Why the Next 10 Years Will Be Nothing Like the Last 10 Years

On YES! Magazine's 10th anniversary, we look at trends that are changing our culture, our relationship to the earth, and our sense of self.

Here is a quick puzzle: The mayor of which city has vowed to make his city the greenest in the U.S.? Are you thinking of  Seattle? Portland? Maybe Boulder or another city known for its environmental ethics?

Try freeway-clogged Los Angeles. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has vowed to plant 1 million trees during his tenure. As voters were electing L.A.'s first Latino mayor, they also approved, by a three-to-one margin, a $500-million bond measure to create habitat and wetlands, and capture storm water to use for irrigation and for recharging aquifers.

Ideas from the environmental fringe have become central to Los Angeles' future.

Perhaps this should not be a surprise. Los Angeles has been hitting environmental limits as air, water, and soil pollution compromise people's health and water and energy resources are overused.

Perhaps we are letting go of the old ways, as a snake sheds its skin, to find spaciousness to grow into new ways.

But as the environmental health of the city declined, people from the diverse communities of Los Angeles began taking action. They planted trees to cool sidewalks and buildings—and help cool the planet—organized to keep toxic waste out of their neighborhoods, helped save waterways drained by L.A.'s infamous thirst, and brought organic gardening and fresh produce into under-served communities.

These sorts of stories were once found only at the fringes of society. But ecologists tell us that the fringes are the most productive parts of ecosystems, and innovations from the fringes of society are today seeding a future that can sustain us all.

As today's crises deepen, these innovations become increasingly important. Our current direction is not sustainable. The environmental crisis, the growing gulf between rich and poor, the risks of all-out war—all of these crises have been building momentum. In particular:

  • Rising temperatures, melting ice caps, receding glaciers, and increasingly intense storm and drought cycles indicate that the climate is indeed changing, with results that may undermine life as we've known it.
  • The spread of antibiotic-resistant infections, avian flu, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and malaria results when poverty and displacement combine with inadequate or misdirected public health investment.
  • Spiking prices of oil and regional shortages suggest that fossil fuel extraction may not be able to keep up with rising energy use (especially with greater demand from China and India), and oil extraction may be at a peak.
  • The globalized corporate economy is increasingly treating First World workers—white, blue, and pink-collar alike—as workers in Third World countries have been treated by corporate employers for years. The resulting depression in wages and benefits is accelerating the divide between the wealthiest and people who rely on a paycheck for their livelihoods.
  • The world has become a more dangerous place as a result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Washington's unilateral foreign policy. Nuclear proliferation is also increasingly a danger.

Some are mesmerized as these blows follow, one after the other, and as the democratic channels erode that should provide us the means to deliberate and choose a course of action together.

But there's something else going on as well. Below the radar, ignored by the corporate media, people are creating the foundations for a different society. Many are working from the fringes—those fertile growing-edges of the culture. Some of them have been excluded from the system and therefore are freer of its seductions, others are on the inside but have chosen a different path. In every sector, they are developing ways to meet human needs for livelihood, security, meaning, and community—ways that can be sustained by the abundance the Earth offers and that also protect that abundance for all our children and grandchildren. These new approaches offer a path toward a sustainable future, but it is one that we can choose to take or not.

As the crises that have been building for decades accelerate, we can expect further confusion and groping for direction. Change of this magnitude can be terrifying, and can provoke a backlash as people long for the comfort of a familiar past.

If there is a clear path forward, though, our prospects are much improved. Clarity about the systemic causes of our crises and the systemic foundations of new approaches can help us avoid blame and pull together across the lines of black and white, blue and red, religion, culture, and gender to create real solutions.

We can choose to treat our moment in history not only as a time of crisis but also as an opportunity—a time when together we can be founders of a new era. In the coming time, our choice will become increasingly stark, and that is why the next 10 years will be nothing like the last 10.

Some, sensing the scope of the change, read it as a sign of the biblical End Times; the Left Behind series of novels telling of the end of human civilization have sold millions of copies based on that reading.

But perhaps this is, rather than a time of death, a time of rebirth. Perhaps we are letting go of the ways that constrain our future, as a snake sheds its skin, to find the spaciousness to grow into new ways. Perhaps what feels like disintegration is the in-between time of one era ending and, as Vaclav Havel says, another struggling to be born.

In a time of rapid change, when the bonds begin to fray that had tied us to established practices and institutions, there are more choices and also more dangers. The 10 trends highlighted in this issue from our 10 years of publishing YES! show possibilities of moving towards a life-sustaining future.

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