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This Planetary Futurist Wants Us To Fundamentally Reimagine A Sustainable Future

Alex Steffen wrote the book on sustainability. Now he wants to show us that we have the capacity to solve global problems—if we are willing to work for it.

Illustrations: agsandrew via Shutterstock

The story of climate change tends to be focused on disaster—postapocalyptic visions of food shortages, collapsing ecosystems, and people dying from tropical diseases or heat waves. But it's harder to picture the opposite: What happens if we get things right and manage to build a sustainable society?

Futurist Alex Steffen, a leader in the sustainability movement for more than two decades and author of Worldchanging, which is certainly a spiritual ancestor of this website, has spent the last five years thinking about that second vision.

"I really think that the big problems we have now are not analytical problems, they're storytelling problems," he says. "It's not that we're incapable of designing a sustainable future. It's that we don't allow ourselves to imagine it. And what we can't imagine, we can't build."

As the challenge gets bigger—each day, we use up a little more of our global carbon budget, and the corresponding impacts also increase—old solutions no longer make sense. "If you want to come up with a positive vision of climate action, the climate action you propose next year is going to need to be more ambitious than it would have needed to be this year," he says. "That steepening curve of the need to find solutions that can work, and work quickly, means even really good ideas become outdated much more quickly than we're used to."

In the 1970s, he says, the vision of sustainability involved things such as organic farming and solar panels on homes. That still might be how many people picture sustainability today. But those solutions are no longer enough.

"The sustainability challenge of 1970 was a hell of a lot easier than the sustainability challenge is now, or than it will be in 2040," Steffen says. "So those visions don't work anymore. They're no longer relevant to the specific problems that we have, the situation we have. It's not that they're not good solutions. They were good for the time, but it's just that they no longer match the time."

This autumn, Steffen plans to run a "live documentary" series called The Heroic Future—using a mixture of talking and storytelling through graphics and sound and music, over three nights in San Francisco, to share the current state of the climate crisis and how that could change. Filmed in front of a small audience, it will later be shared with as many people as possible.

After talking about why older ideas no longer make sense, he plans to share examples of more radical opportunities. "I'm not a total techno-optimist, but it's undeniable that we have capacities that we didn't have even a decade or two ago," he says. "When we look at these things, the real challenge is that they're disruptive. The sustainability we face now is not a matter of taking the things we already do and making them a little less bad, but rather doing new things."

One example, Steffen says, is the decline (and perhaps eventual disappearance) of the private car, thanks to converging trends such as the fact that more people want to live in walkable cities, and software has made it easy to get a ride on demand.

"It's quite likely that we've already hit peak car, that we've already hit the point at which cars, at least in the developed world, from now on are going to be less and less important in our lives," he says. "And I think it's entirely possible that that change could happen way quicker than most people expect—that over the next couple of decades, we could see cities that operate in some pretty fundamentally different ways."

While there are multiple examples of this type of change, Steffen doesn't want to present a completed vision of his own. Instead, his hope is that he can share the tools for others to cocreate a vision together.

"What I want to do is see that as many interesting, creative, bright, committed people as possible—from all walks of life—get the ability to start to reimagine what their future is like, and the future for their kids, and the future for their business and community," he says. "My win scenario is that thousands of people, maybe millions of people around the world, get a small boost to their ability to imagine a future that works."

Steffen is currently crowdfunding The Heroic Future on Kickstarter.

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