The rings of a tree tell a story. A story about the life of the tree, and the environment in which it grew. But what is humanity’s story? Will it be a blackened layer of fossilized smartphones in the footnotes of geology? Or will it be a story like the Daintree rainforest in Australia—one of the oldest surviving forest ecosystems in the world whose current inhabitants boast a direct lineage thought to be over 100 million years old? To envision a 100-million-year-long story for humanity, we must imagine a world where every generation returns the materials they use to the soil, air, and oceans in a way that enables future generations to use that material too. A world without waste or pollution. The transition to such a system—called a circular economy—depends greatly on science.
Our current way of living is destined to change fundamentally in the next few decades. Exactly how that happens is a decision that will be made collectively by all of us. The materials we use to create our new world will depend on the technology at our disposal, which will be determined by the science we perform today and the politicians we allow to govern us. Balancing the long-term prospects of other people’s great-grandchildren against our own short-term interests is not a trade-off that many people give much thought to. But natural systems suggest there is a way to provide technological luxury to us all, at the same time as guaranteeing a positive future for everyone’s children.