A leading voice on sustainability, social innovation and planetary futurism, Alex Steffen was Executive Editor of Worldchanging.com after he co-founded the organization in 2003 until 2010. A writer, public speaker and strategic consultant, he has spoken and keynoted at the most renowned design and innovation conferences in the world, including TED, Picnic, Pop!Tech, Design Indaba, South by Southwest Interactive and Doors of Perception, as well as at some of the world’s leading universities, including Harvard, Yale and Stanford.
Mary Johnston: For this issue of ARCADE, we are looking at taking risks – aesthetic, technical, political, social and cultural – in order to reach some higher place. It strikes me that this theme has been the essence of your career so far. Is that a valid assessment?
Alex Steffen: At the most basic level, I’m interested in the question, “How can we make ourselves into good ancestors?” How do we build a good life that increases the options of the generations to come? At the very least we should seek to do no irreversible harm.
We’re sort of the opposite of good ancestors today. There may have never been a way of life more dangerous to the future than that of contemporary North America, and there may never have been a generation more destructive than the one now in power. When people reach a certain age, they are thought to embrace the long view, so it’s a paradox that while perhaps two-thirds of those who have ever reached age 65 are alive today, we have never had a shorter planning horizon or less discussion of our duties toward future generations. On a regular basis we do things that we know will impoverish the choices of our descendants, perhaps in utterly catastrophic ways. As Paul Hawken says, “We have an economy where we steal the future, sell it in the present and call it GDP.”
At the same time, as hidden costs mount and strain the system, our economy and society grow increasingly unstable. The world is undergoing wrenching transformations brought on by huge population growth, urbanization, globalization and accelerating technological innovation. We’re hitting resource limits and ecological boundaries, and there’s not a major industry out there that doesn’t have respected leaders delivering somber warnings about the depth of our unsustainability. All sorts of systems we depend on are being transformed at a scope, scale and speed humanity has never seen, and we’re doing essentially nothing to prepare for the impacts. What we think of as “normal” is already a thing of the past, but we’re struggling mightily to hide that fact from ourselves so we can keep the money flowing a little longer. We are the brittle rich.
If the planetary reality we face today isn’t risky, I can’t imagine what is.
Yes, these are dangerous times, but I know you also believe in being optimistic, and I like your statement that “cynicism is obedience.” One of the assertions we make in this issue is that orthodoxy and a too-strict adherence to rules produces at the very least bland, and at the worst, destructive results. Could you discuss how rebelliousness and optimism work together in a constructive way?
The absolute highest priority for most large corporations (and the insanely rich people who hold their stocks) is to avoid substantial change. We have legions of lobbyists, PR flacks, think tank mercenaries and bought politicians whose major task every day is to stymie change just a little longer. Think about the climate “debate,” which has been over scientifically for decades but is continued politically by people paid to keep up a campaign of fear, uncertainty and denial.
These people (and their employers) couldn’t care less if we’re cynical about them and their motives. In fact, they tend to drench the public debate in the politics of disgust because it makes their jobs easier; cynicism makes it difficult to see virtues in new approaches and isolates us from one another. They want us to believe in nothing, do nothing and demand nothing. Cynicism is obedience to their wishes.
In today’s politics, especially in the United States, the most independent stance is pragmatic optimism. Nothing drives the opponents of change into a greater frenzy than simply being unwilling to accept their definition of “realism.” The working possibilities in front of us – the array of solutions and new models we know have already proven practical and successful in various places around the world – and range of debate inside the Beltway (or in Olympia, for that matter) are so far apart that the only option left is a sort of relentlessly confrontational optimism grounded in facts and good examples.
Change is coming. That’s inevitable. Indeed, we’re entering an age where increasing rewards (in economic competitiveness, resilience to disaster and quality of life) will accrue for cities with a sense of bold optimism and willingness to transform, while cities slower to change will find themselves pouring money into operating outdated systems with sunk costs and vulnerable to weather chaos, energy turbulence and social conflict. We want to have as many of the former and as few of the latter as possible. The best way to do that is to help cities re-envision their own possibilities. That can both throw the tenuous nature of the status quo into sharp relief and help illuminate pathways forward. Since we can’t build what we can’t imagine, helping people envision positive realistic futures is eminently practical.
Speaking of building, your online magazine Worldchanging divides content into three categories that specifically refer to the built environment – Stuff, Shelter and Cities – but the others – Community, Business, Politics and Planet – are related, of course. Designers of all types – industrial designers, architects, landscape architects and urban designers – are all feeling the pressure to address so many issues holistically now. On the surface, this seems like a good thing, but are we in danger of losing some very specific and valuable expertise in exchange for a bunch of generalists? Is there a risk that we all will see everything the same way and eventually no progress can be made?
No. I don’t think that’s a risk. It’s true that architecture, design and engineering carry enormous (though in my opinion appropriate) burdens of expectation these days. It’s also true that every designer does need to be a systems thinker now. Nothing we design, engineer or build is exempt from the demand to work within our urban and natural systems to help create pretty massive shifts toward sustainability as soon as possible. We live in a world in which refusing to make our duty to the future a central concern of our work isn’t a creative choice—it’s a moral and imaginative failure.
With that said, though, I think there is risk in not seeing how many different perspectives it takes to really wrestle with these systems. I mean, they’re so huge and complex. We need the inventiveness of all the disciplines just to see the problems clearly; and since every good solution is unique (though probably reflects good work done elsewhere), we’re going to need teams of people embracing their inspirations and their individual histories, really making use of their particular tools and strengths, to find good answers to the problems we face. And interestingly enough, being forced to design to the same constant global constraints may greatly multiply the diversity of approaches we take to solving problems.
The real risk we take here in Seattle, I think, is that we’ve allowed, and are continuing to allow, the city to become actively hostile to innovation in the built environment. This ought to be a period of wild creativity, but there’s not actually much excitement here. Young people, especially, aren’t attempting bold things because they’re hemmed in by poverty, out-dated codes, neighborhood NIMBYs, a dicey job-market, the fear of getting black-balled, the risk of lawsuits, the lack of research funding, change-averse financial institutions, the opposition of status quo politicians...the list goes on. It’s as if our entire city is swimming in thickening molasses.
Cities that, in times of change, make experimentation extremely slow and difficult are putting themselves at extreme risk. The safest thing Seattle could do would be to embrace creative chaos and grapple with a whole landscape of new approaches. What I see happening instead, again and again, is much of the most interesting young talent in the city continuing to pack their bags and head for places they think will actually support their work. We’re driving away the next generation. That fact should be howling like an air-raid siren over our streets and buildings.
Embracing creative chaos sounds fun. In fact, you talk about a new paradigm of fulfillment in life, or maybe it’s an old paradigm of family, friends, meaningful work, security and fun. All good things. But that sort of assumes some homogeneity of values. What if someone else’s idea of fun consumes a lot of resources? How does this message overcome the “elitist” label, and how does democracy accommodate this notion?
Democracy is a balance between rights and the responsibility to respect others’ rights. Many things people once thought of as their property rights we’ve learned to see differently: You can’t own another person as a slave, bait a bear with hunting dogs in a pit or dump your raw sewage in the street. I think nearly all of us would agree that, in hindsight, losses incurred by slave-owners, dog-fighters and public hygiene skeptics were far outweighed by the benefits to society gained when their practices ceased (I’d bet slaves, bears and cholera victims particularly agreed).
Now we’re at a moment when we have to take seriously our responsibilities both to our neighbors (wherever they may live on the planet) and to the rights of future generations. If that means people with particularly wasteful lifestyles find those lifestyles dramatically more expensive (or even find certain options no longer available), well, that’s unfortunate for them but part of progress. Times change.
Lastly, what’s the riskiest thing you’ve done, aside from challenging conventional wisdom (or maybe it’s really that)? Running with the bulls? Driving at night in the desert with your headlights off?
I was a particularly risk-oblivious young man. I did a lot of stupid stuff, often with the best of intentions. The scars and scandals are numerous. Indeed, I take as a sort of personal motto the rhetorical question, “What could possibly go wrong?” But that’s a story for another time.