The Bright Green City: Alex Steffen’s Optimistic Environmentalism
I simply love this art icle,"The Bright Green City," an interview with Alex Steffens. Key quote:
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.
When conservatives get fearful they get angry, or so it seems these days. When we progressives get fearful we too often get cynical, which means passive.
It’s not that Steffen doesn’t get it. About the unimaginable catastrophes coming down the pike if we don’t get our act together in a very short time frame. Of those who say the stone age was the last sustainable society and the sooner we get back to it the better, Alex Steffen says:
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.
Who is this guy?
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 and has published a bestselling book, Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century (Abrams).
Steffen critiques the Left for always doing the critique first, so it falls into a critique mindset. So the environmental movement focuses on the horrors, the losses, the problem. He prefers to look at the solutions and the possibilities, on the creation of a more beautiful way of life than we have now. Arguing for contracting back from the suburbs so that we live in much less energy-using dense housing in cities, Steffen focuses on the benefits, and redefining the meaning of “prosperity”:
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.
This made me think of a friend who was a masseur in a Catskills hotel. He could tell which of the people he worked on lived in the country, and which in New York City: the city people had better muscle tone, especially in their legs. (The country people drove everywhere.) We will only get over our love affair with the car and the suburban home in time to save the planet if we get excited about how much better life is in vibrant cities.
Weighing the strategies for dealing with global warming and ecological degradation is the theme of the next issue of Tikkun, that we are in the last week now of putting together. We look at geo-engineering, at the psychological, the spiritual. We go more radically towards the latter than Steffen. Raised by eclectic hippies, his spirituality is largely unstated. He goes there at the end of the interview:
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…. 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.
It’s not that I agree with everything Steffen says. It’s that I like his spirit. Old farts like me need younger people coming along telling us we can solve these vast problems and be better for it.