Global warming activists have often advocated policies based on numerical goals or painted scary scenarios of the future. But there is a third way to advocate for long-term policies: propose solutions that contain a positive vision of a fossil fuel-free society.

The importance of this approach was underlined to me when I heard Betsy Rosenberg of the radio show Ecotalk interview Chip Heath, an author of the business-oriented book, Made to Stick. She asked Heath what he thought of the phrase “20% by 2020,” that is, reducing carbon emissions by 20% by 2020. She thought it had a nice ring to it … until Heath responded, well, no, nothing turns people off like a bunch of numbers. Instead, the author advised environmentalists to use "concrete images."

Therefore, instead of talking about numeric targets for carbon emissions reductions in order to avoid hell on earth, I’d like to try to paint a picture of how to create a society that might be better than the one we live in now. In that spirit, let me propose the following scenario:

Imagine that we build high-speed passenger train lines and heavy-duty freight train lines along the Interstate Highway System, thereby eliminating the need for cross-country trucking and much of our airplane and car use. Imagine that each city has both a subway system and a light-rail/trolley system extending out to the suburbs. All of these trains could be electrified, thus making much of our car use unnecessary and making fuels, either fossil or bio-based, less and less important.

Now picture the electricity-generating system that would be necessary to power a train-centered transportation system and replace coal, nuclear, and even some hydro-powered electrical plants. Let’s say local governments put solar energy systems on every conceivable surface of every conceivable building and constructed medium-scale wind and solar energy farms, using federal money. Some localities could build large-scale solar power, such as in the Southwest, or build massive wind systems, such as in the Dakotas. In addition, the federal government could take over the operation of the national electrical grid and rebuild it to make those large-scale electrical sources available across the country. Perhaps geothermal and tidal power could also be practical with an efficient national grid.

With the generating systems installed free-of-charge by governments, the cost of electricity would be far below the cost from coal or nuke plants, and the “market” would declare that such businesses no longer made sense. We would easily meet our emissions targets, without recourse to the baroque world of carbon taxes, cap-and-trading, or automobile fuel efficiency standards.

To help make the transportation system train-centered, our sustainable society would be required to tackle probably the toughest task of all, moving away from a suburban-centered model of development. Sitting here in downtown Evanston, Illinois, where I walk to work in five minutes, do all my shopping within a ten or fifteen minute walk, and have access to schools, trains, and other services in a similar radius, it becomes clear that the cheapest transportation is no transportation. But that requires town and city centers in which stores, residences, offices, and train stops are all mixed together, in close proximity.

Our means of production, agriculture, and manufacturing still need to be made sustainable. Instead of miles of monocultural food commodities like corn or wheat in the Midwest, picture each major town or city surrounded by intensive, organic, permaculture small-scale farms, providing fresh, delicious, sustainable food for local residents (with gardens in the city). Instead of huge cranes unloading mountains of cargo containers from Chinese ships, picture these same towns and cities ringed with nonpolluting, world-class factories that provide most of the manufactured goods for each region and for the continent as a whole. And think of all the well-paid, long-term, high-skill jobs such sustainable production would require.

Even though the U.S. rose to great power because of great cities and great manufacturing, our corporations and governments have been busy killing the geese that lay the golden eggs. Besides the looming catastrophes of global warming, peak oil, and mass extinction, Americans have been complacent about their loss of productive potential (uh oh, there I go scaring people). In order to rebuild our transportation, energy, housing, and agricultural systems, we will have to manufacture them. Ideally, in the course of implementing a program of economic reconstruction, local governments will be mandated to purchase only domestic goods, made with domestic production machinery. Imagine scores of new firms thereby created; these could be employee-owned and operated, rooted in their communities and immune from outsourcing.

This brings us to perhaps the most difficult image, that of a competent government, steering the society in a better direction. Between 26 years of conservative ideology and Republican incompetence, we almost have to go back to the administration of FDR to find concrete, inspiring examples of that pilloried phrase, “government programs”. FDR’s administration not only created a regional structure to reorient a local economy and ecosystem, the Tennessee Valley Authority, it tried to replicate the model across the country. A sustainable regional, ecosystem-centered governmental structure would have to be a partnership of local, state, and federal governments, transparent in its operation and clearly accountable to its citizens.

Such a model could be extended world-wide: instead of globalization, we could have a "continentalization" and then an “ecosystemization” of the global economy. Poor regions of the world need a sustainable model of development, and some big bucks from their rich neighbors as well.

Where would the resources for such a transformation come from? Well, picture a vastly reduced Department of Defense whose downsized forces are used to protect the oceans’ ecosystems and the remaining forests of the world. Envision the rage of the largest corporations and richest individuals as their taxes are restored to what they were before the Reagan administration. And then you will see that we have the resources, the skills, and the technology we need to avert the fearsome logic of numbers that has led to global warming, the depletion of resources, and the assault on life on this beautiful planet.