What I am about to write is going to sound radically implausible. Stick around and I will explain why it is not. If the United States of America is going to have its best possible future, it will do all of the following in under 20 years:
(1) Drastically slash fossil fuel use. This will entail that Americans take a trip by car no more than a three or four times a month on average (less for city dwellers and somewhat more for those in rural areas), with all other trips done via biking, pedestrianism, and public transit. The best way to do this is to get rid of oil subsidies (money that the government hands out to these dinosaur companies) and institute a tax to reflect the cost of enviromental damage, which would raise the overall cost of gas to around $12 a gallon or so. It will mean decarbonizing the electric grid (solar, hydro, wind, and nuclear are among options that may be pursued to some degree). Unless and until planes can be run carbon-free, we should have airports close four days a week and operate at their usual schedule three days a week (or in any case much less often than now) for trips inside the United States and even less often for international flights.
(2) Desubsidize animal agriculture, thereby reducing the amount of animal products Americans eat to just a few servings a month or less.
(3) Drastically expand automation and robotics to the point where many (most?) jobs currently done by human workers will instead be done by machine.
(4) Institute a universal basic income of $1,000 per month or so.
(5) Have an average work week under 30 hours with several weeks paid vacation annually.
(6) Decriminalize drugs and release non-violent / non-sex offenders from prison.
These 6 proposals are interlocking (we often cannot do one without the other, as I’ll explain shortly), mutually supportive (it is often true that doing one of these things makes these others cheaper or easier) and each is thoroughly do-able. First, here is why all of these things, in spite of their fantastical appearance, are do-able:
(1) Drastically slash fossil fuel use (Rare car/plane usage, common biking/walking/busing). Much of Europe already does this (though they could certainly do with even less car usage than is presently the case). The United States did this before the invention of the car, so of course doing this is not theoretically impossible. You might wonder how this could be feasible inside a modern world, but given fewer working hours, the extra time spent biking or bussing to work would be no big deal, and public transit would be much faster if everyone did it (think of busses running 24 hours a day and coming to stops every 10 or 15 minutes instead of every 30). People would choose to live closer to work instead of miles and miles off from civilization. People in rural areas could concentrate together into small cities or continue being “spread out,” but if they did the latter they would have to accept consequences of doing so (i.e. Public transit would be implausible except possibly on a once a week basis or so to go around to every house and pick people up to take them to the nearest town, alternately temporary rental of an electric car would be possible occasionally but also extremely expensive so as long as electricity is still generated even partly by fossil fuels, grocery delivery by truck would be the cheapest and most efficient way for rural residents to obtain them, but with fossil fuels at $12 a gallon that would also wind up being expensive until after trucks can be electric and the grid goes fully green).
(2) Desubsidize animal agriculture, thereby reducing the amount of animal products Americans eat to just a few servings a month or less. Most of the world’s people (Think: less ‘developed’ nations of Asia, Africa and South America) eat a primarily starch-based diet and only occasionally eat meat and other animal products. This was the predominant dietary pattern even in the United States until about 1945 or so, after which the consumption of animal products and disease causing processed foods steadily rose from minimalistic parts of the diet to their currently insane levels. The many lectures and publications of Drs. Neil Barnard, Michael Klaper, Joel Fuhrman, Michael Gregor of NutritionFacts.org, John McDougall, T. Colin Campbell, and others demonstrate this exhaustively and convincingly. Regarding the historical evolution of the American diet: One particularly strong piece of evidence (among many) is the PBS series Frontier House. It was a reality show in which participants had to live just as if they were in the 1800’s (historians were consulted on the actual conditions people lived under back then, of course). As such, they followed the dietary pattern of the Frontier settlers, whose dietary staple was beans (=starch!). One man, Gordon, had lost a lot of weight and wasn’t feeling well and believed he had a protein deficiency. When tests were done, it turned out he was only dehydrated, thereby confirming that plant based diets do indeed contain enough protein.
A strong marker of reliable information is the expertise of the source and lack of bias on the part of the source. Since historians were consulted for the show we have their expertise to bolster the credibility of the show’s claim that Americans once ate a starch based diet. Further, given that the show’s only interest is in recreating the past and not promoting a plant based diet or marketing any products pertaining to it, a lack of bias is also evident, which makes it a much more trustworthy source than, say, documentaries made to promote veganism.
(3) Drastically expand automation and robotics to the point where many (most?) jobs currently by human workers will instead be done by machine. This is largely happening on its own, and I fully expect self-driving cars and trucks to become common over the next decade or less, killing or reducing hours for millions of workers in the transportation sector. All kinds of automation is whittling away the need for human labor, as witnessed by self-checkouts, shelf-stocking robots, and so on. As a matter of fact, there is evidence of enormous inefficiency in the labor market, over a third of jobs in fact (see Bullshit Jobs), in part thanks to non-implementation of existing technology. Even more support for automation reducing labor (including how a 28 hour work week is theoretically possible right now) and how it will now accelerate during the COVID19 Crisis, see Scott Santens’ article The Future of the United States Depends on the Immediate Adoption of UBI. Story for another day: I have worked a “bullshit job,” that could have been automated but wasn’t, if that gives you some idea of how common it is.
One common response to this phenomenon is that in the past, as machines have displaced workers, workers have simply moved on to other tasks and overall more wealth was created (this is a process known as “creative destruction”). Though this is true, we should not and probably will not do the same in the future. Our country is drowning in material wealth, creating even more is thoroughly unnecessary, and creating more goods and services would tend to involve the production of more pollution. This round of automation ought to be used only to reduce human labor, not create even more consumer goods. Think about it: if you owned your own business and you bought a robot who could do 4 hours of your 8 hour work, you’d have a choice: you could either work less or use your 4 hours of newly gained time to accomplish even more work so you could earn more money. We should work less (see below).
In addition, it is more than feasible that “creative destruction” can not happen in the future. Take a look at the robotic chef, for example. We are rapidly entering a world where robots can do everything and more that a mere high school graduate can do, only more reliably and without being paid a wage. In my lifetime I have watched computers go from bulky, slow things that used floppy disks and could only load poor quality videos given enormous amounts of time to sleek, fit-in-the-palm-of-your-hand devices that instantly load high quality video. Twenty years of development on the robots we have now will sweep away nearly every conceivable function a high school graduate may have once had in the labor force, and it will take the jobs of many tradesmen and college graduates. Even if we did stupidly try to come up with new consumer goods and services, the labor necessary to produce those would very probably be doable by existing technology or small tweaks to it.
(4) Institute a universal basic income of $1,000 per month or so. With less need for labor will come radical instability for the majority of workers who depend upon steady work to pay bills, as worker displacement by technology and the rise in unsteady “gig work” becomes more and more common. Since we can produce all the food and housing necessary to feed everyone, simply giving it to them, especially as human labor becomes less necessary, is the only workable and humane option. Money that is currently wasted on subsidies to animal agriculture and oil would go a long way towards funding UBI, and money that currently gets spent on food stamps and most welfare programs would also take us a long way to funding a $1k per month UBI. A value-added tax and the elimination of most income tax deductions would probably bring us all the way home.
(5) Have an average work week under 30 hours with several weeks paid vacation annually. Since a ton of labor, even over a third of jobs, can be eliminated right now, most of the work in the remaining necessary occupations can simply be divided up among a larger number of people. New technology will only further eliminate the need for labor. Additionally, since several parts of my plan call for reductions in consumption, this necessarily reduces the need for labor. Think about it: in the future world, we won’t have people buying as many cars, so we won’t need to employ as many people for as many hours to make them. Airports operating at a reduced capacity also directly eliminates working hours. The production of animal products is especially labor intensive, since work has to be done to grow soy/corn/etc. for the animals , work has to be done to take that feed to the livestock, work has to be done to raise and slaughter the animals, and work has to be done to pack and ship their meat whereas a largely plant based diet only calls for growing the soy/corn/etc. and shipping it for human consumption. In short: we won’t have to work as much in the future because we won’t consume as much of things that require lots of work, and what we do consume will be increasingly produced by machines, not us. In the initial stages of this plan, 40-60 hour work weeks will probably still be needed in, for example, the healthcare sector, but the need for labor in that sector and others will drop over time (see below) even without assuming machines will reduce labor in those fields.
(6) Decriminalize drugs and release non-violent / non-sex offenders from prison. Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2001, thereby proving it can be done without societal disaster. Those who have committed crimes of desperation would be far less likely to reoffend inside the new world we create, and those guilty of “offenses” like drug possession should not be in prison in the first place (as they are, believe it or not in states like Alabama two counts of possession of marijuana is a felony).
On Why These Six Proposals Are Mutually Supporting:
(1) Drastically slash fossil fuel use. Drastically less labor would be needed at airports, automobile plants, car repair shops, gas stations (some might continue operations as usual but quite a few would simply go under), among other things, supporting proposal 5, less labor use by society means a short work week is more feasible. Money the government spends on fossil fuel subsidies could instead by spent to support UBI (proposal 4). A society designed to use less fossil fuels lowers people’s cost of living, making crimes of desperation less likely (supporting proposal 6).
(2) Desubsidize animal agriculture. Proposals 1 and 2 both attack the climate crisis head-on. Subsidies for animal ag can be redirected towards supporting a UBI (proposal 4). Starches are cheap, so creating a culture in which people are accustomed to filling up on them lowers their cost of living. As a matter of fact, given that rice, pasta, beans and potatoes can all be purchased for under a dollar a pound, an adult eating two pounds of these per day (an enormously high amount!!) plus $40 a month in watery vegetables, fruit, seeds, nuts and spices could have a grocery budget of $100. Of course, schools, the military, and prisons should all choose to serve whole food, starch based meals at their facilities. Less recidivism and behavioral incidences have been found among prison inmates who change to a healthy diet (see here). Proper nutrition and more safety for both inmates and staff in prisons would be worthwhile regardless of whether society decides to follow any of my other wild-eyed utopian ideas, but it’s even more important if they do: if people get a UBI, there is a serious risk that people working in difficult and dangerous jobs necessary to the function of society will quit, if nothing else changes. On the other hand, if we make their jobs easier and more tolerable with suggestions like this as well as reducing working hours, there’s a much better chance they stick around.
(3) Drastically expand automation. Supports proposal 5, since less human labor would be required to run society. This also supports a lower cost of living, since machines are nearly always cheaper than human labor.
(4) Institute a universal basic income of $1,000 per month or so. With high prices on meat and fossil fuels, most of this money wouldn’t go into these things, so this proposal need not defeat others. This would also result in fewer crimes of desperation, and result in a lower prison population (as would proposal 6). With far fewer hours worked (proposal 5) and more generally work itself becoming more sporadic, old jobs being eliminated (proposals 1, 2, 3), etc. it will be necessary to give people money so they have access to food and housing. Also, since enormous numbers of existing occupations would be eliminated at once, ensuring financial stability for people would be important. For those totally out of work or with radically reduced hours, this money would mainly go into food, housing and other necessities, all of which our society has in great abundance, so simply giving it to people (or rather, giving them the money to purchase these things) is no big deal.
(5) Have an average work week under 30 hours with several weeks paid vacation annually. This supports proposal 1: it’s no big deal to take the bus if you only work a six hour shift (very possibly even less, as the reduction of labor from all the above factors may well be vast enough to support an even shorter work week).
(6) Decriminalize drugs and release non-violent / non-sex offenders from prison. The United States has over 25% of the world’s prison population, and the staff necessary for prisons is probably unsustainable if nothing changes. For example, prisons in Alabama have been radically understaffed for years. Sending petty drug dealers/users home, locking up fewer people for said offenses, and virtually eliminating poverty so as to virtually eliminate crimes of desperation through a UBI would put us back on the right path.
The Feasibility of Eliminating the Car Culture Across All of Society
Radically changing society in the way that I am suggesting raises a number of problems. Here’s one: Emergency rooms need to be staffed 24 hours a day, and it is probably not the case that we can cut back working hours for the staff anytime soon (if we cut the shifts from 8 hours to 6 we would have to hire 33% more nurses, doctors, etc. and doing that all over the U.S. would be implausible because there simply wouldn’t be that many nurses and doctors). Unless all these folks could move close enough to work to bike or bus there everyday, which is doubtful, they are stuck driving to work. Or are they? What if a special building was set up nearby with small apartments for the staff to live in, and the scheduling was changed so that everyone worked 12 hour shifts, seven days a week, two weeks a month. That would only take 2 roundtrips by car per month to get to work instead of around 20 roundtrips per month (driving every day, five days a week, four weeks a month). Even with an explosion in gas prices, this would still work out to a net savings on gas (2 roundtrips with gas that costs 6x more would be the same as the cost of 12 round trips now instead of the usual 20 or so taken). Steep amounts of over time would have to be paid to the workers, but lowering the hourly rate could work out such that they make the same amount of money as previously. Similar strategies could be pursued for police departments, correctional facilities and anywhere else that has a true need for continuous staffing.
Other problems remain. For example, let’s say you live in a small rural town and work at Walmart, inside of the world that I am proposing. Public transit was never installed in your town, because it simply would not have been very efficient, as widely spread out as people are where you live. So you have to bike to work today, but… It is raining cats and dogs. Moreover, all of your coworkers bike to work and all of them are in the same position, so if all of you called out sick or something the Walmart would have no staff. How do we handle a problem like that? I would suggest that Walmart simply shut down on days when the weather is not permitting. After all, in the new world, few customers would even show up if the weather was that bad, given that every potential customer would have to walk or bike in shitty weather in order to get to the Walmart. Although people are currently very dependent upon having certain business like Walmart open all the time, things wouldn’t be the same in the new world. People would learn to always have a supply of canned and dry food on hand in case they could not shop during such a time. In a world where people are not working all the time as they are now, being able to purchase food and household goods 24/7 just wouldn’t be as necessary, and people would have the luxury of being much more flexible in when they shopped than is currently the case. Alternately, the future world may contain self-driving electric Ubers, and so long as Ubers were only used on odd occasions (such as rainy days, the occasional long trip from home, to get home from a bar at 2 AM, etc.) we would still be burning much less fossil fuel than now (with small town Walmart workers driving every day). So, if you insist on keeping Walmart open on stormy days, we can do that too.
Of course, society is vast, and I am certain I have not even scratched the surface of the many thousands of things that it would be necessary to change in order to transition from the old way into the new way (I know I have not; to give one example, a national rent control act is a necessary supplement to UBI). However, I caution that any objection you have should not be viewed as a fatal flaw, it should be framed as a problem, and we should look for solutions. We have every incentive to put forward massive efforts to create this world. It would solve climate change. It would boost human happiness. It would end mass incarceration. People would be far less stressed and would have more time spend with friends and family. Financial stability would be strong, homelessness and food insecurity would be virtually eliminated. We could firmly expect that the cost of healthcare would drop over time, since disease risk factors (poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, stress, pollution) would by and large be removed from society. So, even if some of the strategies I have outlined for how to deal with hospital or small town retail store staffing in a low-carbon-emission world are wrong, critical thinking to come up with something workable is worthwhile.
Addendum: On The Feasibility and Funding of UBI
The US government spends $649 billion on fossil fuel subsidies and $38 billion on animal agriculture subsidies, given the roughly 254 million adults living in the US, that means that the subsidies amount to over $2,700 per person per year, quite a sum but not nearly what a UBI of $12,000 per year would cost. So where would the extra cash come from? The American Enterprise Institute has a plan to create a “budget neutral” UBI of over $1300 per month mainly by slashing government programs. Parts of their plan are objectionable (i.e. I would never approve of getting rid of Medicare and Medicaid) but their perspective is worthwhile at least insofar as they shine a light on some potential sources of money to fund this dream program. Andrew Yang proposed funding a UBI largely from a Value Added Tax, and of course it goes without saying that SNAP and many other welfare-type programs could be eliminated completely with a UBI, and funds currently used on them could be used to fund UBI instead. While Social Security and Disability should not be eliminated, reducing its payments by some amount would make sense. More ideas on how to fund a UBI can be found here.
Mr. Money Mustache is a prime example of how the world I am proposing is possible. He’s one of those everyday-guy-turned-millionaire-through-careful-saving types, and what he has to say about money is enlightening. The fundamental plank of his money advice is to live in a central area of a city and bike or use public transit for most of your trips. This, in combination with other good spending habits (like not getting ripped off by cell phone companies) makes it possible to live cheap, and he recommends saving all extra money in an index fund. If you can live on, say, $1200 a month and save $2000 a month, then given the stock market’s average growth rate of 7% annually you can have an index fund worth over $350k in 10 years (Check for yourself with this compound interest calculator). You can safely withdraw over $14k per year from that fund with virtually no risk of ever depleting your funds (See The 4% Rule). Mr. Money Mustache has, in a very real way, “created his own UBI.” His life style habits are very much in line with what I am proposing here. However, it is currently not feasible for everyone to bike or bus practically everywhere and only use an automobile on occasion. What I am proposing is simply that we change the world so that it is feasible for everyone to do this. That Mr Money Mustache (and myself, by the way) can do this inside the world we live in, at an individual level, adds enormous plausibility to scaling that way of life up to the whole society. Note also that most of Europe follows the same program I am outlining: they are greener, less materialistic, drive less, have generous social safety nets, lower rates of imprisonment and lesser penalties for drug use, and eat less meat than we do. Just ask Chelsea from The Financial Diet. She moved from the US to Germany and notes (with approval) much of what I have said here. So of course we can do it!