Editor’s Note: Alex Steffen, the editor and cofounder of Worldchanging-a global network of independent journalists, designers and thinkers—sat down with writer Emily Knudsen to discuss some of the topics he’ll be covering in his upcoming talks at Town Hall . The first part of the interview (below) discusses Worldchanging’s role in the sustainability movement. The second discusses what Seattle can do to become a more sustainable city.
What inspired you to establish Worldchanging?
In the late 1990s, I was working as a consultant doing strategic communications work with environmental groups and other NGOs. One of the questions I would often ask the people I worked with was “What’s your win scenario? If you win, how is the world going to improve?” In essence, “What’s in it for me to believe in your change?” I was really amazed by how many people didn’t really have an answer to that.
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Then it struck me that it’s pretty hard to build what you can’t imagine and we were doing a very poor job at imagining what a more sustainable, just, prosperous society might look like. I was really bothered by that missing piece.
So I took a year off and I traveled around North America to just talk to everybody who would take the time to talk with me about sustainability, social innovation—the kinds of things that we might be doing to solve some of these big planetary problems.
Instead of finding that there wasn’t anything we could do, I found the exact opposite. There are in fact tens of thousands of people out there who are coming up with really amazing ideas about how to address problems from climate change to population growth to hunger to political inequality. The problem was not so much whether or not people were inventing solutions but rather how to get people access to those solutions.
So I started Worldchanging with a handful of people I knew. It started out as a blog and I just kind of kick around this idea of doing solutions-based journalism. Of course, what happened is it kind of took off without us. This thing that I thought was my hobby project ate my career. If you had asked me six years ago if I was going to be running a website, I would not have said yes.
How do you view your role and Worldchanging’s role in influencing policy on a global scale?
The big thing that we are trying to do is to influence our sense of the possible. Many of the problems we face are made as bad as they are by the fact that we don’t think it’s possible to really solve problems, or that we think it’s only possible to solve them partially, or only after a long period of time, or only at the cost of this other trade-off.
When we really dig into it, what we find is that while obviously the biggest problems are not simple problems—or else we would have solved them already—they are in fact problems we know how to do something about.
Exploring what people are doing that is new and interesting that helps people move their boundary of what they understand the possible to be. Everyone makes these cost-benefit decisions about their lives based on what they think is realistic in the world and much of what people think is realistic is based on what we’ve been told is possible. The environmental movement has sort of failed in some of these areas, in large part because it’s focused on what we can’t do rather than what we could do. We have a tendency to really focus on what is broken in the system and focusing on that doesn’t really change the debate.
Where do you see Worldchanging going in the next couple of years?
Well, I don’t know. This is a really interesting time because things have moved very quickly. When we started Worldchanging six years ago many of the issues we were talking about were fringe issues. Whether we were talking about clean energy or sustainable urbanism or leapfrogging technologies—these were things that really only a small portion, especially in North America, talked about. All of those things have mainstreamed very quickly to the extent that you now have the New York Times covering this stuff on a regular basis. So part of our job was to move a specific set of answers in to the debate. And that job is done.
So we find ourselves needing to look at some new stuff because part of what we’re coming to understand is that the problems we face are bigger than we have initially allowed ourselves to conceive them to be and they are moving faster than we want them to. This means that some of the solutions that we have, that we know about, that we want to see happen, which are great solutions, are not sufficient solutions.
Because we need to make bigger changes than we thought, part of what we’re encountering is a need to find unexpected opportunities, which is both an issue of vision and futuristic thinking, but it’s also really a design question.
Right now we are seeing a big shift towards a vision of sustainable urbanism as the central leverage point for sustainability at large and that shift is planetary in scope. More and more we are an urban species. But it is neither primarily regulatory nor technocratic. It’s not just about carbon caps and green technology. It’s really about the design of our whole lives. So we’re going to be increasingly looking in that direction and looking at the things that aren’t well understood or discussed yet.
How do you convince people that they need to ignite a cultural shift?
I think we have inappropriately focused on personal behavior when we talk about sustainability. It’s not that personal behavior doesn’t have its place, but we have really privatized responsibility for a lot of these issues—the polar bears are dying and it’s your fault. The fact of the matter is that a lot of people are in situations where they simply cannot live sustainably no matter how hard they try. They can do every simple, small thing that they can get their hands on and they’re still just built into an unsustainable system.
The big shift that I see happening is individual people starting to take responsibility for the systems around themselves. It’s not going to be everybody and it doesn’t need to be. But the people who are really aware of these issues are starting to look more at how their communities are designed and how they can influence that. What transportation choices are available to them and how can they influence that? It’s not just a matter of whether or not they own a car, but do they live in a place that supports a variety of transportation choices for everybody? Supporting businesses that offer better solutions, being more involved with politics, community-based organizing—these things that take us out of our individual abilities and limitations and allow us to re-connect in important ways.
There is a core of people out there who not only get it but who are actively engaged already. The issue is how do we really super-charge the efforts of those who are already trying to do something different. And that’s where there are a lot of really interesting possibilities emerging that we’re going to be talking a lot about in the next couple of years.