This Planetary Futurist Wants Us to Fundamentally Reimagine a Sustainable Future

  • 2016-03-01
  • Fast CoExist

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steepening curve of the need to find solutions that can work, and work quickly, means even really good ideas become outdated much more quickly than we're used to."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.