Transformed Mainstream: a scenario for a sustainable Melbourne

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Transformed Mainstream:

a scenario for a sustainable Melbourne
Philip Sutton
17 February 2004 Version 1.e

About this scenario

This scenario is one of three that were originally written as background to the ‘plastic bubbles installation’ at the Sustainable Living Festival in February 2004. The latest version of this and other scenarios can be found at:


Some real names might be used where they are in the public eye and they represent archetypes. The story of course is purely fictitious.


The scenario examines what sort of world and what sort of city emerges if there is a mobilisation of society to sustain:

  • ecosystem services used by all people and by other living things

  • the full living diversity of nature

  • a high quality of life for all people

and genuine progress is pursued to eliminate poverty, exploitation and marginalisation.
The dominant themes of this scenario are:

  • a strong commitment to actually achieve sustainability as fast as possible1 - before any horrendous irreversible impacts occur
  • inclusive altruism - an ethical commitment to care for all people and all of living nature

  • a strongly precautionary approach to environmental issues

  • a strong sense of urgency

  • a strong culture of grounded optimism, creativity, inspiration and innovation

  • a highly anticipatory approach

  • a strongly democratic / pluralist approach

  • a whole-system design approach

  • a no-major trade-offs (and where possible win-win) approach2

  • a capability and willingness to deal with complexity and the too-hard basket3

This scenario has been designed to achieve major transformation without social and economic breakdown. It is rare that a utopian future arises from the ashes of a society that has broken down - most often it is the warlords, not the meek, who inherit the affected patch of earth!


This scenario is the outcome of a series of tendencies that are sometimes in conflict but work cooperatively often enough to make the scenario outcomes possible. The forces or tendencies that dominate in the other scenarios are present in this one although they are less powerful this time.

The Ecological Modernisers are the main drivers of this scenario.
But there are other tendencies that have significant influence:

  • The Coalition for Unsustainability 4 that gives rise directly to some Breakdown and Fortress Worlds.

  • The Enlightened-Self Interest Elite

  • Aquarians5 - see profile in the appendices at the end of this paper.
  • The ‘Red’ Greens - people who have a socialist philosophy and/or a strong tendency to rely heavily on government to actively look after the interests of all people and the forms of life.

Time horizon for the Transformed Mainstream scenario

In this scenario an ecologically sustainable state is achieved before 2030.

What needs to be done?

To enable the economy to be 100% decoupled from environmental impact and resource depletion to be 100% decoupled from effects on human welfare and the condition of the environment the following things need to be done:

  • the economy needs to move as close as possible to 100% closed-cycle for materials

  • the economy needs to be radically dematerialised (by Factor 20-50 or more by 2040)

  • the economy needs to be redesigned for zero toxicity

  • greenhouse emissions to the atmosphere need to fall to zero

  • a very large percentage of the current land devoted to agriculture needs to be returned to nature

  • activities using natural habitats need to tread ultra-lightly

  • human population needs to stabilise, possibly after falling for a while.

What the economy would look like - about 2030

It’s a multi-polar world with the US still a major player - although not overwhelmingly dominant as it was 30 years earlier. The European Union has edged up on the US, as have China and India.

There has been a rebirth of compassionate ‘liberalism’ around the world - in reaction to the neoconservative ascendancy leading up to the W Bush regime.

The world has a large population that is expected to stop growing in 2050 at about 9 billion, after which it is expected to undergo a long slow decline to a level of population that can be easily accommodated on the earth through all the stages of the climate cycle. What the stabilisation figure should be nobody knows at this stage. The exact figure at any particular time would be set by the available technology and renewable energy resources available without large displacements of natural ecosystems. The psychology of population growth being a perpetual and a priori ‘good thing’ has been broken, however a much more humane attitude now applies to refugee movements as local communities adjust to their local situation.

Australia and other rich countries now put big efforts into helping poor countries generate real economic development.
At the turn of the century there were fears that reduced reproduction levels would cause populations to fall away towards … nothing! But after 2015 increased lifespan began to counteract the reduced birthrate effect.
GDP continues to grow globally. But few people now see economic growth for society as a goal in it’s own right - now most people judge economic change in terms of what it does for people and the environment. Firms still pursue growth in product sales in terms of an increasing “share of the need”. To support this approach firms have systems that guide their product development and promotion that are driven by direct customer and social and environmental need. Civil society and in some countries, governments, are very active in helping to identify the community’s needs so that companies can avoid promoting products beyond the point of community benefit. Need creation (ie. new ‘needs’ that emerge through social or product innovation) is an accepted practice but the notion of excess promotion of any product type is widely accepted in society and also in business.
Hours of work have eased back from the excessive levels of the turn of the century (eg. 2004!) but hours have not plunged dramatically - for most people family/life friendliness is the driver of work hours reduction not a preference not to be working. Enjoyment of work as much as desire for income has kept working hours from collapsing.

Global corporations continue to operate but have, in the main, restructured to focus on meeting the needs of diverse thematic and local communities and sub-cultures. New global / local partnerships are common business model eg. “inverted franchise” where locally controlled firms provide highly customised services matching local needs but supported by a global ‘supply’ network. Often internationally-sourced products are actually manufactured locally - with the product specs downloaded from global networks to the site of manufacture. Automated manufacture is very common.

Resources are now taxed very heavily - with the tax levels ramping up whenever the economy grows. The revenues of these ecotaxes are partly used to redevelop the economic system to cut resource use further and to achieve/maintain a zero impact result for the economy as a whole. But these days the bulk of the revenues go to wage subsidies so that full employment for those who want to work is achieved. As of 2025 a small universal living-support payment was introduced - anticipating the time when automated systems will be capable of carrying out all production processes6.
The economy has evolved in the last 20 years far more rapidly and far more completely than anyone7 had expected.
CO2 is no longer discharged to the atmosphere from energy systems. Fossil fuel use has been largely phased out, in favour of renewable energy. Renewables now supply 80% of the economy and are heading to 100% fast. CO2 from the fossil fuels still used is sequestered in deep saline aquifers.
The internal combustion engine is gone - lightweight hybrid vehicles running on hydrogen are in. For several decades hybrid cars were the norm. But then the bigger cities adopted systems of computer-controlled people-movers and good-movers which have replaced cars (including taxis) for most uses. The goods-movers have brought energy efficiency to the just-in-time manufacturing system. Goods-moving ‘pipe’ systems (underground and overhead) have been introduced to maximise energy efficiency. Personal cars are still used by country dwellers and are hired by urban people for occasional travel in the country.

Water efficiency is a major preoccupation around the world. Water systems are integrated, to achieve % efficiency gains, compared to the year 2000, that are in the high 90s.. Rainwater, storm water and domestic gray water is utilised. Water-free toilets are replacing flushed toilets as consumer acceptance grows.

Except for specialist applications, the bulk of farming is moving to closed-loop contained systems located in and near cities or in areas where there is a high concentration of renewable energy. Large areas of land are being returned to bush and other types of natural habitat. Rural occupations now focus around some specialist high value-added farming (for food and organic chemical feedstocks, carbon capture (from the atmosphere), energy capture, bush management and recreation.
Areas that were salt affected due to clearing and past farming practice and that have not yet recovered are used for nature conservation, salt extraction, and the culture of halophilic organisms are grown (fish, shrimps, salt tolerant plants, etc.)
The chemical industry has switched to renewable feedstocks - derived from biological sources.
Virtually all products have been servicised (ie. the consumer buys the service not the physical product) and reconfigured so the economy is a Factor 20-50 more efficient in materials. Consumerism is much more restrained compared to 30 years ago. The emphasis is now not on accumulating masses of stuff8 - instead it’s on ‘cool’ quality. In some places the big shopping malls have been displaced by public spaces that emphasise social interaction and good outward focused environment and the shops and supermarkets interface but don’t dominate these spaces9.
All farm-grown food is now organic. Food from closed-cycle systems in now either certified organic or certified ultra-low chemical use.

Genetic engineering is used but in quite limited circumstances - eg. in closed manufacturing environments with no release of viable organisms to the wild. The technology is seen as important but potentially very dangerous if applied inappropriately and so is being evolved slowly under careful public/community control. Similar care is being applied to nanotechnology where nano-systems are able to self-propagate (artificial life). The spread of natural species from place to place is also treated with the same care because of the huge problem of pest organisms that developed as a result of international trade and environmental changes like global warming.

Air travel is less common than it used to be. All fuel is renewable and international travel bears the same ecotax levels as any other industry. Tourism is restructuring around resource frugal modes - with fewer trips and longer stays becoming the pattern. Net-conferencing is now the norm for business contact (driven initially by the fear of terrorist attacks).
The efficient use and recycling of materials is driven by a new type of business - the resource stewardship company. This company sells multiple types of material, all of which are the greenest materials currently available on the market. The materials are rented to users and recovered later on. Hard rock miners transformed their businesses to be resource stewards - or they went out of business.
Another new class of business is the lifestyle steward. This type of company forms a close personal relationship with a person and helps them optimally achieve the lifestyle of their choice while achieving close to zero impact on the environment. These companies are major users of advanced artificial intelligence. These companies are required by law to not serve too large a customer base - this is to avoid monopolization of the advice market and undue influence on the community as a whole.. Lifestyle support companies have the highest ethics standards and ethics practice of all companies. Licensing requirements are very strict.
Ocean-based, closed-cycle floating-island cities are now being manufactured in significant numbers so that people can be ecological nomads once more - able to move with the flow of the natural climate changes on the Earth.

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