A Conversation With Alex Steffen, Sustainability Thinker

alexmic_sized.jpg Somehow, "futurist" seems like a fun thing to put on a business card, and that's just what Alex Steffen is--a leading thinker about where Earth is headed, and about sustainability in general. Until the end of last year, Steffen was the executive editor and co-founder of Worldchanging, a publication that became the second largest sustainability site on the Web, as rated by Nielsen Online in 2008, covering everything from flying disaster-relief robots to urban sustainability in Shanghai.

Steffen is the editor of the just-released revised and updated edition of Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century, which covers carbon-neutral homes, ecotourism, the sustainable food movement, and more. Here, he discusses the fate of the planet, why greening the suburbs is a bad idea, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

Generally, I tell them I'm a writer and public speaker. If they ask what I write about, I say "planetary futurism." Then they either stop asking questions or we have a really interesting conversation. Cabbies in particular seem to like discussing the fate the Earth.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

The fundamental importance of city-building. More than 200,000 people are added to the world's urban population every day: within four decades 70 percent of humanity will live in large cities, and almost all of humanity will live within a day's travel of one. Cities generate most of the global economy, and most of its energy use, resource demands and climate emissions. How we build cities over the next decades will largely determine whether we can deliver a bright green future. We can now see that urbanization and sustainability must become synonymous in the 21st century.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?

The scope, scale and speed of the problems we face. There is still a sense that the crisis is decades away, happening to other people and just one set of problems among many. In reality, we face an imminent and all-consuming crisis, involving scores of interconnected challenges and it's unfolding all around us.

On the other hand, I also think most people don't realize how great a set of solutions we already have at hand, and how much our lives could actually improve while we tackle these problems. A cautious optimism makes sense, despite all the bad news.

What's an emerging trend you think will shake up the sustainability world?

The suffusing of urban space with technology. If good neighborhoods offer access to the stuff of life through proximity, rather than mobility (things are already close at hand, so you don't need to drive to get them), technology increases that access by an order of magnitude by making it easier to connect, track, share, meter, and collaboratively use objects and spaces. I think we're only just beginning to glimpse the implications of all this.

Presented by

Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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