You count among the world’s leading environmentalists. Considering the rather gloomy outlook painted by many of your peers – what made you sketch such an optimistic future?
Whenever someone asks me about this, I am always very careful to distinguish between ‘being an optimist’ and ‘being hopeful about the future’! This is an important distinction. I have no time for the kind of spurious optimism that ignores the state of the world as it really is, yet I know from my own experience that unless you can direct people towards positive solutions to the problems we now face, they simply become even more disempowered than they already are. In that respect, pessimism becomes a self-denying prophecy.

How realistic is your vision?
I have been very careful not to stray outside the bounds of what is absolutely possible – both technologically and politically. The last thing I wanted to do is to write something that could be accused of being pie-in-the-sky, or rather poor science fiction! So, all the projections, for instance, are based on today’s data, influenced by leading organizations and their projections through to 2050, but tempered by my own judgment as to where I think we are going to need to be in order to crack the challenge.

Alex McKay's vision of Gothenburg 2036. In Jonathon Porritt's book cities like Gothenburg set the pace in terms of low-carbon and high-quality urban living; photo by Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture
Alex McKay’s vision of Gothenburg 2036. In Jonathon Porritt’s book cities like Gothenburg set the pace in terms of low-carbon and high-quality urban living; photo by Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture

Let‘s discuss some of the examples mentioned in the book … In Alex McKay‘s world, 90 percent of all energy is derived from renewable sources. Is this a feasible projection for 2050?
Absolutely! Not only are leading NGOs like the WWFGreenpeace, and the Centre for Alternative Technology absolutely clear that this is technologically possible, but so are a growing number of energy experts. Even the International Energy Agency has acknowledged that such a world is possible – though how we would invest to get there is another matter.

But that is exactly what we are going to have to do if we want to avoid the horror or runaway climate change – and when people are finally prepared to accept something that they absolutely have to do, then they will do it!

Could you tell us about transport solutions mentioned in your book – and a more likely outcome for 2050?
In my book, our cities look a great deal better in 2050 simply because we have freed ourselves from the scourge of the private motor car! Although there are still cars around, nobody owns their own anymore and car clubs essentially supplement the brilliant public transport systems in place – systems used by people when they are not either walking or cycling. Again, some might suggest that this is excessively idealistic, but look at what is already happening in some of the most civilized cities across Europe and then work out what could happen if the rest of the world picked up on those lessons – from a health perspective as much as an environmental one.

The only other transport issue that I have touched on in detail in the book is flying since this is such a significant (and symbolic!) issue for anybody concerned with the environment. In The World We Made, people are still flying in 2050, but they are flying less and it costs more – simply because we couldn’t possibly go on accommodating the projected annual growth of roughly 7 % per annum – and this is something transport analysts are trying to work out as we speak.

Kuala Lumpur in 2042. The New Petronas Tower is 750m tall and generates 92 per cent of its own energy; photo by Songdo International Business District
Kuala Lumpur in 2042. The New Petronas Tower is 750m tall and generates 92 per cent of its own energy; photo by Phaidon

You have based your book’s storyline on factual research, a. o. you mention standard IT devices computing on par with the human brain. A scary thought?
It may be a scary thought – but it is absolutely where the rate of change within the digital world is going to be taking us. Moore’s Law is still as relevant today as it was when first uttered and although there must be some point where it ceases to have that level of material relevance, nobody is predicting that at the moment.

This is crucially important for the whole premise of the book where the two revolutions (solar and digital) come together in a phenomenally powerful synergistic convergence – with electrons moving as freely through new grids as information does through today’s internet.

Alex McKay’s students can manage their own health and die when they want. How does that work – and how desirable is it?
It works because by 2030 (let alone 2050!) the revolution in monitoring and sensing equipment has advanced far enough for all of us to be far more actively involved in managing our own health. And I am not sure why that should be a particularly scary thought? It seems to me that one of the problems we still face with institutionalized medical systems today is that people are only too happy to dump the responsibility onto somebody else rather than accept that it starts (and ends!) with them.

"The World We Made" describes Detroit's 100 year journey from industrial powerhouse and home of America's car industry to the "Green City of the Decade" in the 2020s; photo by Songdo International Business District
“The World We Made” describes Detroit’s 100 year journey from industrial powerhouse and home of America’s car industry to the “Green City of the Decade” in the 2020s; photo by Phaidon

So, how do we get our own world and fate closer to the vision laid out in your book? A world where the rich become a little poorer and the poorer more affluent – and everybody is happier overall?
We happen to be living through a particularly vicious period in the history of capitalism where the divides between the rich and the poor get worse and worse every year. One of the most critical issues we face today is the role of the super-rich in our societies, with their ability to control politicians and the media.

In my world, people do indeed rise up against this vicious inequity, and the only question as far as I am concerned is when exactly that will happen. That’s what history tells us, and I see no reason why my suggestion that it happens in 2018 (with the Enough! revolution) shouldn’t be the time when it all begins.

Although The World We Made is a celebration of good technology, it is clear to everyone that without some redistribution of wealth, entitlement, and work no amount of brilliant technology is going to make any difference.

What do you think the world will really be like in 2050?
I see no reason why the world in 2050 shouldn’t look more or less like the world I described in The World We Made! It is not an absolutely ideal world – after all, this is no utopian tract. And it is certainly not ideal in my terms as the necessary redistribution of wealth has not been completed at that stage.

Jonathon Porritt's Lagos, Nigeria, in 2023 is famous for Solar Salvation – a huge, integrated scheme in a large slum, that provides both thermal water heaters and basic photovoltaic arrays; photo by Sahara Forest Project Foundation
Jonathon Porritt’s Lagos, Nigeria, in 2023 is famous for Solar Salvation – a huge, integrated scheme in a large slum, that provides both thermal water heaters and basic photovoltaic arrays; photo by Phaidon
Slum in Lagos, Nigeria

What can we, as individuals, do to make the planet a better place?
These days, there is absolutely no reason why each and every individual shouldn’t be making a significant contribution to ensuring a more sustainable world. Fortunately, there are limitless numbers of guides and ‘how to’ websites that show what we can do on energy, waste, water, shopping, exercise, diet, and so on and so forth.

We were very aware of the importance of this aspect in the book. Which means that every single one of the fifty sections has a ‘Connections and Inspirations’ follow-up at the back of the book.

Thank you for your time, Jonathon!

Interview: Sandra Piske
Header image by Phaidon