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Our Climate Is Headed Toward 'Extremely Dangerous' or 'Catastrophic:' Here's Our Best Off Plan For Staving Off Total Disaster

Alex Steffen's new book "Carbon Zero" offers solutions on how to pull us back from the brink of disaster.

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It’s worth emphasizing that this is a sketch, not a blueprint. I wouldn’t even attempt to ordain a model for zero-carbon development that every place should adopt. Every city is unique, with its own character, geography, civic culture, and history. Regional economies and politics have left every metro area with different workforces, institutions, and business cultures. The implementation of national policies and local capacities vary widely. No one set of innovations applied in a specific way will suit the needs of every city. Large teams of professionals and engaged citizens should (and I hope, will) take up the actual work of upgrading their cities. I’m not interested in dictating approaches to anyone.

Indeed, it seems to me that what we need most right now are not conclusive answers, but good hypotheses put immediately to the test; and good hypotheses spring first from reframing our understanding of a given challenge. I hope that my reframing of this challenge will influence readers to begin to see their own cities’ challenges in a new light.

But don’t expect things to look normal, illuminated by the demands of the future. We have, again and again, mistaken what we think of as “normal” for “best” and “permanent.” Normal as we knew it in the second half of the 20th century is already a thing of the past. Already, many of our older systems are crumbling, revealing themselves to be unsustainably expensive or indefensibly harmful. Even the timescales of the 20th century are out of date. Changes that took half a century before are erupting in a few years now.

The speed of change will not slow. It is both pulled along by the dire necessity of quick action — for, as Donella Meadows has written, on a planet full of limits, “Time is in fact the ultimate limit” — and driven along by the unleashing of innovation, collaboration, and competition on a planetary scale that dwarfs anything our great-grandparents could have comprehended. If the ultimate limit turns out to be time, the last infinite resource turns out to be creativity.

I believe that planetary limits and human creativity are now inextricably bound together. I doubt we’ll reinvent the physical limits of this world, at least in the next few centuries. I would bet against the emergence of any technologies that allow us to exceed our planetary boundaries on both a global scale and a sustained basis. But I would also bet we can build a civilization that works within our planetary limits, and furthermore, that the realm of possibilities for human experience within those ecological limits is essentially infinite.

Indeed, as we cease trying to maximize the volume of material growth and start emphasizing sustainable prosperity, I think we’ll find that what we’re able to do with energy and materials becomes more and more brilliant, meaningful, and enriching. Design constraints often deliver better results than a belief in complete freedom. Quite the opposite of imposing hardship, carbon zero targets may very well spur a renaissance in urban creativity.

The straining limits that pressure us to remake our cities will likely produce an unprecedented blooming of applied creativity and civic acumen. I find it completely likely that the constraints of climate neutrality and ecological sustainability, boldly met, may produce the most livable, prosperous, and resilient cities the world has ever seen.

Nothing in this book is utopian: Most of what I suggest is already being implemented or experimented with somewhere, though no city I know of has put all the pieces together in one place. Some of what I suggest still lives in the realm of conjecture, but that realm is not as far away as it used to be.