Attempting to See Past the Ends of our Noses

Sometimes, when faced with complex challenges, competing interests and no obvious pathway forward, the best approach is to step away from the present and figure out where you need to end up in the long term. If you look far enough into the future, many things that currently seem impossible, become possible. Once you have a clear idea of where you want to go, you can backcast your way from that future to the present and create the intermediate steps that will make the journey possible.

Humanity is facing many complex challenges and in response, a group of folks in a small mountain town in British Columbia, Canada, has written a succinct description of the necessary elements of a sustainable and resilient civilization. They are using the description to start conversations about the long-term future (2-5 centuries from now) in the hope that the discussions will help shift the current paradigm.

The description is called the Aspen Proposal (after the phrase in this post’s heading) and can be found on a dedicated website at

The Proposal has been modified slightly at least three times since its first publication as a result of feedback received in online discussions, so any critique or suggestions would be welcomed. Also welcomed would be any assistance in sharing the Proposal as its dissemination is relying heavily on crowdsourcing.

Nice to see you again.

I’m glad that proposal was short, so, not too painful to go through it. But that also makes it short on anything about how we get there. The 1 billion population seems pretty arbitrary, but it would be sustainable. My big question with anything like this is, who decides what parts of the world, which includes the cultures that live there now, will be abandoned? There are nice nods to culture in this proposal, but a plan to reduce population can’t be implemented without a reduction in population.

To me, my own culture should probably be one of the first to be eliminated. It’s nice for the individual, but it’s destructive for the planet. It’s also very powerful, so I doubt it will vote itself out. This has been true since the earliest empires, and you could say it’s true even in primitive cultures. Small tribes would get big enough to need more resources and start harming their food and water supplies, so they would split and migrate. Groups living in harmony with nature are rare in history and they didn’t leave us a handbook of how they did it.

And let’s not forget Camus

“Never, in peace or war, commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment… The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.”

Yes, the Proposal is deliberately brief, with few details about the politics, economics or technologies of this future world. That is partly to avoid a lot of arguing with current vested interests and partly because we think many different civilizations could meet the necessary parameters that we have outlined. We are comfortable in leaving the decisions about those details to our descendants.

And we have also deliberately avoided, for now at least, getting into a discussion about how we get there. That will be a great conversation to have in a roomful of disparate interests who all agree on our destination, but for now we want to focus on getting some agreement on where that destination is.

I am not sure the Proposal requires the elimination of any cultures. It will require some changes to all cultures to recognize our kinship with the rest of life. The global population was 1 billion in the year 1800 and, if anything, there were more functioning cultures then, than there are now.

We haven’t come across an indigenous handbook that explains how to live in balance with the rest of our family, but the book “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer has some very powerful insights into that.

Sorry, just more feel good yapping to make the authors of it feel good about themselves. I particularly got a kick out of this: “At a minimum, it provides a starting point for discussion about the long term future of our species.”

What do you think’s been happening for the last 40+ years about global climate change? What’s changed since then? Almost nothing.

Discussion? Give me a break. We currently have the richest man in the world tweeting, tweeting! (the exact opposite of discussion) tweeting crap to literally millions of followers. And have you read the news? The MAGAnuts can barely ties their own shoes…and they’re generally more intelligent than half the populations in various third world countries and are close to a successful long term coupe in the US.

The only way something’s really going to change is if the disease of capitalism is cured. And that’s not going to happen by publishing feel good “proposals” and “we are the world” crap, but by some accident of technology that makes money obsolete.

Once capitalism is behind us, and the entire civilization’s basic physical needs are met, THEN religion will wane, and THEN we can start discussing plans for 200+ years in the future.

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cuthberj, you might be right. This could just be a vanity project on our part.

I infer from your comments that you also believe we are in a mess. But whereas you believe the situation is hopeless, barring an “accident of technology that makes money obsolete” we believe that we can still do something to change our society’s trajectory. And we think being clear about what it would take for human civilization to be sustainable is a reasonable starting point that has not been central in any of the discussions about climate change or invasive species or habitat loss, etc. etc,

So while you may not agree that our approach is useful, I would still be interested in hearing if there is anything in the Aspen Proposal that you believe is particularly problematic.

An excellent source. But also kind of makes my point. You reference 1800, which was the height of colonialization and destruction of cultures. Indigenous cultures didn’t have a plan for the rest of the world, and the ways that they worked with nature were tied up with their beliefs. That’s made it difficult for the cultures with science to understand and appreciate them. It’s bad enough that we moved on to industrialization before dealing with ancient beliefs internally. It made the clash with the indigenous worse.

Too much history to cover in just a few sentences here. My point is, live in the present, if caring and compassion is good, find a way to do that in the world we have now.

One of my important takeaways from Braiding Sweetgrass was the understanding that indigenous cultures were fully aware of our species’ tendency to take more from the rest of nature than was sustainable. The stories of the Wendigo, with its insatiable appetite, was a reflection of that part of our nature.

So in response, the people developed the cultural tools (stories, rituals, ceremonies, etc) that reinforced on a daily basis the need for reciprocity and care. Now it is up to us to develop our own cultural tools to help us fit in to our larger family.

Your advice regarding living in the present is good, and part of the caring and compassion that we need to demonstrate must apply to the non-human members of our family. (Of course we must also set aside a bit of time each day to share the Aspen Proposal with others.)

"5. We are now at least talking about circular economies, where materials are cycled rather than discarded, and this will be a great field for engineers and designers for the next century or so. Right now, there are few economists and organizations openly questioning the wisdom of economic growth so we still have a lot of work to do to make steady-state economics mainstream and to redesign our economies so they don’t need to grow. Economic vibrancy and a decent standard of living do not require continuous growth. "

Hi kent.

That would be an end to the current economic system. You are calling for an end to capitalism Kent? Whats your thoughts on the club of Rome? They seem to be right on the money. Thanks

I think one of the strengths of the Aspen Proposal is that it lays out the necessary elements of a sustainable civilization, but doesn’t try to prescribe the political, economic or technological systems that will be compatible with those elements. We presume there could be a variety.

So we are not calling for an end to capitalism or socialism or anything in particular. The current flavour of capitalism will likely have a problem with a shrinking population and economy and then a stable state, but whether there is a different flavour of capitalism that could work in that situation, we don’t know. And at this point, we don’t really care. As long as the basic conditions are met, civilization should survive. And this is about survival, not a utopia.

Expansion and growth are what makes capitalism what is is. Its in its DNA. Take away this and there is no other flavour. Rather - you have another beast

I do appreciate your willingness to take criticism, very rare. Overall it strikes me as just far too polyanna-ish, vague goals, etc. If you’re serious, I would focus on getting someone like Bill Gate’s attention. His foundation has done quite a bit of the basics, the nitty gritty stuff. I.e. you can’t talk about even 50 years into the future if a large percentage of civilization doesn’t even have a toilet, are illiterate, barely above subsistence living.

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cuthbertj In our hundreds of brief exchanges with folks on social media, it is surprising how often we run into someone who is triggered by the very mention of Bill Gates. Or Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum. If nothing else, we are learning a lot about the political and social landscape.
Bill Gates is on our list, as is Klaus Schwab, as is Pope Francis, (if you haven’t read Laudato Si, I recommend it. Apart from population the Pope has almost arrived at the Aspen Proposal). We are open to talking to everyone.
I don’t consider the Aspen Proposal polyanna-ish but rather fairly realistic. We realize the population may well come down in more horrible ways than folks deciding to have fewer kids, but we do think that is avoidable.
The goals aren’t vague. One billion is not vague. But you are right that there is a huge amount of detail that will be left to our descendants to figure out. And that, we think, is appropriate. So far, in all the discussions we have had, no one has shaken our belief that we have correctly identified the basic and necessary elements of a sustainable civilization.
But if someone does, we will likely modify them.


Greta has put it on the table for you. Surely you aint anti - Greta.??

It seems you acknowledge that the idea sustainable cultures has been around for a long time. Why do you think those ideas will win out? With a billion people who have the technology to go anywhere they want, how do you stop them? How do you maintain the boundaries?

ruleswithoutrulers, I have a great deal of respect for Greta. What she appears to be saying is that none of our current or past systems and ideologies have worked. We will need to find/create a system that works in a steady-state economy, and I am confident we will, but we don’t need to spell that out now. We should get a few more folks thinking about it though, like those at the CASSE.

lausten, I think those ideas will win out because they align with the reality of our dependence on the rest of nature and because there really aren’t any viable alternatives.

I am not sure there will be a need to stop people from moving around. I think, given that we have lots of healthy cultures and communities around the globe, people will tend to have an affinity for the ones they were raised in. And for those that don’t, they probably should move around. I expect boundaries could be maintained as they are now, but I am content to leave that up to our descendants to decide.

Maybe I’m not understanding footnotes 6 and 7. They imply some sort of designation for most of the world, where it “manages itself”. We’ve done so much damage lately, I think there is a lot more cleanup than you acknowledge, but put that aside for a minute. Without laws and enforcement, or some pretty strong education (which someone is going to claim is indoctrination), people are going to go where there are resources that they can get. Even those who don’t want stuff, want space and privacy, their version of freedom.

The Unabomber is a good study in this trade-off. He thought of himself as free because he had his place in the woods where no one bothered him. But he had few choices within that freedom. Most people are willing to give up that kind of independence so they can have more choices in a world with other people. But, you can’t make everyone happy with movies and entertainment, and parks. And, he used the remnants of civilization and visited it to sustain himself, not the least of which was the protection of the land he lived on that was provided by the society he didn’t like.

Our nature is to question the status quo. It promotes progress but can also promote disruption.

Okay I see what you are asking. My comment about moving around referred to folks being able to emigrate from one country to another.

While we think that several generations of cultural change that reinforce the idea that we are part of nature and dependent upon it, will result in some improvement to our tendencies to mess it up, we don’t assume that laws and rules won’t be needed. We might still need to designate areas for no human activity, others for no permanent human habitation and others for settlements. Again, we think the details can be left to our descendants.

An important consideration is that with only 1 billion people on the planet there should be ample resources to meet everyone’s needs without using the majority of the lands and oceans. As well, with only 1 billion people, we can afford to make mistakes, as we surely will. We could afford to have a fair bit of non-compliance with societal expectations without major consequences on the ecosystems.

I’m not so sure about that. Or, from the proposal

Local production may sometimes be less efficient, but it produces greater resiliency and far more interesting cultures.

Actually, we’re way less efficient now, but we are low on resiliency.

I don’t if it’s possible to make a case one way or another, so much of this is hypothetical. I agree that we should take a global view that includes future generations and all living things, but I don’t think very many others do.

I’m writing a sci-fi book. I solve the population problem by having aliens come down, build a spaceport, and offer relocation to two other planets that do live sustainably, and therefore have the extra room. They see all living things as related, but their culture started out that way, 10,000 years before they developed space travel.

I have them looking to reduce the Earth pop to 4 billion, because that’s the point where there’s enough nitrogen in the atmosphere to grow enough food to feed ourselves. The question of the story is, who wants to leave and who wants to stay and why? Part of the answer is, no matter how good things are, somebody is not going to be happy.