Imagining Cities That Can Save The Planet: Alex Steffen Talks About Carbon Zero

From writing about the interrelationship between urban density and affordability to reinventing prosperity, esteemed futurist and author Alex Steffen has always been a source of ideas and inspiration—and occasionally discord—for many of the writers at TreeHugger. I suspect that most of us have the Worldchanging Book on our shelves and refer to it regularly. So while it was a sad day when Worldchanging shut up shop, it was pretty clear we'd be hearing more from Mr. Steffen. And we were not disappointed.

Steffen's latest project, Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities That Can Save the Planet, redefines what being a successful city means in a rapidly warming and increasingly urbanized world. It goes on sale this week as an e-book. We sat down with the author to find out more. 

In the opening to Carbon Zero, you describe our future according to the current state of climate models as ranging from the “very dangerous” to “catastrophic”. Clearly there is no sugar coating our situation any more. But how do we avoid alienating or demoralizing people?

We face a planetary crisis and there is no point in denying it. Research is now showing us that levels of warming we thought were safe just ten years ago, are actually not really safe at all. Even our best realistic climate outcomes now involve consequences.

Of course, if we don’t act we have ahead of us the worrying possibility of setting in motion a magnitude of climate change that would simply be beyond adaptation for human civilization as we have come to know it. So, our choices are dangerous consequences or nearly unimaginable catastrophe.

That said, it’s important that we remember two things.

The first is that we still have an enormous amount of agency. We do still have a choice. We can keep climate change a crisis that’s enormous, but manageable, or continue to burn fossil fuels until it upends everything we know.

There’s no really rosy scenario ahead, where climate change just doesn’t happen, but I believe we don’t have the ethical right to throw our hands up in the air and say “game over”. Whatever pathway we choose,  our descendants will be dealing with that reality for centuries to come. Though we may feel discouraged, outraged or depressed about the options open to us, we have a duty to future generations to persevere and create the best future we can.

The second thing to remember is that acting boldly to meet the climate challenge gives us a giant opportunity to make things better. The future we create can in many ways be brighter than what we have now, even with all the consequences we've already set in motion.

There’s a lot of evidence that shows that if we push as hard as we need to for net-zero emissions, we’ll find ourselves with cities that are more secure, healthier, and have more economic opportunity—are frankly better cities to live in—than if we settle for the status quo. The surprising fact about the future we’re moving into may not be how bad have things gotten, but how good they can get.

When we need to act, and act boldly—and when acting boldly may bring incredible benefits—there’s really no reason not to do it, except that most of us have not yet been able to imagine what that better future might look like.

Carbon Zero offers and explains one possible vision for how that future might work.

You’ve previously argued that cynicism is too often framed as rebellion, and that optimism is the true radicalism. Why is that?

Powerful people doing bad things like cynical, despairing citizens. The fossil fuel companies and other interests trying to blocking progress began with a massive campaign of denialism, but have now begun promoting the notion that, if the climate crisis is real, it’s too big and daunting to tackle anyway, so we should just do nothing, or pin our hopes on geoengineering or something

And those opponents of change—what we might think of as the Carbon Lobby— have been really effective. They’ve gained decades of massive profits through our inaction.

You can’t fight that with despair and cynicism. You fight that with creativity and optimism. You fight that by showing we can do better and demanding it.

Does this speak to the notion of what is, and what is not, politically feasible?

The struggle to define realism, and what is realistic, is a core political battle. I think we need to insist on a realism that’s, you know, based on actual reality. Unfortunately, in the United States at least, that’s a radical position.

The question of "What is realistic?" has been heavily influenced by people who have a lot of money at stake. If you listen to the Beltway debate, what you hear is nothing but a mixture of denial and the ducking of responsibility. That itself is the product of the Carbon Lobby spending a ton of money to define the debate.

We need to counter that with the truth, which is that every choice other than bold action is completely unrealistic. How “realistic” is choosing to melt the icecaps?

The facts are on our side. Reality is on our side. And we need to be unashamed about standing up for what is actually true. If we do that, even here in the United States, we have a coalition of political interests that can make this happen.

The Worldchanging Book was a huge encyclopedia of possibilities, pointing in a million different directions. Carbon Zero is almost the opposite – in that it takes these ideas from urban design, energy policy, new ways of growing food, or running businesses – and it distills them into a singular, coherent vision. Was that the idea behind the book?

The idea behind Carbon Zero is to give the reader a way to think about the systems and patterns that make up our cities, and how to actually change things at a level that matters. I try to illustrate a variety approaches to urban innovation and systems thinking.

But Carbon Zero is by no means a blueprint. You couldn’t take Carbon Zero to your city council and have a sustainable city based on this book.

Instead, it’s my best effort at doing something that’s even better. The idea behind Carbon Zero is to share with the readers an exploration of how they might do your their thinking about the climate crisis and how cities work based on theirr own insights and experience, and apply it to their own cities. Ultimately, it's an invitation to the reader to imagine actually winning the climate fight.

Given the scale, scope and speed of the change we need, any attempt to be prescriptive is going to fail. What we need a million people pondering these questions, adapting them to local realities and working on smart, rapid implementation

You’ve previously been critical of grassroots organizations like the Transition Movement. Is there a place for such initiatives that focus on personal transformation and individual action?

The most common sentiment I hear expressed about small-scale, grassroots activities is that it is action on the level that people are able to manage. But in order to keep things merely at the "extremely dangerous", rather than the "catastrophic" level, what we need is to change are the big systems and patterns that make up our cities and our metropolitan areas, not just our daily choices. In fact, if we have to choose, tackling the big stuff clearly takes precedence.

We need to change everything from the urban form itself—the shape of our neighborhoods— to how we provide transportation, how we design buildings; even how we consume things – moving to a more sharable model and being intelligent about how we provide for our needs through sustainable product design and new business models. Those are the kinds of changes we need. They involve planning and policies, political action and culture change, financing and entrepreneurship... they involve tackling big problems with the right solutions.

We may not see ourselves as the people who can meet the challenges we face. But the smart thing to do is not to expect those challenges to transform into less demanding ones, but rather transform ourselves into the people who can meet those challenges and succeed.

If we want to make real change, we need to become better change-makers.

A common thread that emerges from Carbon Zero is that individual innovations or elements of progress are far less important than the fundamental shift in mindset that is a prerequisite for a truly low carbon future. Why is that?

Many of our best efforts have been directed at doing the things we are doing today, but more efficiently, or in a less toxic manner. Tweaking the Twentieth Century.

But the way we do things today is temporary—it’s a historical moment; it’s been this way for only five or six decades, and it won’t be this way in three or four decades more.

The real breakthrough comes when we ask “what is it we’re looking for from the way we’e doing things, and can we provide that in a new and better way?”

One example is transportation. A lot of us feel we need to own a car because the things we want access to are spread around, and we need to drive to get around to get to them. If that reality remains the case, then it’s pretty hard to imagine how we’ll cut our carbon emissions significantly—not only from vehicle emissions, but the massive infrastructure that goes with it.

But we know that there are ways to get access that don’t involve mobility, but instead focus on proximity. You can build communities where the things you need are close at hand—drastically reducing our carbon emissions in the process. We can build walkable communities. And when you poll Americans, that’s what most people want.

This isn’t imposing some horrible new reality. It’s just building cities the way our great grandparents built cities. And when we add to those cities all of our new technologies and capacities, I think we can make zero-carbon prosperity achievable.

By fundamentally changing how we design the places and systems that enable our daily lives, we can slash emissions way beyond the immediate carbon savings—because our own personal emissions are just the tip of a vast iceberg of energy and resources consumed far from our view.

If you do systems change right, you can take a system that uses vast amounts of energy and resources to provide one way of doing things, do away with it, and come up with smarter, more effective, more rewarding ways of doing the same thing. And those kinds of opportunities are strewn across the landscape.

The best thing is that almost all of these solutions create more genuine prosperity and jobs. There is a more prosperous economy on the other side of this transition. We will be richer, in real terms, for having acted. Carbon zero cities are packed with new opportunities.

In the conclusion to your book, you suggest that if you could find a city or a region that was doing things right, you’d move there in a heartbeat. Can you identify cities or regions that are ahead of the curve?

That depends if you are grading cities on a curve or a pass/fail. I think there is no city in America that deserves a passing grade. The chasm between what we must do, and what any city has actually done,  should disturb us.

That said, there are cities across the country that are feeling there way forward. Many of the West Coast cities from Vancouver to San Diego have climate action plans. Some of our major cities like New York and Chicago have been moving things forward with some really great urbanism. And there are many smaller cities that are doing great things – Boulder, Colorado, for example, or Austin, Texas

But one of the critical concepts in the book is the idea of a threshold. There are many situations where trying to change things slowly imposes cost and trouble—much more significant costs and trouble in the long run than if you made the change quickly.

You may have a city that is growing rapidly and improving its streets to become much more walkable and bike-able, for example, but also is home to many people who remain auto-dependent.  So you end up with a paradox. Even though more and more people may be biking, or walking, or taking mass transit, you also have more people driving, so traffic still goes up and air quality goes down.

That pattern gets worse and worse up to a certain point—until you get to a local population that can actually support car-free living. When you hit that threshold, you suddenly find that the possibilities for providing access through better neighborhoods and better transportation become more viable for everyone. People may still own cars, but they’re not forced to drive them. Most European cities already exist beyond that threshold, and there are a ton of cities in other nations pushing to get there. Most American cities, though, are still stuck in places along that curve where better urbanism appears to some to only be making things worse. Those cities need to act more quickly. The cities that will thrive are the ones that realize that making big, bold changes now will end up cheaper and more successful than incremental changes over time. Get over the thresholds, quick!

Those kinds of thresholds apply to other systems too. It can be cheaper to build houses that are much better designed and insulated. It can be cheaper to create low-resource, high-value lifestyles. It can be cheaper to have an agricultural system that looks after soil, water and people. It can be cheaper to power a transformed society with clean energy. Across the spectrum, there are opportunities to go big and become more prosperous as a result.

It may be a city that is not currently on our radar that finally chooses to seize that mantle. And when it does, it will attract people, businesses and resources as a result.

The economy of the future is not about recreating the 20th Century again and selling it to the world’s emerging economies. It’s about figuring out here, in the world’s wealthiest cities, how humanity can live in ecological balance, genuine prosperity and comparative safety—and then being able to export the skills and insights we learned doing it so others can do the same. We’re becoming a planet of a thousand new major cities. The economy of the 21st century is a city-building economy. It’s within our power to make it a carbon zero one, too; and to be blunt, civilization depends on our success.

The economy of the future is not about recreating the 20th Century and selling it elsewhere. It’s about figuring out how humanity can live in relative posperity and comparative safety and being able to export the skills and insights that make that happen so others can do the same.

Order Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities That Can Save The Planet online now. And follow @AlexSteffen on twitter for more.

Imagining Cities That Can Save The Planet: Alex Steffen Talks About Carbon Zero
Acclaimed futurist Alex Steffen has described optimism as the true radicalism. If that's true, his latest work is an exercise in sticking it to the man. We sat down with him to find out more.

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