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. Part environmental consultant, part futurist, the forty-two-year-old California native has been writing and lecturing around the world about social innovation, sustainable cities, and what he calls “bright green” environmentalism. His Seattle-based nonprofit organization, Worldchanging, runs an online magazine (worldchanging.com) and has published a bestselling book, Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century (Abrams).
Steffen’s commitment to environmental ideals can be traced to the communes where he grew up. “I spent my formative years in California during that period of time in the 1970s when the counterculture was on the rise and the Whole Earth Catalog was on everyone’s coffee table,” he says. “Trying to think differently about society and take a creative approach to life was the norm for me.” After graduating from Allegheny College in 1990 with a degree in history, Steffen worked abroad for three years as an environmental journalist, covering the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Brazil and Japan’s controversial fast-breeder-reactor program. He did his graduate work at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies, then worked as a columnist for the Stranger in Seattle, as a radio producer and guest host for Seattle NPR affiliate KUOW, and as a television news analyst.
Wanting to actively support the causes he had been covering for the media, he became a communications consultant for environmental groups and nonprofits, but after four years he grew disillusioned. “I was stunned to find that almost no one had any idea what a sustainable world might look like,” Steffen says.
So Steffen began writing a book depicting a sustainable future. He spent six months traveling the country and talking to scientists and environmental activists. The book deal fell through, but he came away feeling hopeful, having discovered just how many people were thinking about sustainability. Along with his friend Jamais Cascio and others, Steffen decided to create a blog about changing to a more efficient way of life. “Within less than a year it was either make it a job or stop doing it,” Steffen says, “because it was taking up all my time.”
Seven years and thousands of posts later, his “combination blog-magazine-think-tank” offers a vision of ecological problem solving that doesn’t shy away from prosperity. Steffen has replaced what he calls the “alarmist model” of environmentalism with one that promises a better future. He’s not unaware of the potential for failure — Steffen says we have at most twenty-five years to transform our civilization if we want to avert ecological catastrophe — but he prefers to focus on possible solutions that can be pursued by ordinary people.
His latest concept is the “bright green city.” A cofounder of Seattle’s Livable Communities Coalition, Steffen coined the term “bright green” to describe the combined aim of reduced environmental impact and improved design. He says “livable” cities will have lower carbon emissions and increased economic competitiveness, along with healthier populations and a greater sense of community. Efficiency, according to Steffen, will be achieved not by driving hybrids on our daily commutes or using Energy Star appliances on our two-acre suburban lots but by building compact neighborhoods in which people can walk or bike to school or work and share services and resources, saving both money and the environment. His forthcoming book, Bright Green: A Worldchanging Guide to a Future That Works, describes how we might transform our cities and suburbs over the next twenty years.
I attended a sustainability conference in Pasadena, California, where Steffen delivered a keynote speech titled “My Other Car Is a Bright Green City.” We spoke later that day. Though Steffen had a bad cold, his energy level and passion were undiminished.
Cooper: You’ve said, “To be antitechnology in this day and age is to be antienvironment.” Can you elaborate?
Steffen: Around the middle of the century we’ll see global population peak at something like 9 billion people, all of whom will want to live with a reasonable amount of prosperity, and many of whom will want, at the very least, a European lifestyle. They will see escaping poverty as their nonnegotiable right, but to deliver that prosperity at our current levels of efficiency and resource use would destroy the planet many times over. We need to invent a new model of prosperity, one that lets billions have the comfort, security, and opportunities they want at the level of impact the planet can afford. We can’t do that without embracing technology and better design.
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: So how do we start to build a sustainable society?
Steffen: I think we’re still figuring that out. Big chunks of our infrastructure, our existing cities, our manufacturing base, and so on are radically unsustainable, but we have enormous amounts of money, energy, and materials invested in them. I think the most graceful solutions are ones that take what already exists and remodel it in a way that’s new, sustainable, and even charming. Retrofitting historic buildings to make them green, for example, not only conserves the resources that went into the building in the first place, but preserves the cultural identity of the building.
Cooper: But I’ve also heard you say we need to invent a sustainable life “from scratch.”
Steffen: Although we should use what we have whenever possible, this really is a new endeavor for humanity. It’s not a matter of going back. There’s a temptation to believe that we just need to return to an earlier way of life, but I see little evidence that people are willing to give up modern comforts and safety. If we are going to reform our wasteful ways — which for middle-class Americans at this point might mean using one-tenth the resources we currently use — we’re going to have to invent new methods of delivering prosperity. Restraining prosperity simply will not work.
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 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 throwaway consumption. At the wildest extreme are those who argue that we 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 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 the responsibilities of our day, and both ignore the amazing opportunities we still have available to us 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.
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 the responsibilities of our day, and both ignore the amazing opportunities we still have available to us to create a sustainable society.
Cooper: You’ve said that we need a “bright green revolution” in this country. What are the signs that this revolution is happening?
Steffen: Well, we’ve seen the election of a U.S. president who acknowledges the magnitude of the problem and the necessity to innovate to meet it. That’s a damn good start. We’re also seeing massive investments in clean technology and green buildings and renewable energy. We’re seeing huge shifts in public opinion and a surge of consumer interest in products that are environmentally friendly. Literally millions of people are changing their lives and trying to make a difference. In conference halls and barrooms all over the world, people are coming together to talk about sustainability. Thousands of civic groups have sprung up to address societal transformation. There’s been an explosion of websites and books and television shows and documentaries about climate change. I think the revolution is happening; the world is getting better. The only question is: Is it getting better fast enough?
Cooper: But how do you market sustainability? How do you make it look desirable and fun and fashionable?
Steffen: I think in a lot of ways that fight’s already over. Green has already become the new black. It’s already hip and trendy. Driving a Hummer brands you as a jerk, and eating organic already shows your good taste. But we can’t shop our way to sustainability. The problems we face are of such magnitude that we can’t just replace a few of the products and machines we regularly use with others that are slightly greener. If we’re going to avoid catastrophe, we have to redesign the systems in our life, not just replace the individual parts.
Cooper: OK, so replacing SUVs with hybrids, for example, won’t save us, but shouldn’t we be driving hybrids as an intermediate step?
Steffen: People tend to assume that the answer to the ecological impact of automobiles is to redesign the car itself, but the problem with cars isn’t under their hoods, and the negative impact of driving them has little to do with their means of operation. It’s more about the roads we build and the parking cars require. These huge areas of impervious ground surface are ruining our water quality. I read recently that we’ve paved an area the size of Connecticut for parking in the U.S. There are also the negative impacts of cars that we don’t think about: the brake pads wearing down or the engines leaking oil. Add to that the ecological impacts of manufacturing a car in the first place: mining all that metal and producing all those plastics and adhesives. The new-car smell we’re so used to is the product of adhesive off-gassing.
Cars are incredibly toxic from start to finish. We could drive the greenest cars in the world, and the other negative impacts would still be there. If we’re serious about sustainability, we need to replace the system. The most sustainable form of transportation is not going anywhere in the first place, because what you need is close by. The most important step is redesigning our cities so people don’t move around as much. That trumps everything else we might be doing in terms of transportation.
But this is all harder than just shopping for something different, so there’s a tendency to promote “buying green” as a short-term solution.
Cooper: How do we get people to take the larger steps, rather than just changing what they buy?
Steffen: One strategy is to focus on the less visible benefits. For example, living and working in a more compact community means you don’t have to drive two hours a day, so you get to spend more time with friends and family and less time in your car. It also means you’re likely to spend more of your time walking, biking, and being active. Eating sustainable food means you’re more likely to be having healthy, nutritious meals. Living in a more sustainable community actually makes us happier than living in a throwaway society. Prosperity is not just material wealth but greater health and happiness and connection.
But whether we act now or not, our lives are going to be very different within a couple of decades. Either we make a conscious choice to change, or we’ll be driven to it by mounting catastrophes, and we don’t want that.
Cooper: At some point, even if we successfully market sustainable products, Americans will need to consume less. How do we escape a shopping mentality?
Steffen: I’m not sure the “shopping mentality” is the root of the problem. People have always liked to shop. We might want to think that humans were somehow more virtuous in an earlier time, but if you read medieval history, you find that market days were a huge event and people showed off their wealth. In the thirteenth century the market for “vanities” was said to be destroying the moral fiber of society. In Renaissance Florence there was a revolution against consumerism. Commercial interactions are deeply ingrained in society. I don’t think trying to eradicate shopping should be our goal. I think our aim should be to reveal to people the back story of the product they’re buying — how it was made, and by whom, and in what conditions, and with what ecological impacts — so consumers can decide whether it makes sense to buy it. And we shouldn’t be subsidizing poor choices. Consumers should have clear market incentives to aim for zero waste and to buy low-impact products. We need incentives for sharing and mandates for the company that makes a product to take it back and recycle it when we’re done with it. We should require more resilience and adaptability in the goods we buy — more items that can be fixed and less planned obsolescence. The products we surround ourselves with in daily life could work just as well, or better, while using a tiny fraction of the resources and energy they now demand. Making ultra-low-impact products the norm is far more important than putting all of the responsibility on individuals to parse the impacts of every item they buy.
The most sustainable form of transportation is not going anywhere in the first place, because what you need is close by. The most important step is redesigning our cities so people don’t move around as much.
Cooper: In your blog you’ve written about reframing the environmental debate. How?
Steffen: Environmentalism has traditionally described a threat and proposed action to benefit critters and places that are distantly removed from us. The problem with framing environmentalism as a series of sacrifices that are required in order to preserve the natural world is that people want to know what’s in it for them. We know that sustainability offers tremendous advantages to the average person. Adopting clean technology, renewable energy, green design, and sustainable urban development will make us economically competitive in the new world we’re moving toward. Our current way of living takes its toll on our health. It requires us to be in bed with unsavory political regimes. It fuels terrorism and resentment worldwide, making us less safe. It tends to promote brittle, top-down systems that can’t even withstand natural disasters, as we’ve seen with Hurricane Katrina and with the Atlanta drought. But environmentalists have a tendency to focus on distant places and endangered animals instead of offering people an improved life.
Cooper: I’m curious: where do you get your information? You’re well versed in so many subjects.
Steffen: A lot of what I read these days is material that others have sent me, and I have the great luxury and pleasure of having well-read friends. I pay close attention to a handful of publications, but I also scan about two hundred other sites, as much to see what they are up to as to learn directly from them. I’m encouraged by the speed with which a whole host of online publications about sustainability have arisen, all with competing ideas and differing approaches. Just keeping up with the best of them is more than a full-time job.
Cooper: How did you get into the business of changing the world?
Steffen: Being raised by hippies on a commune, I was taught that part of our role in life is to make things better for the planet and other people. My father, in particular, was passionately looking for new alternatives. I grew up knowing Turkish Sufis, Native American spiritual leaders, black revolutionaries, and pot-smoking academics. When you spend your early years thinking it’s normal to have a dinner party sitting on the floor eating whole-wheat pasta in a tepee, it does something to the way you view the world. [Laughter.]
We lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for a while, and then we had a place in Humboldt County in northern California. The plan was for everyone in the commune to move there and start a new way of life, but, as it turned out, living in the country is hard, farming is difficult, and people were scared of having to give up everything familiar. The commune became more of a shared place in the country where a group of people went to connect to nature. So my background made me both profoundly optimistic about our ability to change the world and profoundly skeptical about the possibility of creating utopias.
Cooper: How do you look at all these problems and stay optimistic?
Steffen: Optimism is a political act. Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy for us to 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 problems we face and still insist that we can solve them. A stubborn commitment to solving problems and a faith in our ability to do so doesn’t need to be naive.
A healthy skepticism is always warranted; we shouldn’t believe everything we read. But the pervasive cynicism that has infected American culture is self-destructive and plays right into the hands of those who want the status quo to continue a little longer because there’s money to be made.
Despair and cynicism are a large part of what’s preventing us from solving our problems. Among my more political friends, optimism is seen as something you have before you find out the truth. But I think choosing optimism says to your opponents, “I can see a better way of doing this.” We can rally people around a vision of a better future for ourselves and our grandkids and our great-grandkids.
For too long progressives have been obsessed with critiquing and pointing out the problems. They’ve forgotten to have conversations about the solutions, which 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 nonrepresentative 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: Why do you think the Left has tended toward a critique mind-set?
Steffen: My sense is that it goes back to the Enlightenment and the idea that you liberate people to work toward solutions by first describing the nature of their problems. But a perfect critique will never, by itself, cause even one domino to fall. We owe a great debt to those who look hard at problems and do investigative and academic research, but I think that when we focus solely on the problems, it results in what Rabbi Michael Lerner calls a “surplus powerlessness,” a sort of learned helplessness.
The traditional model of environmental fundraising has been to hit people with statements about climate change and mass extinctions and horrific die-offs of species — and then ask for a donation. [Laughs.] That’s woefully insufficient. There’s a great Edward Abbey quote: “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” And much of environmental activism so far has given people few avenues for action. We tell them the world’s ending; then we ask them to write a check or recycle a can or plant a tree, when we ought to be encouraging them to transform their lives, communities, workplaces, and governments.
Cooper: So at Worldchanging you don’t do critiques?
Steffen: There are times when a new analysis of a problem is so compelling that we’ll write about it, because the change in thinking that it enables is almost a solution in itself. But conceptual breakthroughs are rare. In general we stick to discussing solutions and understanding larger trends.
Cooper: And I assume you get criticized for that approach?
Steffen: Sure. One of the ironies about Worldchanging is that we share progressives’ desire for ecological sustainability and social justice, yet most of the anger directed at us is from the far Left, because we fail to embrace some theory or another.
Cooper: You’ve said that the “tools we use to change the world ought to be beautiful in themselves.”
Steffen: I think there’s a tendency, when we’re trying to change society, to assume that beauty is frivolous and wasteful, but beauty is essential to our emotional and spiritual well-being and therefore is essential to the creation of solutions. If we created a sustainable city that had all the charm of a Stalinist housing block, it would fail even if it “worked.” We need to offer people a world that will be beautiful and fun to live in, not just one that allows for our survival.
Cooper: This brings to mind the Viridian Design Movement. What is it, and how did you get involved?
Steffen: The Viridian Design Movement was started in the midnineties by science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling, who is a friend of mine. It was a small circle of people who envisioned a sustainable future that could compete with our present culture on the grounds of luxury, style, and beauty. We had a listserv that we batted ideas around on, and over time several thousand people signed up. That list was the genesis of Worldchanging, because almost everyone who contributed to Worldchanging at the start was from the Viridian list. Also a lot of the “green-lifestyle” boom we’ve seen in the last three years is directly or indirectly related to people from that list. It will probably be forgotten in history, but it was a place where a small group of people sparked some large cultural changes.
Cooper: Do you think the Internet is the best way to bring people together?
Steffen: I’m not an Internet fundamentalist. I think we need face-to-face communication. In fact, online and in-person communications can feed each other. Urban people who are more wired also spend more time in cafes and bars, talking with their friends. But I do think that because of generations of television and suburban living, we are less skilled than we used to be at the art of community: taking care of one another, sitting down and thinking together, speaking directly about our concerns.
Cooper: Worldchanging started out as a blog. Are blogs as trustworthy as other forms of journalism?
Steffen: For a while blogs were thought of as a way for self-involved technology workers to bloviate about their opinions. There is still plenty of that, and plenty of reasons to be alarmed at the collapse of traditional newspapers and magazines, but we also have to recognize that digital media are spurring an explosion of thoughtful, original content. They allow highly specialized microcommunities to form quickly and share information about specific topics, from local politics to software management. They also allow the building of bridges among cultures and disciplines. Take, for instance, the Global Voices project, which connects bloggers from all over the world.
The core issue now is free access to knowledge and Internet neutrality. Some of the fundamental protections keeping the Net a free mode of expression are in danger, and it is increasingly common for repressive governments to restrict their citizens’ access to the Internet and jail online journalists and bloggers.
Cooper: I’d like to shift the discussion back to the 1970s. The Environmental Protection Agency was created under Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House. Earth Day celebrations were starting. The environmental movement was gaining momentum. What happened?
Steffen: I think it met some thugs in a dark alley. Environmentalists in the 1970s underestimated the viciousness of the opposition they would encounter from defenders of the status quo. We saw a wave of right-wing think tanks, publications, and special-interest groups dedicated to misinformation and propaganda. We saw direct pressure from federal and local authorities to break up groups they didn’t like. The backlash caught environmentalists off guard, in part because the issues they were raising were so self-evidently real. But since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, every presidential administration has been either actively hostile to the idea of sustainability or, in the case of the Clinton administration, simply powerless or unwilling to do much.
Unless we see radical changes in the next few years, I believe history may judge that period as the time in which the U.S. made its own collapse inevitable. Compared to what has happened over the past thirty years in, say, Europe and Japan — and even in some developing countries — our loss of initiative is phenomenal. We now have competitors abroad who are living in ways that are still regarded here as a hippie’s acid-riddled dream: whole cities and nations with plans to get off fossil fuels, move toward zero-waste products, and build millions of zero-energy homes.
I’ve spent a lot of time in northern Europe in the last few years, and every time I come home, I’m shocked at how run-down, poverty-stricken, and outdated this country feels. I don’t think most Americans really understand how far behind we’ve fallen.
Cooper: Yet the environmental movement did gain a lot of steam during George W. Bush’s years in office. Did resistance fuel it, or was it the threat of climate change?
Steffen: I think we’re seeing a shift in consciousness that’s been in the works for a long time, some of which stems from the environmental movement, and some of which is due to a shift in generational priorities. Younger people can’t help thinking about sustainability because, if you’re a twenty-one-year-old college student, you have never known a moment when the environment wasn’t in decline, and 2050 is a date you expect to live to see.
Though these young Americans may believe passionately in environmental sustainability, many don’t consider themselves a part of the environmental movement. One reason is that almost all environmental groups are playing catch-up in the discussion of what a sustainable future could look like. The most ambitious plans are coming off the desks of designers, architects, planners, engineers, and entrepreneurs. I’ve been told that some environmental groups are aging, because no younger people are joining. The graying of the environmental movement is directly related, I think, to its lack of optimism and solutions.
Cooper: How can you convince those who still identify themselves as environmentalists to change without invalidating their decades of work?
Steffen: I have nothing but respect and gratitude for the people who have gotten us to where we are now. It could be a lot worse than it is. There have been tremendous victories, particularly in terms of preserving wild land. I think the challenge is to take the sort of thinking we’ve applied to wild lands and bring it into our day-to-day lives. We need to have an ecological perspective on the way we live, and to do that we need to create a new prosperity that will work within natural systems. There’s no desire on my part to invalidate earlier approaches, but we now know that the necessary change won’t happen if we just stick to those approaches.
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 in a pastoral model of sustainability. But we’ve come to realize that, in fact, cities are not only not the problem; they are our best solution. People who live close together use 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 outperform suburbs by every measure of sustainability. In fact, if you wanted to design a way of life with maximum potential to destroy the climate and living systems, you’d have a hard 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, drive less (and thus die in car crashes in far smaller numbers), have more friends, and have better support systems as they age or when they get sick. We 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 a suburban development.
It’s also easier to share resources when you’re in a densely populated environment that’s permeated with technology. Take car sharing, for example. It’s a popular practice in some major cities where people don’t want to own cars but might need one every now and then. 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.
Optimism is a political act. Those who benefit from the status quo are perfectly happy for us to think nothing is going to get any better. In fact, these days, cynicism is obedience.
Cooper: What about a sprawling city like Los Angeles?
Steffen: When you look at the urban areas of Los Angeles, some are fairly dense, and many are seeing development in remaining empty or underutilized spaces. When you look at the larger metropolitan area, however, you find what you see in almost every American metropolis: energy use and environmental destructiveness increase the farther out from the city center you get. The newest, leafiest suburbs, which tend to be the wealthiest ones, are extremely unsustainable.
At the same time, we’re seeing some large shifts. The first is that our population continues to grow, both from new births and from new immigrants. The second is that younger couples are flocking to walkable neighborhoods in numbers that far outstrip supply. The third is that we have a huge backlog of deferred infrastructure repairs at the same time that energy costs and carbon prices are set to rise. So hopefully that will lead to more environmental retrofitting. Add these all together, and we’ll be seeing massive change in many American cities over the next twenty years.
So the question is: How do we channel growth in the U.S. away from those outer-ring suburbs — and the “exurbs” even farther out, with their rural-suburban mix — and into walkable, bikeable, mass-transit-oriented urban areas? If we can do that, we’ll also be preserving farmland and forests.
This battle has begun in Middle America, and I expect it to be fought for the next ten years or so. As far as I’m concerned, there’s simply no way you can make sprawl sustainable, but you can remake many closer-in suburbs into compact communities with bright green infrastructure, and revitalize those urban areas that remain blighted.
Cooper: Does the public still view the city as a gritty, dirty place?
Steffen: That mind-set is shifting along class and age lines. The younger and richer you are, the more likely you are to think that city living is great. Some empty nesters are returning to urban life — but, again, they tend to be upper-middle-class. Most people who are lower income or middle-aged or older still think of the house on the one-acre lot and the SUV in the garage as evidence of prosperity. It’s one of the great ironies of the twenty-first century that we’ve seen people claw their way out of the lower-middle class by buying suburban homes only to find that they can’t afford them. Those homeowners are now behind the eight ball of both the mortgage crisis and transportation costs. As a country we need to determine how to get them out of that situation without imposing all the costs on them and leaving all the profits to development companies and banks.
Cooper: But the young, rich people and empty nesters in cities aren’t raising kids, for the most part. How do you get families to move to the city?
Steffen: The conventional wisdom is that families hate cities, but that’s not true for people under forty. The whole idea of what constitutes a good neighborhood has changed. People see the trade-offs in a compact neighborhood as weighing overall in their favor. The biggest problem with families and cities is the school system. The way we fund schools almost everywhere in North America is inequitable, and urban schools get the shaft. That is not a result of land-use planning; it’s a result of political corruption. If we want to make the transition from suburban to urban, we need equity in access to education, healthcare, and police services. And we need more housing in cities, because the demand is there for it.
Cooper: So if you make the cities middle-class, what happens to the urban poor?
Steffen: We know what happens to the urban poor, because it’s already happening. They’re getting pushed out into suburbs that are in decline. Older suburbs are rapidly becoming the slums of the twenty-first century. And although this is the current trend, we can choose to make our urban centers places where all people can afford to live.
Cooper: How do you live sustainably in a suburban home?
Steffen: Currently you don’t. We’d like to believe that what I call “the swap” is possible — that instead of living in a McMansion, I can live in an ecomansion. But that’s just not true. The systems in which that ecomansion are embedded are so destructive, there’s simply no way to operate them in a sustainable manner. Redeveloping the suburbs is an enormous challenge, and it will probably mean completely rebuilding them into something different.
Cooper: So what can we do with these suburbs? After all, many Americans live in them.
Steffen: That’s one of the big questions. About a third of Americans live in suburbs, a good portion of which are newer suburbs, the least sustainable kind. We can use new growth to create dense communities at the heart of some of those suburbs. We might be able to raise sufficient densities to allow for public transportation. But I think we lack the political will to make the kinds of changes necessary, and we’re simply going to see a collapse in housing value, and the suburbs will become the new slums, with many of the same problems that poor rural areas suffer from now.
I don’t see any future in which most people will be able to live on one-acre lots and drive everywhere they need to go. There are enormous financial costs to maintaining suburban life that suburbanites don’t pay directly, and we as a nation don’t have the capacity to keep paying those costs much longer.
Cooper: And what about other countries like China where people are striving for this McMansion lifestyle?
Steffen: It’s important to recognize that, though people around the world are striving for American-style prosperity, they want it in a Chinese or Indian or Brazilian context, which is often much more sustainable than what we have.
That said, we cannot afford a world where another 5 billion people live like Americans. Part of our task is to invent a new American prosperity that people elsewhere can emulate, so those 5 billion people won’t be looking for McMansions, McDonald’s, and SUVs; they’ll be looking for green condos, cafes, and electric cars powered by renewable energy.
Cooper: We’ve been using the term “McMansion” disparagingly, to represent overconsumption, but for McDonald’s to use a recycled material or Wal-Mart to carry an organic product has a huge impact. Should we be trying to partner with such companies, or are they dinosaurs that can’t survive the switch to a sustainable society?
Steffen: I think if we try to get corporations to swap out something totally unsustainable for something less unsustainable, we’re going to fail. That doesn’t mean there’s no place for corporations in the bright green revolution, but it does mean they need to be completely reimagined; it’s not enough just to green the surface.
Cooper: So what’s your feeling about what Wal-Mart is doing these days with its “green roof” in Chicago and all the organic food it’s selling?
Steffen: Is it better that Wal-Mart sell organic food and compact fluorescents than not sell them? Yes. Does that mean that Wal-Mart is in any way pushing the transition that we need to make? No. The company is still promoting disposable consumer culture. It’s still an active lobbyist for sprawl. On balance it’s working against what needs to happen.
Cooper: Since you’ve begun working on sustainability issues, have you changed the way you live?
Steffen: Yes and no. I don’t drive a car. I compost and recycle. I live in a compact community. I buy mostly local and organic food. I’ve never been all that attracted by the idea of living in a McMansion or driving an SUV, so I can’t say the way I live is a sacrifice. But I believe that making the correct lifestyle choices isn’t as important as changing the broader systems in which we are meshed. What’s most important for me is the work I do to change those systems. I’d rather see a movement of optimistic fighters than a movement of would-be saints.
Cooper: You’ve said that you like this quote from novelist William S. Burroughs: “They did not fully understand the technique. In a very short time, they nearly wrecked the planet.” Why does it speak to you?
Steffen: I love the idea that there is a proper technique to living on this planet. For too long we’ve had this romantic notion that nature’s perfect, and humanity has fallen from grace, and there’s really no way to be a human being and not abuse nature. But if we view how we live on the planet as a matter of technique, we can see ourselves not as evil but as ignorant. These things are happening because of our poor choices, not because of our nature. We can make better choices. The future isn’t already written.
When I began confronting these planetary crises, I felt overwhelming despair at times. There are studies coming out that connect the rise of depression and addiction to a heightened awareness of planetary problems. There’s even a term for it: “solastalgia” — sorrow for the loss of the environment we once knew. It is important that we turn our anger and pain against the destructive systems we’ve built and forgive one another and ourselves.
Cooper: Is your optimism connected to some kind of spiritual practice?
Steffen: I don’t engage in any spiritual practice, but I’ve come to realize that the essence of what I’m doing is in some way spiritual. When you boil it down, I believe that if immortality exists, it can be found only through the effect we have on those who come after us. If there is some sort of universal ethic, it is simply this: Be responsible to future generations. The problems we face are horrific, and fighting to prevent planetary catastrophe is not easy. There’s another side as well, though, which is that our lives and actions can matter in a quietly heroic way. We have a rare opportunity to increase the chance that our descendants will live in a better world. Our work, done right, will keep humanity — and the planet — going for a long, long time.