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The Tyranny of Small Steps

This article was written by Alex Steffen in May 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Greenland.jpgLast week, I flew over the coast of Greenland at 800 kph.

As the northern sun glinted off the aluminum of the wing, I watched the ice floes -- at first rare white specks on the Prussian blue sea -- grow gradually more numerous until they ran in great streaks of broken ice where the waves were pushing them together. Gradually they grew closer together still, and more studded with icebergs, until in the distance I could see enormous sheets of ice, glowing white and blending on the horizon into clouds and fog. And then, rising steeply up, the mountains of Greenland, masses of ice and snow and dark brown rock. It was like watching a documentary on global warming in reverse.

Except it wasn't. That footage won't run backwards. I have no idea if massive expanses of broken ice at that location are the norm or unusual at this time of year. But we do know that climate change is driving us towards an ice-free world, more quickly than we expected, and by flying home from Portugal, I was helping fuel that great planetary melting.

As symbols, it doesn't get much better than that: rocketing across the sky in an aluminum tube, nibbling on a "seasonal salad" and casually admiring the way the melting floes below resemble the drifts of apple blossoms covering the sidewalk near my house earlier this spring, while going over my notes from the two conferences I spoken at over the last week on climate change, the sustainability crisis, and how big business can respond.

We are all chained to a paradox: in order to change these things, we must to transform our economy into one capable of thriving within a one planet footprint; we have to continue to use more and more of the very tools which are eroding our planet's atmosphere, ocean and living systems in the first place. No one's hands are clean here.

To pretend otherwise is silly. We absolutely all should do what we can to shrink our own footprints. But much of the damage we do is done by others in our names, and is intricately connected to being able to work in an effective way. I've made clear my ambiguous feelings about flying before (feelings which grow less ambiguous the more I fly, regardless of how many offsets I buy), but the reality is that I am certain that my personal share of the CO2 left floating in the contrails behind me is a good investment when weighed against the opportunity to share worldchanging ideas with audiences capable of creating real change. It's not ideal, but we can't afford the self-deception of false purity.

I increasingly suspect that if we in fact make this great transition, the work is going to be messy, imperfect. There'll be winners and losers -- undeserving people who get filthy rich, good people who find themselves among the billion whose crops are ruined, whose homes are engulfed by rising waters, who lives are destroyed by crazy weather. We need to strive for justice (in part because, as I've said many times, poverty and oppression retard our efforts) but we can't afford to wait for perfection. We need practical, innovative and massive responses cobbled together across the whole world, and such efforts are always flawed. I'm partial to the saying that the perfect is the enemy of the good; now I am coming to believe that the perfect is the enemy of the future.

We cannot accept the tyranny of small steps -- the idea that little actions are enough, and that calling for the big systemic changes we need is somehow too radical. We see this thinking everywhere these days, as in this recent NRDC article on living in a less climate-catastrophic way, which goes so far as to say:

[P]ersonal emissions -- the ones from home energy use and driving that you're directly responsible for -- account for just 40 percent of your total. The larger part comes from everything else you buy and do. Your clothes, for instance. The songs on your iPod. The food you eat. For all of these things are made, grown, or transported with the help of fossil fuels. So is the bike with which you may idealistically pedal to work. So are the solar panels. But let's get real. If you're like most people, these indirect emissions are beside the point.

Unfortunately, if you're a member of the reality-based community, that other 60% of our climate impact is very much to the point.

So, too, are the indirect impacts of our lives, what's been termed our "public ecological footprint": the environmental and social impacts of all those things we almost never make direct personal decisions about, but which make possible our current ways of life, from the military, to the highway system, to the health care system. All of those deeply flawed systems are part of the backstories of our lives (though rarely counted in footprint calculations), and all need serious reengineering. Enormous damage is being caused by our attempts to prop up bad systems with minor incremental changes instead of working wholesale towards their improvement.

We don't have much time. With every new scientific report, our situation looks more dire, and the deadline for action closer. Just today, WWF released a major report finding that the window for serious action to stave off the worst effects of climate change was about five years, but that "Scientific warnings continue to mount, yet the debate continues and what passes for vision seems to have great difficulty seeing past the next filling station..."

In private, some of the best informed people I know -- who are by virtue of their positions some of the best informed people in the world on these issues, period -- confide, with increasing and disturbing regularity, that they believe we need to be planning 90% cuts in resource and energy use, alongside profoundly improved environmental performance in all manner of fields, by 2030, in part because we need to not only change our own behaviors, but do so in time for the innovations we pioneer to diffuse across the rest of the world. It is one of the great paradoxes of our day, it seems to me, that the more we learn about the large, slow-moving problems we face, the more manifestly urgent the need for action becomes.

This presents some challenges, not least of which is that people are disinclined to change dramatically until forced to do so by events, and climate change, environmental collapse and worsening poverty and conflict are unlikely to fully manifest the kind of events that get our attention in the daily lives of the people of the Global North until it's too late to do much about them. (And, indeed, our tolerance for disturbing news sometimes seems to be increasing much faster than our will to act -- two weeks ago, the first F5 tornado ever on the Enhanced Fujita Scale devastated Greensburg, Kansas, and provided what several experts said might be a taste of the future on the Great Plains; and already the story has all but disappeared from the American media.) We have, as I've heard it called, a profound perception-reality gap.

But bridging that gap, it seems to me, is something those of us who are passionate about and committed to building a bright green future have the capacity to do. We know more and more about the kinds of changes we need to make to bring our impacts within a sustainable range. We have better and better tools for imagining the future and helping people envision those futures and explore their possibilities (what we call future-making tools around here). And we certainly have no shortage of bold and innovative new ideas for how those futures might work better, as the constant stream of such ideas on this site should prove -- indeed, if anything, it seems to me that the frontier of innovation in sustainability is accelerating, moving away from the status quo at a faster and faster rate.

What we need, more than anything, it seemed to me as I shot across the Arctic sky last week, may be nothing less than a willingness to engage in a struggle for control over humanity's conception of its future.

We need, through a thousand efforts (interconnected, leapfrogging one another's best ideas), to help people see into the future we're still unfortunately creating, and help them understand that the ideas of the future we inherited from our parents are bankrupt. They won't work. We will never have them, and pursuing them will lead to disasters which are not only predictable, but predicted. If we continue chasing them, we will suffer a catastrophic collision with reality.

Then we need to do something even bolder: we need to show them futures that could work, explain the ideas and innovations that drive them, and show how life in those bright green futures is not only possible, but could quite likely be better for most of us than the lives we're living now. We need to excite the passions and commitments of millions more people, encourage their creative involvement, elicit their best ideas for what their futures could be. We need to transform ourselves from a movement which uses vague but dramatic threats to prod people into comparatively meaningless actions, into a movement that tells them the truth and invites them to exceed the expectations they have for themselves.

Encouraging that metamorphosis is, as the geeks say, a non-trivial task. Indeed, we're still just figuring out how to do it. But if we can pull it off, we won't need to hold out to people merely some simple steps or ecological absolution, because we'll have something better to offer: realistic hope, and a cause worth fighting for.

Creative Commons Photo Credit

Seeing the Future from High Above Greenland is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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