Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Seattle as North America's First Carbon-Neutral City
Alex Steffen, 3 Dec 09
Article Photo

Last week, I stood on the stage at Seattle's Town Hall and called on Seattle to become North America's first carbon-neutral city, dropping its per capita climate emissions to nothing by 2030.

Since then, I've gotten a whole slew of great emails and calls from people who are thinking that goal through, and have questions. Mostly, folks have been wildly supportive, generally wanting most to know how they can help build the movement to do that. I'm a writer, not an organizer, and I don't have the plan, but I can explain a little more my thinking, and share some observations about what seems to be needed right now. Hopefully those will help.

The timing and target come from the now-common observation that we need to aspire to return the level of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 ppm. In order to do that, we need to at very least level off at 450 ppm mid century. To do that, while billions of young people in the developing world rise out of poverty (and escape the problems of poverty), we need to create a new bright green model of prosperity, one that can be shared equitably and sustainably by all. For that model to be widely adopted by 2050, I reckon, we need to have it up and running by 2030. Because of the vastly unequal distribution of formal research and innovation capacity in the world, because of the developed world's near-complete responsibility for the climate problems we already face and because of the central role of cities in climate action, that model needs to come from the wealthier cities of the Global North. We have to invent that model and be living it in 20 years.

Building bright green cities: that's the great moral and political challenge of our day. That is our generation's Abolition, our era's World War Two. If we can achieve this, we'll provide component innovations, new mental models and more time for billions of people around the world to blaze their own trails to their own new models of prosperity. We'll address the major causes of planetary environmental destruction, relieve the suffering of hundreds of millions of people and protect the rights of future generations -- all while improving our own lives and preparing our region for the economy of the 21st century. This isn't just a win-win proposition, it's the possibility of multi-dimensional, cascading, feedback-loops full of win.

The only "non-win" about it is that it will involve change -- not sacrifice, because all the evidence suggests that most people's lives will improve; and not expense, because all of the steps we need to take return more money than we'll spend, over time (and if it makes money it's not a cost, it's an investment). Of course, people hate change. Most people want everything to stay exactly the way it was about 10 or 20 years ago; and the idea of plunging forward into a future of dramatic transformations makes many people grumpy, and a few downright psychotic.

Of course, change is the only given; and when it comes to our collision with planetary boundaries, our choice isn't whether to change or not, it's whether to act or be acted upon by vast forces we're unleashing as a consequence of our way of living today. Our current way of living is toast in either case, and will vanish within the next few decades; the only question is, what will replace it? Will our way of living be followed by millennia of ecological impoverishment, increased human suffering and diminished cultural possibilities; or will it be followed by a better way of life, one that prevents catastrophic collisions with ecological reality, and leaves us (and billions of others) wealthier, healthier and happier? That's the only real choice we have in front of us.

Now, we are really and truly on terra incognita here. No one knows exactly what a carbon-neutral North American city would look like, or what the best, fastest routes there will turn out to be. There is no map for these territories, and we'll need to cultivate an attitude of experimentation, innovation and learning as we go.

Even some of the most basic questions will demand debate: How do we define carbon-neutrality? What do we include in our carbon footprint and what do we leave out? How much can we ethically rely on offsets or other "shifted changes" to make up for the damage caused by some of our existing systems that are very slow to change? How do we wrest away the regulatory authority and fiscal capacity to make these changes, in the face of what has already been determined opposition from those industries most invested in continued ecological destruction? How do we envision the end result and help our fellow citizens connect to it as a goal? The questions go on...

But developing answers to those questions in ways that make sense in our context is part of the model we're trying to create: the conversation about change is itself part of the change we seek. Indeed, having made the case for this shift to those in our own region who are skeptical (or in some cases, directly hostile) is part of what will arm other cities, in different contexts, with information and insight to build their own cases for change. All of this is hard work, but it isn't wasted labor.

The most important part is the standard: if any sustainability plan we find ourselves discussing isn't hammering out a pathway built of measured steps and leading to zero impact in a definable and relatively immediate time-frame, it's just no longer good enough. I think zero carbon emissions by 2030 (with the interim goals of 10 percent immediate cuts and a 50 percent reduction in the next 10 years) makes sense. Others may differ. The important point is that we stop investing energy in small steps that cannot add up to the large leaps we know we need to make, and stop accepting modest (or even lame) goals as sufficient.

In fact, I'm increasingly suspicious of any proposal to make something less unsustainable, rather than following a measured path to zero impact. Surrounded by a global leadership culture that values above all else civic incrementalism, compromise and moderation (sometimes for very good reasons), many of us tend to assume that progress is gradual and that steps in the right direction are at very least a good start. But that thinking is dysfunctional for the times in which we find ourselves. We need (for really direct and documented reasons) bold, rapid action and the completion of goals on a strict timetable. If any particular action can't make a case for itself as part of a bold and rapid shift, I increasingly suspect it's a sparkly distraction, not a stepping stone.

That absolutely does not mean that everything we do must be perfect, or even produce a specific measurable impact. Steps that are specific and limited, but lead nonetheless to a larger goal are great, even if they alone won't solve the whole problem. Compact fluorescents will not save the planet, but they clearly lead to reduced energy usage, and so there's nothing wrong with encouraging their uptake as part of a march towards zero emissions in twenty years.

Even more important are cultural actions. All of the largest barriers to bright green innovation are cultural and conceptual, not technical. The technical challenges of implementation are pretty huge, but they can't be faced at all without changing the way at least an active core of people see these issues. What does a zero-impact society look like? What is the definition of prosperity? What actually makes us happy? What parts of our lives already fail to work as advertised, and what would it feel like to transform them? How would we live in this new world?

These are questions that, fundamentally, we can only tackle through art and design, creative inquiry and intellectual exploration, conversation and media. We need a movement of people engaged in this work. For while it's true that changing attitudes alone is not enough, inspired minds driving forward a cause is the only formula for real change that has ever worked: free your mind, and your ass will follow.

Free your mind, Seattle.

Image credit: Craig Allen, CC

Bookmark and Share


It's great that you are pushing this challenge. Proving by example that a northern latitude decent sized US city can do this is simply critical. The credibility barrier, the belief that this cannot happen or that it will somehow suck to live this way, needs to be smashed. Please do smash it.

I'm in Madison WI, so not sure what I'll be able to do to help, but you've got my moral support. Still thinking about that race idea, we're smaller so aught to be able to catch up to you if we start fairly soon :)

I've got 6KW of grid connected solar on my roof that pays the loan that bought it via a negative utility bill. New insulation that pays for itself via savings on heating. Abundant hot water that pays for itself via savings on natural gas. These things all suggest progress WAY beyond new lightbulbs can be made individually without any lifestyle sacrifice _or loss of cash flow_. I did all this in one year after 6 months of planning, to a 2 dwelling building constructed in 1931. As you say, it costs nothing if it's an investment that returns something you need anyway.

Mass adoption of private improvements as model is probably necessary but also insufficient. A larger scale of investments across the civic infrastructure are also required. That one's tougher, I think those of us who understand the need may simply have to make the investments required via opt-in coops, building the energy and other infrastructure required. I keep wondering if the entrepreneurial environmentalists will end up being the ones selling power, transit, and food to the those currently in denial.

Posted by: Preston Austin on 20 Nov 09

Hey Alex,

I'm working on the plan for organizing local innovators. We should definitely talk (please put someone at World Changing in touch with me).

Since your two talks last week I've met with many of the most creative people in town and have a way to take our efforts to the next level that you'll definitely want to know about.

Working to make Seattle the city it's meant to be!

Joe Brewer
Director, Cognitive Policy Works

Posted by: Joe Brewer on 20 Nov 09

I live in Seattle, Wa. and I think a call-to-arms is wonderful!! I know as an individual I'm doing as much as I can - reusable bags, walking to work, public transit only, and organic local food to name a few. If only all of Seattle could ban together, we could really make a statement and an example of how the world could really change!

Posted by: Marissa on 20 Nov 09

Curious Alex, that the model many of us in Seattle have been using to plan for a carbon neutral city is your bugaboo, Transition.

Yes, we are well aware of the many thoughtful people who have defined how to live within the limits of our single planet and we agree with One Planet, Transition initiatives, Natural Step, Global Footprint Network, 10:10, the 2000-watt society,, and yada yada.

At this point in time, however, Transition stands out as an especially good model for bringing business, state, and community together to craft a comprehensive city plan that gets us to net-zero CO2 by 2030 while having a good time in the process.

Posted by: Cathy Tuttle on 22 Nov 09

Alex, so excited to hear you talking about art! Broad engagement with artistic practices will help us move from material resources (stuff) to cultural resources (relationships, experiences, meaning). & if we add the word uncertainty to this list, it's a pretty good working definition of art. Recent studies in arts education show that art teaches us how to live with uncertainty, take risks, engage with community, and envision a new world. (Art for Our Sake, Lois Hetland & Ellen Winner, Boston Globe, 2007)

My one suggestion would be that you add heritage to your conclusion. Sam Bower at is studying indigenous models of sustainability. Locally, James Rasmussen, Duwamish Cultural Longhouse Director, and the Honorable Cecile Hansen are two people you may want to meet, if you haven't already. Also, the Wing Luke Museum has developed a community-based curatorial model. Let me know how I can help you explore heritage (longstanding/sustainable cultural practices)- both locally and in the developing world - in order to reach this goal of carbon neutrality.

Posted by: Cheryl dos Remedios on 23 Nov 09

The designated regional transportation planning agency, Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), is doing its part in carbon reduction by including assessment of the GHG emission implications of the Federally-required metropolitan transportation plan for 2040.

PSRC is trying very hard to write a plan that meets the GHG reduction goals set by law in State of Washington. At last report, the plan was not quite there.

Those interested can follow the Plan's progress toward spring 2010 completion at A lot of serious work is going on there; important to monitor.

One clear implication of work to date is that motor vehicle emissions have to be reduced significantly, since car usage is not forecast to be reduced very much in the decades ahead.

Posted by: John S. Niles, Seattle on 23 Nov 09

Hello Alex and everyone,

I am intersted to learn how the city decided to pursue such an initiative. What were was the trigger and there motivations?

Many thanks.


Posted by: Andrew on 24 Nov 09

So Alex, what exactly do you mean by "Carbon Neutral Seattle?"

If I were to think scientifically about it, I'd draw a line around Seattle and track all the flows of actual and embodied carbon across it. Let's start with the easy ones: A Maple Valley resident who works in Seattle, and lives in a half acre tract mansion, drives an SUV to work.

OK, how about every MS Bing search that generates a couple of grams of carbon equivalent per search? Does that count as part of the system? Our Netflix on Demand movies? The embodied energy that created our Prius hybrids -- do we have to track that too? How about every container ship full of high-carbon goods that comes into the Port with goods destined for holiday shoppers at Nordstrom. What about our flight to Hawaii for a vacation because we get severe winter depression? How about them avocados? What about the billions of dollars the people of Seattle have invested in dirty industries? Or even moderately clean industries? How do we allocate the carbon cost of investing in Exxon Mobile's record profits?

As you mentioned in your talk, Seattle is a "leader in green" because of an accident of geography. I might also add that we have flawed accounting procedures.

I'm all for supporting Seattle as the first carbon-neutral City on the planet, but for the phrase to have any real meaning, we have to make Bellevue, Tacoma, SeaTac, and Black Diamond "carbon-neutral," and apply carbon pricing strategies to every imported product at our national borders, and to track the carbon impact of every investment which flows from our accumulated wealth, and offset, tax, or mitigate that impact.

The City of Seattle can be a national example of not-too-terrible land-use planning and not-so-awful building practices and maybe even lead in somewhat-less-damaging investment strategies, which will help show the way, but without regional land-use and mobility planning, and global carbon pricing, the phrase "carbon neutral" means almost nothing when applied to an individual municipality.

Posted by: Japhet on 24 Nov 09

this is certainly good news. proof that it's not impossible to change the world;s already grueling health for the better.

Posted by: Evan on 24 Nov 09

Japhet -- there're complexities, and then there are sophistries. While it's certainly true that we live in interlocking systems, and that boundary issues (who should take responsibility for what emissions) abound, it's also true that about 3/4-4/5 of emissions are unambiguous, and the rest can be assessed and assigned in a rational way.

Certainly, to be accurate, we'll need to acknowledge that any definition of carbon neutrality has judgment calls in it. Those calls will need to be made. We'll also need to acknowledge numerous externalities and hidden costs, some of which are not subject to change at a local, or even national, level.

But doing that work is part of doing the larger work of leadership. Defining what we mean, and defending that definition, are part of becoming carbon neutral.

So, yes, there are complexities, but no, they don't require that everyone act all at once to create any meaningful progress. While I'm all for a carbon-neutral Black Diamond (an interesting paradoxical statement!), we don't need that to happen to get a carbon-neutral Seattle.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 24 Nov 09


Your suggestion that 3/4 to 4/5 of emissions are unambiguous and can be sourced easily strikes me as a number pulled very much from your hat.

I think this goal is a great one, but one that is so incredibly ambitious as to be impossible without a concommitantly massive federal program.

Our lives our currently embedded in carbon. Seattle has inhereted some great low-carbon hydro-electric infrastructure that allows us to boast a "carbon neutral" Seattle City Light.

Lets face it though... our transportation is for all purposes completely fossil fuel based, our roads and infrastructure are built using machines that use fossil fuels. Our food is delivered using fossil fuels. The vast majority of all product imported are build using energy and materials derived from fossil fuels.

There is no way Seattle as an island can divorce ourselves from these technologies that quickly. Building the electric cars, bikes, and rail to make our system 100% electric would incur massive use of fossil fuels to mine, forge, and produce these vehicles even if we had time. Its difficult to imagine our airports and docks filled with fossil fuel free airships and ships in 20 years time-- other than sailing ships (which would likely be build using fossil fuel energy ) we don;t even have such ships and planes.

I know I'm a downer for suggesting the limits of the physical world, and I do aspire to your goals, but I can't even begin to imagine the path that could achieve this in twenty years time.

It's not realistic. But it's worth trying.

Posted by: Bill Reiswig on 24 Nov 09

Actually, instead of getting lost in a debate of what it means to be carbon neutral, it might be better to get down to the truly critical issue -- biodiversity. The fact is that if suburbanizaiton, automobility, logging, industrial ag and fishing, wetlands destruction and a host of other human behaviors actually increased biodiversity, I would applaud them. The problem is they don't. They have not only pushed us into a global warming catastrophe, they have initiated a massive extinction episode -- one likely to take us along with most other species.

So if you are looking for a measure of success, that would be my recommendation. Carbon neutrality notwithstanding, if you can't reverse or drastically slow down the current extinction rate, you are wasting your time. When looked at from that perspective, I'm not sure the bright green solution (i.e., collective human imagination) will leave us healthier, wealthier and happier. More likely it will keep us marching towards the precipice.

Perhaps the bright green solution should start with a more clearly defined context beyond political optimism. Establishing some well-defined constraints like a finite planet, dwindling energy and material resources, and deadly paradigms (e.g., current economic policies or human transcendence) would be useful. Vetting possible solutions within that context would add substance to the bright green approach. It might also make solutions like Transition Towns seem less dark.

Posted by: John Faust on 24 Nov 09

OK, I'll test my understanding of Alex's post by paraphrasing it as well as his response to Japhet's comment:
"I call on Seattle to become North America's first carbon-neutral city. The first step is defining what carbon-neutral means."

If my understanding is correct, Alex has the cart waaaayyyy ahead of the horse.

Posted by: Bryan on 25 Nov 09

In creating anything, we start with a concept, then refine it into a vision. A zero impact city is a great concept, and Alex is beginning to refine the success criteria - standards - that will turn that concept into a clear, compelling vision.

And, to create anything, we also have to ground our visions in accurate, objective assessments of the current state of the result envisioned. We need to describe it, not judge it. Facts, not rhetoric. Just the facts, not editorializing.

When vision and reality are held in mind together, they set up a useful creative tension that both energizes and guides actions. And Alex is right that actions are best taken with "an attitude of experimentation, innovation and learning as we go."

Create, and adjust, create and adjust…

Furthermore, most of the initial actions will be large strategic actions that cannot be easily done. They need to be transposed into sub-results, and the process of vision/current reality/action repeated for the sub-results, and sub-sub-results. Getting granular! Getting down to easily doable actions that, when taken, teach us more about the path to take. Create and adjust…

Gradually small actions and results accumulate into larger actions and larger results, and eventually to completed results. Even such large ambitious results as a bright green city!

Finally, creating comprises a set of skills and an organizing structure that is different - and leads to very different results - than problem solving. Problem solving is about getting rid of (or relief from) what we DON'T want; creating is bring into being what we truly do want - with whatever we have to work with.

For groups to be able to co-create, it is important that indivduals master the skills and structure of creating themselves. From personal mastery arises group mastery.

In the spirit of helping further both kinds of master, I offer my free ebook Staying Up In Down Times - And Beyond! Creating Resilience, Results, and Real Rewards - With Whatever Life Throws At Us!

You can access the 98-page ebook at:

Share it with friends and colleagues. Chat about it. Try it out. Experiment!
The more folks who understand and practice the skills and structure of creating, the easier it will be for individuals and groups of all sizes to contribute to creating bright green zero-impact cities.

Posted by: Bruce Elkin on 25 Nov 09

Based on 16 years in China since 1993, observing and participating in the enabling of massive change, I offer the following inputs and published [as well as unpublished] information.

Alex has a conceptual grasp of the challenge and the innovations that could move us in the right direction. He is playing to his strength as a brilliant visionary writer, and asks for organization to move us collectively in the desired direction. Two things are needed to catalyze, sustain and adjust that movement:

[1] a structure that includes individuals (and groups)with influence [energized citizens] and decision authority [government, business and NGOs]; and
[2] a methodology that enables focus, clarity and alignment for the communication, planning, decision making, resource allocation, action, analysis and adjustment required to reach the critical strategic objectives that are agreed to by those in [1].

I can be a virtual advisor, pro bono, in this process, if anyone is interested. As a start, I offer a two article series titled: Balancing Economic & Environmental Sustainability: A Modest Proposal. The context for these two articles is US and China, but they include a reference to KING COUNTY and what has been done, as an example of emerging best practice.

Based on Alan's public speaking and virtual writing as a catalyst, sitting from half a world away, someone needs to contact various organizations such as local government(s), commercial associations, and NGOs to mobilize a discussion about critical objectives that can be agreed to across organizational borders. As a start, I offer a city level strategy map that was designed for China cities, and could be easily adjusted in draft form by interested enLightened individuals to represent the beta draft for further discussion with influencers and those in power to make a difference.

The objectives are contained within a single page graphic illustration that triggers further study to understand it, thereby bypassing the usual cognitive categories of yes/no, right/wrong and agree/disagree.

First, get agreement on the objectives that represent the high level strategy for the city. Someone has to do the legwork to engage the relevant groups in discussion. That should include the mayor, city council [or whatever it is called], business leaders and NGO leaders, as well as other relevant association leaders. Given the performance of the national Chamber of Commerce, I don't have any idea whether the local chamber should be contacted, but it's worth a try. The Shanghai Chamber did a great job of organizing a greentech conference, but they have been quiet since september. If you go to their website, you can see the conference agenda. Such an event creates buzz and outstanding networking opportunities, but there needs to be followup action to bring good intentions into practical reality.

You/we HAVE TO ENGAGE those in power to make this work. Absent that, we can't create sufficient change in time to make a difference. [That's a hypothesis based on 4 decades of adult observation of the two most significant governments relating to sustainability, from Viet Nam to Socio-Economic experimentation]

[If you can get it together to actually go talk to people who can make things happen (and show them my or your revised draft version of a strategy map), write to me and I'll send you a ppt form of the strategy maps that you can adjust on your own.]

After having the first round of discussions, revise the strategy map for LEVEL 1, which is for the entire city [?and metro area?]. Then take it back to the influencers and decision makers for the city [Mayor and city council?] and get their tweaking and final agreement on the strategy map for the city. [you may want to talk to King County officials in this process, eh?]

Now you have the LEVEL 1 objectives, but HOW will they be implemented? You need at least one measure or one strategic initiative for each objective. The measure(s) are indicators of progress, or the lack of it. The initiatives are projects with a beginning and an end that are resourced and actionable. It is through the initiatives that actions take place and their results are qualitatively reported by the key players, and well as possibly reported via one or more simple metrics.

How do you manage all this? You create an Office of Strategy Management [or Ofc of Sustainability Management] called OSM, that is tasked with communication to all the key players/organizations, data collection and reporting, agenda setting for monthly and quarterly review and planning sessions, and BUILDING ALIGNMENT across organizational borders on the key elements of the strategy, as defined by the strategic objectives in the L1 map.

THEN, the L1 map is cascaded down to multiple orgnaizational units at Level 2 [L2], within government, businesses, associations and NGOs. Each unit's leadership team examines the map's objectives and figures out how THEY can adjust and align what they do and how they do it with as many of the objectives as possible. They create their own L2 maps and report these back to the OSM for further transparent reporting of results. This will require some revised website work.

Then, once L2 is humming along, with everybody communicating about HOW IN THE WORLD ARE WE GOING TO DO X, Y and Z, and figuring it out piece by piece by studing the one page illustration of their own organizational unit's "strategy", you cascade down to L3 within each organiztaional unit, if they are large enough to justify that. For example, the dept of energy or transportation for the city [or county], presumably a top level unit, would cascade their unit's strategy map [containing their unit's strategic objectives that are aligned with the L1 map and objectives] to the departments within their units. Each department's leadership team would discuss and agree, and then share that with their employees, from whom would be solicited ideas and suggestions for HOW IN THE WORLD ARE WE GOING TO DO X, Y and Z???

Now, you have all the relevant parties at multiple levels within all the relevant organizations talking about the SAME THING. Bingo! Shift in city/county level awareness and consciousness.

And now, brothers and sisters, we have a change process moving within an entire metropolitan area.

No one said it would be easy, but this is one methodology that can orchestrate it, describe it, measure it, manage it and adjust it as lessons learned accumulate.

To download the published two article series and two unpublished strategy maps, Join the open Linkedin Group titled: Balanced Scorecard for Humanity [BSC4H]

If you have problems with that write to me at and I will forward you the links at google docs.

Further, I am available on skype with the user name of:

Go 4 it!

Posted by: Irv Beiman on 25 Nov 09

"Carbon-neutral" is by no means a synonym for "sustainable." It's not hard to envision entirely unsustainable civilizations that were what we would call carbon-neutral - in fact, history is full of them.

It then follows that large cities, including Seattle, simply cannot be made sustainable, so the first step towards a sustainable Seattle is understanding that it's an impossibility. Then you start ripping out impermeable surfaces, reducing birth rates, including local self-sufficiency in the definition of "sustainability" - and you come up with a very different picture that takes us out of abstraction and into the real world.

Posted by: Adam Sacks on 26 Nov 09

Bill- It's certainly true that we can't swap out the life we have now for a similar one with new technologies. But that's not our only option: we can in fact choose to have a better life, one based on compact communities, closed loop resources, super efficient energy use, transit, green building and sustainable food systems. That is completely achievable.

John- I agree that biodiversity is critical. It's pretty hard to work that into an articulation of what people ought to be doing to structure their lives, though. I'd argue that on the shores of the Salish Sea, biodiversity is largely a protected habitats and toxics issue, with strong climate concerns. Bright green cities bound growth, reduce toxics and address climate; add to that a greatly increased dedication to wildlands and marine protected areas, and maybe we have a shot.

Cathy- Transition Towns are not my "bugaboo," as I am not afraid of them in any way. I just don't think they'll work in most of the forms I've heard them described. If you're going to be insulting, at least insult me on the right grounds.

Bryan- To the contrary. Agreeing upon goals, followed by more precisely defining those goals as concrete targets, is a completely logic way of proceeding here. Of course, if you have another approach, you should put it forward.

Adam- Your conclusion that cities are inherently unsustainable seems to be based primarily on the idea that you don't like them. There's no evidence that cities are inherently less sustainable then other ways of organizing life; and actually, if sustainability is your criteria, then you have no examples - urban, rural or nomadic - on which to draw, since, as far as we can tell, no human society has yet existed which hasn't eaten into its ecosystems, even if very slowly. I've put forward a long, complex argument on this site for why I'm pretty sure that cities are not only possible engines for sustainability, but our best possible engines. If you disagree, by all means spell out your arguments: but please be aware that this is a topic well-hashed elsewhere.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 28 Nov 09

Alex and all:

Just some brief thoughts in an excellent thread of comments.

First, Alex, what's your definition of sustainability? Mine? Easy enough, it's in the dictionary. Thus, I'd argue that we're all actually talking about and trying to define a different concept, a sort of "survival with benefits" if stated simply.

Second, you say: "if sustainability is your criteria, then you have no examples - urban, rural or nomadic - on which to draw, since, as far as we can tell, no human society has yet existed which hasn't eaten into its ecosystems, even if very slowly."

That's completely untrue. Many indigenous cultures have managed their living systems to not only avoid ecological degradation but actually in ways that enhanced biodiversity.

How? become a functionally restorative element of the Biosphere, typically by mimicking a natural process.

Translating that to our culture is relatively straightforward. For example, a proof of concept that we're proving is...building a community deconstruction infrastructure that mimics decomposition and the Natural Law of Reciprocity in living systems.

By mimicking a 'natural' process at an ecosystem level, you can begin actually becoming a restorative force rather than force of death, essentially.

And yes, this proves true when one recognizes the Myth of the Pristine and the Noble Savage. Not all indigenous cultures developed cultures that became functionally restorative. But some did, contrary to your claim and underlying premise that human populations are inherently destructive.

Your assumption really runs deeply against the fundamental truth that humans are part of natural systems, rather than outside of Nature (and thus inherently destructive).

We have just forgotten much. This cultural loss of memory occurred primarily because technology is a substitute for skill (as well as an evolutionary adaptation).

Posted by: Josh Stack on 1 Dec 09

I agree with Josh - Not all human civilisations have been a destructive force. Take a look at the Aborigines here in Australia, who proliferated in one of the most hostile, dessicated environments on the planet for an estimated 50,000 years before encountering the white man; or closer to home from your point of view, the Native American peoples. They viewed themselves as part of nature, and lived in harmony with it, not against it.
The vast majority of humans worldwide have completely lost sight of this fact, and this generations-old prevailing mindset has gone way beyond the stage of being reversible. Mainly for this reason, I too believe that large cities by their very nature are unsustainable, at least in their present form.
But if the world population is to continue expanding at its current exponential rate, I cannot see any alternative; we are going to need cities as central hubs where human life may continue to thrive in the face of climate change and it's detrimental effects.
Bearing this in mind, I believe the very least we can do is to mitigate the impact of large cities on their immediate environment, and reduce net CO2 emissions thru various means currently at our disposal (public transport, 'renewable' energy sources, carbon-seqestering concrete, promotion of parklands and green areas, allotments for growing vegetables etc etc).
Only if this somewhat utopian model is embraced worldwide will it have any significant impact on atmospheric CO2 levels. However, if one large city can prove that this is not only do-able, but also economically viable, hopefully others will follow it's lead... in short, Alex, yes you have my vote.

Posted by: Adam Sherratt on 1 Dec 09

It is amazing that a city in North America is taking global warming seriously. Now if only everyone could follow their example. ...

Posted by: Meira on 3 Dec 09


I wish that were true...but merely holding conferences and gatherings about global warming, at this point in time, doesn't cut it. Only massive, self-organized action will.

Not to mention...climate change is only one of 9 proposed Planetary Limits. It's reasonably clear that even if we somehow preserve the Holocenic Climate, the living world will continue to die.

Posted by: Josh Stack on 6 Dec 09

I am also curious as to exactly how Seattle is planning on lowering their emissions, and what steps the city is taking. Your article only tells the readers what could be done to improve emissons, not what efforts the city is making to ensure that these decisions and standards will be kept, and on what level.

Posted by: Courtney on 10 Dec 09

Hey are you a professional journalist? This article is very well written, as compared to most other blogs i saw today….
anyhow thanks for the good read!

Posted by: laptoplover on 12 Dec 09

Meanwhile, the "nobel prize winner" Barack Obama - with some usual arrogance pertaining to those who claim fast to power and forgot his origins - proudfully sustain, at COP15, that USA WOULD NOT reduce emissions below 4% and this would ONLY HAPPEN if the poor countries agree to have their measures and caron emissions scrutinated by the richer countries.

Remember Michael Moore in the Oscar cerimony, when he get the Oscar for better documentary for Bowling for Columbine: "Shame on you!"

Alex: congratulations for your energy and inspiration. Keep going! (i'm working hard here in Brazil, with some NGOs, translating the ideas from Worldchanging and more...)

Posted by: Rafael Reinehr on 19 Dec 09

It is amazing that a city in North America is taking global warming seriously. Now if only everyone could follow their example

Posted by: diyet on 26 Dec 09

Techical issue: Does Worldchanging dance around in any other browsers? I use Firefox 3.5.6 and this whole page 'skips' to the left or right every few seconds... it did it 5 times while I posted this. No, 7 times.

Posted by: Eclipse Now on 28 Dec 09

Safari seems more stable.

I'd prefer the headline to be "Seattle sets bold goal to have 100% of its energy from renewables by 2030" than the term "carbon neutral". That really sounds shifty.

Now while Seattle might buy heaps of goods from China made from coal-fired power, surely just getting an American city to run on 100% renewables would be a major achievement, and demonstrate that it can be done without totally wrecking the economy?

Kill coal, and we're half way there. Get cities to be 'certified 100% coal free' and in a competition to do so and we've nearly won. It's not that complex really.

Posted by: Eclipse Now on 28 Dec 09

Ooopsss.... I didn't mean to imply in my above post that everything else would be 'business as usual'. I agree with all the Worldchanging goals such as car-free cities, Bright Green cities, etc. I don't know HOW many times I've linked to "My other car is a bright green city" which is one of my favourite articles on denser and more diverse bright green city living ever. I take all that on board.

However, as far as counting carbon goes, surely we can at least start a 'first off coal' agenda, just to simplify it and dumb it down a bit, while also propagating all the other worldchanging bright green city memes and goals.

Posted by: Eclipse Now on 28 Dec 09

Testing to see if I can replicate eclipsenow's problem. Using the same browser, I'm not having an issue. Is anyone else having a problem? If so, email

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 2 Jan 10

Very interesting post and discussion. I expanded on the transit impacts of this proposal here:

Posted by: Jarrett on 2 Jan 10

Note to EclipseNow: the page skipping issue seems to be related to zooming text-only in Firefox... I don't think it's an issue with the site in standard view.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 3 Jan 10

I think this is kind of silly. Carbon Dioxide is one of the fundamental building blocks of Life. It's what Humans and Animals exhale, and what Plants take in to grow.

It is obvious that humans are far too concerned with Heavy Industry, but maybe instead of disrupting normal people, the big destructive corporations could just relax and maybe plant some trees.

Please don't fall for the hype, and persecute the real environmentalist that don't jump on this Carbon Trading Gravy Train. Get back in tune with nature and away from this Corporate Police State Matrix we are heading in to.

Posted by: john the baptist on 15 Feb 10

Reply by Pariuri : Since somewhere around 80% of Seattle's energy needs are met with fossil fuels - there really is only one way. Nuke the city!!

Built four new Vogtle nukes right outside Everett, some time around 2020 when the Ap-1000 goes into mass production mode. By replacing fossils with the mass produced nukes the payback period would be less than three years.

Posted by: pariuri on 13 Apr 10

Interesting article,maybe in future more cities will be like Seattle green cities.

Posted by: ziare on 10 May 10

It is a good initiative, but America remain the biggest CO2 emission country (China is the nr.1), so need more actions...I hope America will reconsider in near future your environmental politics...

Posted by: Pariuri Sportive on 8 Jun 10

Carbon neutrality is a simple idea with complicated details: it’s hard to define and far-reaching in its implications. Carbon neutrality implies a city that uses no fossil fuels and produces no unused waste – a city where every system functions differently than it does today.

Posted by: superman on 12 Jun 10

Now while NY seems to buy heaps of goods from Taiwan made from coal-fired power, surely just getting an American city to run on 100% renewables would be a major achievement, and demonstrate that it can be done without totally wrecking the economy?

Kill coal, and we're half way there. Get cities to be 'certified 100% coal free' and in a competition to do so and we've nearly won. It's not that complex really.

Posted by: tuning on 22 Jun 10

I am a firm believer in climate change and the need to reduce our carbon footprint, especially in cities. I'm going back to school for my masters in architecture and want to pursue this topic for my thesis. This article is a good rallying cry but I feel it is misleading and I'll explain why and try to keep it brief.

Carbon neutrality is a myth! James Lovelock points out in his book The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, that humans breathing, plus our livestock and the agricultural industry to maintain us and our animals is responsible for roughly 50% of our carbon emissions!

For cities to go carbon neutral I see a lot of issues to cover and to address this kind of change your talking about in a 20 year span requires drastic action that frankly most people will not accept. I'll run through a few of them and please remember in our economy energy = fossil fuels = carbon emissions for the majority of everything in our lives.

-Put a moratorium on city expansion. (Both city councils and developers will fight you on this)
- Put a moratorium on agricultural land expansion. (Removing forests or other natural systems removes carbon sinks)

-Eliminate suburbs, shrink the geographical size of cities, (Detroit is actually bulldozing their suburbs but for different reasons, but same general idea)

-Increase the density of cities intensely. Cities need to move to a new kind of dense urbanism, similar to Manhattan or Hongkong to save land for natural ecosystems and agriculture.

-Change buildings energy use: buildings use even more energy than our transportation systems, for uses such as heating and cooling. Being denser will also lower infrastructure costs. Less roads = less oil in both materials, construction, maintenance and transportation.

-Super insulate buildings in all climates, in hot climates use only white (or green) roofs, in cold climates use black to absorb heat since in Canada more energy is spent on heating then cooling.

-No more commuters: Everything in the city is accessible by public transit.

-Tax the hell out of gas to encourage people to leave the car at home, or change unreasonably amounts for parking.

-Move between cities by train, no wasteful road trips.

-Find new ways to deal with waste, both sewage and garbage. (Algae blooms from human sewage and agricultural fertilizer run off on Florida's coast are killing the coral reefs. Without those reefs Florida will be washed away by storms. Algae is just as destructive as an oil spill but slower and silent. )

-Local food production? Most cities can't produce all their own food so between this and manufactured goods being shipped to your city, does count as part of your footprint? It's big is your stuff is coming from China and in the real world it should count. No city is self sustaining, nor in a global world can we try to revert back to such a model.

-Implement urban agriculture, perhaps vertically, to help with the local food supply. Urban agriculture is a fast growing field. Excuse the pun.

-Wind, solar are too inefficient and will never play a significant role in power generation.

-Nuclear is the only energy technology that has the potential to dent emissions. But we are lead to believe it is evil. There are new technologies being developed with uranium fuel to allow something called "pellet" reactors. They essentially don't melt down and can be built for a fraction of the cost of a traditional nuclear plant in less time. They would be built in a factory and shipped to site and place un underground bunkers. If these were to be dropped into place around cities, 3 - 5 of them could power most metropolitan areas. But I'm guessing you don't want this under your cities' streets. Someone also needs to get serious about fusion power.

With enough clean power, you can have electric cars and trains. As well as clean buildings augmented with solar and geothermal. Green houses and electric cars mean nothing if the power they use is from dirty sources. (Currently most new wind farms are only 20% efficient and are backup with coal fired plants for the times when the wind is too slow or too fast. Yes wind blowing too fast forces wind turbines to be shut down or risk damage They are also usually in remote areas where they are difficult to install, service and transmit power away from. I consider at sea an especially remote area)

These are only the technical aspects of the physical city and like you say, doesn't include the cultural and environmental awareness. There are also cultural and social impacts of dense cities that need to be addressed. These aspects are also not immediate to implement and will probably only reduce emissions. There are some predictions of huge population crashes in this century from arable land turning to desert. It has been suggested we all become vegetarian (IPCC) and even kill the global supply of livestock to minimize human causalities (James Lovelock). If you don't buy that idea you can't deny a single city, no matter how motivated can make a difference large enough on its own and there are too many issues that people will disagree on even outside Seattle, even if you set a magnificent example. When talking about climate change we should not set unrealistic goals that we can't reach that might discourage people from continued effort for change.

If you think I'm dead wrong about some of my statements and you have the information to back it up, or have something you think I should look at, send me a message at

Posted by: Jay on 28 Jul 10

I agree that carbon neutrality isn't the same thing as "sustainable," but it's a huge step in the right direction. I'm excited about the steps Seattle is taking. As a Midwesterner from a certain auto city that's crumbling, this makes me want to move there. Great bands and carbon neutrality are things to be proud of. Not to mention the coffee.

Posted by: AvenReeves on 20 Oct 10

Post A Comment

Please note that comments will remain open for only 14 days after the article is posted. While previous comments will remain visible, attempts to post new comments after this period will fail. This helps stop comment spam, so your forebearance is appreciated.

The Worldchanging comments are meant to be used for further exploration and evaluation of the ideas covered in our posts. Please note that, while constructive disagreement is fine, insults and abuse are not, and will result in the comment being deleted and a likely ban from commenting. We will also delete at will and without warning comments we believe are designed to disrupt a conversation rather than contribute to it. In short, we'll kill troll posts.

Finally, please note that comments which simply repost copyrighted works or commercial messages will be summarily deleted.

Yes No







MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg