came by car. In fact, only a couple of the older uncles in the family even bother to own personal automobiles anymore. Why put up with the hassle when the local mass transit system is so good? Besides there are plenty of share car services available if you need one.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Miguel’s daughter Allison, she’s in the kitchen right now helping to fix the dinner, she came from Atlanta.   Her 200 mile trip took about 45 minutes on the new electric bullet train.

There are lots of things that Miguel enjoys about this world he’s living in. But, like most people his age, sometimes he just can’t resist talking about the Good old days. In fact, that’s what he’s doing right now to a group of quietly attentive great grandkids.  They’ve heard these stories hundreds of times before, but Pap-Pap is entertaining and besides their mothers have all told them to be respectful or else. Some things aren’t so different in the future.

“You should have seen the house your Mamaw and I lived in, back in the day. Nearly 5000 square feet. It was so big that we could get lost in it. In fact, I remember the time we lost little Allison. We looked everywhere for almost half a day. Finally, Mamaw  found her buried under an avalanche of clothes in her closet. That girl never could keep her room clean.”

Little Inez, Pappa’s 13 -year old great granddaughter always perks up when he gets to this part of the story.  Like her great aunt Allison she loves clothes, but she can’t imagine anyone having enough clothe t cause an avalanche. What a waste of space and time that would be.

Inez designs almost all of her own clothes. She uses the family 3-d fabricator to print out the final product. Whenever she gets tired of an outfit she just chucks it in the recycler and it becomes the raw material for her next design.

The best part is when she posts her designs online for others to rate. She’s even had a couple of her outfits copied by other girls. Inez doesn’t dream of an avalanche of clothes, but an avalanche of thumbs up appearing next to her designs would be pretty cool.

Inez has been to the place where Pappas house use to be, even though the houses are long gone–cleared away because it was too expensive to bring them up to modern environmental standards. In their place is one of the most beautiful parks in this city filled with green spaces.

She even knows what happened to some of Pappa’s house. It was recycled to use in building the affordable city owned apartments where her friend Bobby lives.  He might be more than just a friend but she’s not sure about that yet. She is sure that she is jealous of his way cool apartment complex.

It generates more than 100% of its energy onsite, has the latest rainwater recycling system and the most beautiful windmills in the entire city.

Inez’s daydream is interrupted by Poppa’s booming voice. For an old man he can still command attention.

“One thing I don’t understand is why you kids don’t  go to school. Why when I was your age I had to get up at daybreak every morning for nine months out of the year and trudge off to school . We took our education seriously.

Inez tries not to laugh out loud. Some of Pappa’s ideas are so old fashioned. Why would anyone only learn nine months out of the year? Inez is always learning, and she loves it. Right now she’s learning Mandarin from her friend, Kim, in Shanghai.  She’s learning botany while working with her mom in the community garden.  She can’t imagine how Pappa could have learned anything sitting in a classroom all day.

“And another thing,” Pappa is on a roll now. But here comes Inez’s mother, Susan, just in time to rescue the captive audience.

“C’mon kids we need help setting the table for dinner.”

Inez grabs the hand of her 5 year old cousin Lilly and escapes with the rest of the cousins.

Pappa looks a little disappointed that he’s losing his audience, but he smiles. He knows they’ll be back soon enough.

I don’t know about you, but I would really love to live in that future and I believe that we can. We have the ability to create a world of Sustainable Abundance where it is possible for all of us to live fulfilling lives, to be part of stronger communities, and to enjoy higher levels of well-being without destroying our planet.

We’re already making some important strides in that direction. The green movement is certainly here to stay. But there is one piece that we have not paid enough attention to. If we really want to create a positive sustainable future we need to create a New Story to go along with it.

I’m not suggesting a new green pr campaign of eco-propaganda or any of the conventional external ways we think about story. I’m talking about story that lives at such a deep level that we rarely acknowledge its existence. It’s a story that we often call, for lack of a better name, our culture. It informs our fears and our dreams, tells us what we value, and most importantly shows us how to put those values into practice.

The problem right now is that we are telling the wrong stories about sustainability. We focus on impending doom and disaster. We believe that we can scare humanity into going green.

Our sustainable future does not have to be so bleak. It can be a world filled with abundance, where sustainability is a core value. This is not some vision of a far-fetched green utopia.  It is grounded in what is possible.

This new story will keep the best of the past, recognize the realities of today, and provide us a blueprint for building a better tomorrow.  In this world sustainability will be accessible to everyone, not just a privileged few who can afford to pay a green premium.

For the past century we have defined abundance in terms of consumption.  We have been persuaded that prosperity was directly linked to having more things. We now know that this mindset has caused very real damage to our planet.

What we are learning is that it hasn’t been doing much for us either. A whole slew of recent studies suggest that the link between material wealth and well-being is much more tenuous than we believed. In fact, many of those studies find that after a certain level the relationship is actually negative. The more stuff we have the less happy we are. It turns out that if everyone in the world had as much stuff as the average American we would have 6 billion very unhappy people living on one very unhealthy planet.

Sustainable Abundance does not reject materialism. It recognizes the real value and true cost of objects. Let’s be honest, to live in this world we will have to give up our Hummers and McMansions. In their place we will design objects that have both beauty and utility, are built to last and easily repurposed when their usefulness has ended.

Some would argue that we cannot afford a world of Sustainable Abundance.  They see consumption as the only path to economic growth. That view is locked in an old story where economics is a zero-sum game. If I win you must lose.

An abundance economy is based on monetizing those things that are not limited — knowledge, creativity, innovation, and altruism. It is up to us to decide the relative value of things vs. ideas vs. social participation.  There has been much talk about a new triple line balance sheet for business. Why not the same for individuals and families and communities?  Why shouldn’t happiness have a value? As we redefine success to include being a part of the community, finding time to laugh, love and live fully, we will find new ways to extend the good life to many more people. Isn’t that the real purpose of any economy?

This World of Sustainable Abundance is within our reach. Many people are already working to help create it. These individuals are already living our new story. Most of them can’t articulate it, many don’t even realize it, but they are the heroes of this positive future.

It is time for the rest of us to step up and join them in creating this story. We must share with others our vision for a world of Sustainable Abundance. We must begin to show that we really do value equity, individual fulfillment, and protecting our planet. By our words and actions we can inspire humanity to embrace this new story.

Speaking of Story, let’s check back in on Pappa’ birthday celebration.

Looks like the kids did a great job of setting that table. Wow that is some spread. The table is covered with homegrown and locally sourced foods, handmade breads and homemade pies.

The family band, a group of cousins, aunt and uncles who share a love for playing music, are warming up. In just a few minutes they’ll be playing Happy Birthday.

Pappa’s sitting at the head of the table, eyes slightly closed, tapping his foot along to the music. He has a big smile on his face and I know what he’s thinking. He’s proud of his family. They’ve created a world that really is much better than the good old days. He’s just glad he’s here  to share it with them.

I hope we all get to share in that world too.