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Interview with Alex Steffen in The Sun
Amanda Reed, 5 Apr 10

Worldchanging's Executive Editor Alex Steffen was interviewed by Arnie Cooper for the April 2010 issue of The Sun. The interview explores Alex's vision for bright green cities and his ideas about the politics of optimism. The first third of the interview is available online at The Sun. You can read the full interview in print; the April issue of The Sun is available on newsstands now.

Here is a preview:

Environmentalists have been talking for decades about “sustainability” — the need to live in a way that doesn’t deplete natural resources. But a sustainable society appears to be at odds with our economy’s imperative for growth. Alex Steffen believes that prosperity doesn’t have to come at the expense of the environment and could actually help save it.

Cooper: You told a CNN reporter that we’ve got twenty-five years to save the world. How did you come up with that number?

Steffen: Well, nobody is sure, but the best information of which I’m aware is that we need to end up with probably no more than 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and allowing levels to rise over 450 could well trigger a series of catastrophes. We are already up to almost 390, and global production of greenhouse gases is accelerating. If we don’t start making profound changes, we will hit that tipping point within the next couple of decades. In fact, there are already worrisome signs, such as polar ice melting at a rate we didn’t expect to see for at least twenty years.

Although climate change gets all the press, we’ll face a number of other serious concerns in the near future. The capacity of many ecosystems around the world to provide the resources we need is collapsing. The rate of species loss is accelerating. We’re headed toward not just peak oil, but peak everything. When you look at all of these trends together, you start to realize that by the year 2050 — and that’s a conservative estimate — we’ll need to have eliminated global greenhouse-gas emissions and also greatly reduced the impact our way of life has on other natural systems. We can’t do that globally if we don’t have an effective model in place here in the developed world by 2030. One of the heads of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that if we haven’t made profound changes — in the way we look at the environment and the incentives we’re offering and the kinds of research we’re doing — within the next five years or so, we’re going to miss the turn. In other words, we have five years to start making big changes, twenty years to finish making them here, and at most forty years to spread those changes to every corner of the earth.

Cooper: How do you look at all these problems and stay optimistic?

Steffen: Well, optimism is a political act. Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy with a large population of people who think nothing is going to get any better. In fact, these days, cynicism is obedience.

What's really radical is being willing to look right at the magnitude and difficulty of the problems we face and still insist that we can solve those problems. Nothing about a stubborn commitment to solving problems and a faith in our ability to do so needs to be naive.

For too long progressives have been too obsessed with critiquing and pointing out the problems. They’ve forgotten to have conversations about the solutions, which are likely to engage a wider spectrum of Americans. When you talk about solutions, you can transcend some of the political barriers that keep people apart. My favorite example of this is the coalition demanding debt relief for the developing world. It includes, on the one hand, radical leftists who believe that debt incurred under non-representative government is a form of imperialism, and, on the other, evangelical Christians who believe that the Bible instructs us to forgive the debt of those who cannot pay. You don’t often find socialists and evangelicals working side by side, but that’s what’s happening, because they agree on the solution.

Cooper: Tell me more about "bright green" cities.

Steffen: Until recently most people who cared about the environment thought of cities as part of the problem. They believed that a pastoral, small town was the best model of sustainability. But we’ve come to realize that, in fact, cities not only are not the problem, they are our best solution.

People who live close together use far fewer resources than those who live far apart. New York City has a larger population than thirty-nine of our U.S. states, but it uses less energy than any of them. And the denser a population is, the lower its CO2 emissions per person.

Cities out-perform suburbs by essentially every measure of sustainability. In fact, if wanted to design a way of life with maximum potential to destroy the climate and living systems, you'd have a harder time coming up with a better model than low-density suburban sprawl. And compact communities are healthier places to live, since the people who live in walkable neighborhoods tend to be more active and drive less (and thus die in car crashes in far fewer numbers), have more friends and have better support systems as they age or when they sicken. We now know how to make dense communities that offer plenty of relaxation, greenery, and room for children at a small fraction of the ecological impact of suburban life.

It’s also easier to transform your relationship to stuff when you’re in a densely populated environment that’s permeated with technology. For example, take car sharing. Not that long ago, if you wanted to use a car-sharing service, you had to send in a form weeks in advance to reserve a car on a certain date for certain hours. With the advance of cellphone and GPS technology, it’s now possible to take out your iPhone, find the nearest car-share car, make an online reservation, walk over to it, swipe your card in the lock, get in, and drive away. The sharing of objects and the transformation of products into services is one of the greatest points of leverage in our current industrial system. When you know where things are and who wants to use them, it’s easy to share. The same forces that make sharing easier also encourage producer take-backs and other closed-loop systems that conserve resources and energy.

Cooper: Author Derrick Jensen, in a talk he gave in Toronto, said that the only sustainable way of life humans have had was during the Stone Age.

Steffen: I have problems with the ethics of that statement, because it ignores the catastrophic human suffering that would be involved in a return to a Stone Age way of life. We know that way of life can’t support a population in the billions, so trying to go back to it would require the death of most of the world’s people. Beyond that, I think it’s obvious that nature is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Humanity Inc. We have the capacity to take it down with us if we choose, and people who are put into desperate situations will do just that. There’s this sort of college-town anarchist idea that if we let it all fall apart, out of the ruins will come something clean and noncommercial and egalitarian and more in touch with nature, but that’s just crazy. Hungry people don’t think about the future. As my colleague Alan AtKisson says, a world of starving people will be a world without panda bears, dolphins or rain forests. By the time we got back to the Stone Age, we wouldn’t have the same world we had during the Stone Age. We simply can’t go back; there’s no “back” to go back to.

There's a similar, equally deluded idea from the other side which is to assume that technology will magically find a way to let us continue living wasteful, suburban lives based on throw-away consumption. At the wildest extreme are those who argue that we simply can't change and need to look for ways to "geo-engineer" the planet -- for instance, by creating artificial volcanoes to fill the atmosphere with particles that reduce the amount of sunlight reaching us here on the ground. Saying we need to rush back to the caves and saying we need to terraform the Earth are different sides of the same coin: both are profound retreats from responsibilities of our day, and both ignore the amazing opportunities we still have to create a sustainable society.

The choices we make today will determine the choices our descendants will have for thousands of years. This is a critical moment, too critical for us to get lost in fantasies.

Read more here.

Image of city skyline modified from Flickr photographer Eva Abreu and used under the Creative Commons License.

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Regarding this statement:

"I think it’s obvious that nature is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Humanity Inc. We have the capacity to take it down with us if we choose, and people who are put into desperate situations will do just that."

Obvious? Huh? You really think humans have THAT much power over the universe? The way we're currently living is VERY new. And it speeds up and grows everyday. What makes this person think that humans are in control?

Posted by: Bosco on 5 Apr 10

What makes you think that having 'that much power over the Universe' equates to 'being in control', Bosco? (think 'bull in china shop')

re: geo-engineering. There is the case that, properly applied (and, aye, there's the rub!), it gives us a bit more breathing space in which to fix the underlying problems.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 5 Apr 10


That's just the natural and most reasonable implication of the example, that "...I think it’s obvious that nature is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Humanity Inc."

That's particularly true if one considers the true nature of the corporate example - being a "wholly owned subsidiary" means being completed controlled. Any perceived autonomy of the subsidiary is, in all cases, derivative to the corporate parent.

Personally I believe that Alex commits the same fallacy as Stuart Brand, when he proclaimed (paraphrasing), "Humans are as gods, so we might as well get good at it." The fundamental flaw here, as Alex identifies but then also makes, is that, with humanity as geologic force (a force of nature), "We have the capacity to take it down with us if we choose..."

That is, because S. Brand and Alex, while correctly recognizing that we as a species are a biogeologic force, fundamentally misunderstand that reality. In their view, if we hold the power to destroy on a planetary scale, then too we must hold the power to create on a planetary scale, in Brand's words, to act as Gods.

I wonder what justification underlies the assumption, that since we destroy globally, we can conjure Life using what is becoming more and more like technological deism (as example, check out the recent interview in Orion by the founder of Wired). While certainly I don't ascribe this extreme technologist's view to Alex or Brand, the implicit assumption is that our technology, or that by virtue of being a planetary force, we need only design bright green cities using the WorldChanging menu, while avoiding "the Swap."

The power to destroy does not imply the power to create. And while we are immensely talented at creating "innovations," these are typically invasive, as in not much different than invasive species. We seem to almost wholly lack the consciousness that is a precondition of creating, restoring, purifying or repairing within CONTEXT, here the context of Holocene versus Anthropocene, and across the different scales of time, space and pace of the Panarchy.

I believe it, when as Janine Benyus has challenged designers, "go design Spring." Or winter for that matter.

Posted by: Josh Stack on 6 Apr 10

Because it's Alex's game, he can make the rules, including drawing the boundaries of the sustainability box anywhere he wants. Drawing the boundary around NYC and proclaiming it sustainable might make him feel better but it means nothing. Unless you can eat CDOs and heat your apartment with flash animation, it doesn't have much basis in reality. Try extending the boundary to catch the Bayway Refinery in NJ to capture the gasoline that fuels all those taxis. Extend it to Buchanan to include Indian Point and the folks who work there. And those are just two energy inputs. We haven't addressed agriculture, construction materials, etc. Additionally, NYC wasn't created in an instant out of nothing. It took hundreds of years of unsustainable activity and climate and environmental devastation to get where it is. So, not only can Alex draw the geographical boundary to define sustainability, he has control of the sustainability stopwatch. The concept is artificial and arrogant.

Posted by: Bryan on 6 Apr 10

Alex doesn't say that NYC is sustainable. He says it does better on measures of sustainability than suburbs. And those measures take into account the resources that go into making the city run. People in big cities tend to use less energy per person because density is more efficient in several ways: mobility, heating, distribution, etc.

Nothing can be sustainable until everything is. Should we price carbon at a sustainable level, suburban lifestyles will likely become far more expensive because they ultimately require more resources.

Of course it comes at a cost. 500 sq ft of living space is substantial in NYC. 2500 sqft is more the norm in suburbia.

Posted by: Bill S on 6 Apr 10

My thought on whether technology can save us...
It certainly can help. People like amory lovins have convinced me that we waste more than enough energy that with reorganization of the economy we can put capitalism to work to solve the problem. There seem to be plenty of good ideas about how to do that... green tax shift, cap and trade, etc.
Then we can get those hyper competitive corporations working on "rolling back" embodied energy instead of prices.

That will fail to solve the spiritual deficiency of greed and materialism. I accept that. These are the demons we all battle as humans. I doubt there is anything that congress can do to legislate it away! Congress can, with the help of informed citizens, pass a carbon tax (or whatever it takes to make emitting carbon more expensive). Then we will have extended the clock to allow humanity more time for the pursuit of perfecting itself. I want the suffering to end as much as anyone, but prefer it happen cause we all become self actualized instead of through species extincting environmental catastrophe.

I guess I end up feeling like a bio-technical optimist: I think nature is powerful enough that if we can reduces the cuts to the planet from thousands to hundreds to tens, then the planet will stabilize the rest. Or maybe it is just desperation: what other viable strategy do we have?

Posted by: Bill S on 6 Apr 10

I don't think we are in control of nature. We can have an effect(whether positive or negative). Nature will sort itself out. Its our future generations are at stake. How they live will depend on what actions we take today, whether to live more sustainably & respect nature(live in harmony with it) instead of trying to out do it.

Posted by: Rahim on 6 Apr 10

I was reacting to Bosco's apparent indignation at the thought of man being in control of nature, and was separating two 'reasonable' assertions that 1.mankind 'owns' nature in the sense that our actions affect nature, and that 2. mankind controls nature (voluntarily). The first is demonstrably true. The second is likely false (or Alex would have another day job!). Indeed, it would be rather risky to presume that *anyone* is in control at the moment!

I think this needs to change.

While it is valid and useful to distinguish between the power to create and destroy. We can certainly destroy! However, I do not think it helpful to assume that we lack the power to create just because we haven't really tried to, yet.

NY (and any other city) has a lower ecological footprint than outer suburbia. It doesn't mean that it has no footprint, just that it's easier to 'close the loops'.

'Bright Green' is an expression of positive sum thinking. It is not simply a matter of applying the label (as any serious WC reader should have picked up on by now!) It may be that there is no other option than 'making the swap' (whatever that is), but it doesn't help to constrain your investigations to zero sum options before you have to.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 6 Apr 10

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