Alex Steffen’s Overly Optimistic, Yet Inspiring, Book on Climate Change

A new e-book by futurist Alex Steffen argues that cities are the key to environmental salvation.

During this past holiday season—as I followed the budget battle in Washington, D.C., a brawl so mired in caveman thinking that it called into question the entire notion of democracy—I read an improbably cheerful little tract called Carbon Zero: Imagining Cities That Can Save the Planet, by Alex Steffen (Steffen, 2012), the freewheeling Seattle-based futurist best known as one of the masterminds of the now-dormant

Steffen is a professional gatherer and disseminator of big ideas, a walking encyclopedia of human betterment. I had a conversation with him a couple of years ago when I was collecting thoughts about what the phrase “city of the future” might realistically mean. The upshot was that the glimmering collections of brand-new, boldly shaped towers (think Dubai or Shanghai’s Pudong district)—that have long represented a universal dream of things to come—were finally passé, and the new future would largely be a matter of retrofitting existing cities with systems that made them smarter, more efficient, and more humane. His new book is an expansion of that idea, predicated on the notion that if we don’t rebuild our cities as exemplars of a carbon-neutral lifestyle, the world, literally, will come to an end.

In the past, I’ve argued that our federal government needs to lead the way in rebuilding American infrastructure to meet the needs of the present and the future, to reshape the way we generate, transport, and use energy, to make us less dependent on cars and oil. But currently, it’s not clear that Congress has a grasp on the moment, let alone a vision for the future. That’s why I find Steffen’s focus on cities as the progenitors of change so encouraging. I read it as an end run around our present dilemma.

The book opens by citing Hurricane Sandy as a fresh example of the impact that global warming can have on our lives. But hardening (or softening) our infrastructure to better survive deluge upon deluge is only a small part of the equation. Steffen’s argument is that in order to reverse climate change and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, we—meaning the entire human race—need to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases by 100 percent. We must find our way to zero, with the world’s wealthier nations leading the way: “We are wealthy, to be blunt, because we’re the ones who put most of the greenhouse gases up there in the first place,” Steffen writes. He also argues that the changes required to shrink our carbon footprint to zero “offer wealthier nations our best opportunity to rebuild our economies to prosper in the twenty-first century.”

Steffen’s premise is global: The planet is rapidly urbanizing. Therefore, how countries around the world build and rebuild cities is the key to the future of the Earth. However, what’s useful from an American perspective is his observation that cities are small enough that “committed people” can change them, but large enough that chang-ing them can have an impact: “If our cities reinvent themselves, finding pathways to low- to no-carbon futures, our nations can rapidly cut climate pollution, even if most of our compatriots lag behind in reducing emissions.” The key phrase here is “our compatriots.” In other words, if we leverage the wealth and intellectual capital that is concentrated in cities to change the way we build (denser is better), the way our utilities work (smart infrastructure, renewable energy), and the way we live our lives (sharing instead of consuming, walking or biking instead of driving), we don’t need the consent or cooperation of our exurban brethren. They can keep driving their SUVs to Walmart (or oblivion) while we in the cities strive to make their way of life obsolete.

Many of the notions Steffen advocates are already in play. His section on “district solutions” recalls a proposal made by Chicago-based Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture to link the existing buildings in a given neighborhood (the Chicago Loop, for example), so that the energy savings in one building can benefit its neighbors; “a much more networked approach to energy use and energy consumption,” as partner Gordon Gill framed it in a 2011 conversation we had. (That effort inspired Architecture 2030’s carbon-neutral districts in Cleveland, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Seattle.) Even Steffen’s most outré proposal, that human poop has economic value—he suggests fertilizing devastated landscapes with “mildly toxic” excrement—is not so far-fetched.

I’ve been following the adventures of Loowatt, a London-based start-up now testing a system that harvests the solid waste from waterless toilets and feeds it to an anaerobic digester, thereby creating methane for heat, cooking, or electricity generation. A pilot system running in Antananarivo, Madagascar, allows a local entrepreneur to use waste to make money from his neighbors, by selling them hot water and power to charge cell phones.

Steffen’s most exciting proposal, in part because it could be implemented with relative ease, is his call for “innovation zones”—districts in which the ordinary building codes are suspended to encourage the development of new approaches and typologies. A narrow version of this idea is New York City’s recent adoption of Zone Green, which permits sustainable solutions, like rooftop greenhouses, sun-screening devices, and solar panels that might have been forbidden by existing ordinances. But Steffen is suggesting a wholesale approach, one that would create urban proving grounds, entire districts zoned (or unzoned) for experiments in sustainability. Given enough political will, individual cities could reasonably do this.

Carbon Zero is not a groundbreaking work. I feel as though I’ve read pieces of it before. Steffen’s pragmatic brand of idealism brings to mind The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability (W. McDonough Architects, 1992) by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, and Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce (HarperCollins, 1993). His emphasis on walkable neighborhoods or “walksheds” is reminiscent of Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck’s Suburban Nation (Macmillan, 2000) and the writings of many other New Urbanists. And Steffen’s conscious approach to urban design got a more detailed treatment in the Bloomberg administration’s 2007 vision for a greener New York, PlaNYC 2030. Carbon Zero is less a work of revolutionary thinking than it is an updating of best practices. And that’s precisely its value. It encapsulates much of what is now being discussed, and in some cases implemented, in cities in the U.S. and around the world.

There are, of course, plenty of things in the book that I don’t buy. I’m not convinced that the widgets generated by today’s stylish 3-D printers are as carbon neutral as Steffen would like them to be. (In an enlightened society where we borrow our power tools from a “library” rather than own them, do we all need to have wee computer-driven factories in our garages? And do we even have garages?) And I fail to grasp Steffen’s infatuation with the concept of “scenius,” Brian Eno’s coinage for the communal form of genius.

Steffen’s enthusiasm for terms like “scenius” and “attention philanthropy” sometimes make him insufferable in a left-coast way. Nonetheless, his manifesto resonates with me, because I, too, see cities as pivotal and view many of America’s as deep reservoirs of squandered potential. When I read Steffen’s manifesto, what comes to mind aren’t the sort of cities he routinely champions, like ultra-bikeable Copenhagen or Freiberg, Germany (the center of the passivhaus movement), but the myriad woebegone U.S. cities that could benefit from a reinvigor-ated sense of purpose. Steffen’s message to Cleveland; St. Louis; Detroit; and Bridgeport, Connecticut is simple: Save the planet and you save yourselves. “There’s a forty-year boom on its way; cities that lead the way into a carbon-zero future will be its great success stories,” he writes. Is that naïve? Maybe. But I think it’s more possible at this juncture to transform the Motor City into a showplace of carbon-neutral urbanism than it is to upgrade the quality of political discourse in Washington, D.C.

So, as we argue over how to best fortify our cities against the next superstorm, it is worth considering that we may be able to do more. Perhaps, as Steffen argues, we can rethink our urban environments to diminish our contribution to global warming and lessen the likelihood of catastrophic storms. “Almost everything we need to do to drop our climate emissions,” Steffen writes, “also leaves us more rugged and resilient to disasters and global instability.” In short, the debate we’re having about hard infrastructure versus soft, floodgates versus swales, is a lot like the perennial strife in Washington about tax increases versus spending cuts. We’re fighting over the symptoms when we should be working toward a cure.

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