2021 | Opinion

Opinion: By not addressing significant future forces, Thrive plan falls short

We need a deeper exploration of what we might face

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“The purpose of a 30-year plan is not to predict and respond to a single future but to be prepared to face multiple, unpredictable futures. We therefore must consider how disruption from climate change, pandemics, or terrorist attacks could affect the county, as well as the implications of automation, artificial intelligence, and economic changes at the regional, national, and global scale.”

That quote is from page 4 of the Thrive Montgomery 2050 draft under review by the County Council.

We agree that we need to examine the possible futures — both benign and malignant — that we face over the coming decades.

Yet, astonishingly, Thrive never addresses these issues.

There is no discussion of pandemics, artificial intelligence, automation or terrorism. Other disruptive phenomena, such as the accelerating collapse of ocean life, the consequences of the likely decline in oil production, the rise of authoritarianism and the cascading interactions amongst these disruptions, are nowhere to be found.

And only a superficial acknowledgment of the social, economic and political destabilization that the climate crisis is bringing is mentioned.

Not all future possibilities are to be feared.

Predictions that precision agriculture, inexpensive shared autonomous electric vehicles and other technological advances may result in an ecologically healthier, more productive and climate friendlier society should be examined.

Thrive advocates sound policies for the transformation of land-use patterns to enhance community, support mass transit, accelerate affordable and attainable housing, and more. These smart-growth policies and principles deserve support.

But without considering larger forces, land use alone will be inadequate to confront the sustained changes the county faces.

The Cedar Lane Ecosystems Study Group looked further at future factors in written testimony to the Planning Board about Thrive Montgomery 2050. (pages 37 to 52)

Thrive assumes a single future of 200,000 new residents by mid-century despite saying: “The purpose of a 30-year plan is not to predict and respond to a single future but to be prepared to face multiple, unpredictable futures.” (also on p. 4)

Multiple futures means examining the probability that millions of internal migrants will be forced from their homes through sea-level rise on the coast and wildfires and severe drought in the West, as well as millions more international migrants.

Many, perhaps hundreds of thousands, will come to a county well managed, rich in amenities and in a region with rich economic opportunity. Alternatively, the climate crisis may result in a destabilization of society, leading to people fleeing metropolitan areas for self-sufficient rural lifestyles.

As many analyses conclude that growth cannot be sustained because of material and ecological limits, Thrive must explore a limited growth future.

We can’t predict which futures will occur. We can, however, look at what they will mean and how to prepare for them.

We need a plan to begin to explore these and other possibilities before it is too late.

We urge the authors of Thrive to organize public forums with futurists and others to create narratives exploring these futures. This would engage thousands in developing a deeper understanding of what we face and what to do about it.

We ask the council and those concerned about our future to urge Thrive to honor its commitment to examine the futures we may experience.

To those sympathetic to this effort, but who don’t want to slow down momentum for reforms, there is nothing to stop the council from enacting legislation now that implements Thrive policies while the community engages in imagining alternative futures.

Let’s take the next year to engage residents, particularly young people and those least advantaged, in examining the forces that may affect us and how we can address them in ways that enhance equity, quality of life and shared prosperity.

Doing so would serve as an exemplary model for the country as we begin to grapple with the unfamiliar future that awaits all of us.

Herb Simmens of Silver Spring is the author of “A Climate Vocabulary of the Future.” He was the executive director of the New Jersey State Planning Commission for 10 years and oversaw the development of the award-winning New Jersey State Development and Redevelopment Plan.

Philip Bogdonoff of Takoma Park is active with Climate Action Coffee and other climate-related groups. He is a member of the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Soil Health Advisory Council and a board member of Biodiversity for a Livable Climate, each of which promotes nature-based solutions to address climate change.

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