Yesterday, after Al Gore went to the Hill to rally an unprecedented level of support for action on climate change in Congress and the Vernal Equinox cast its gray mists over Seattle, I went to spend the evening with Bill McKibben.

Bill began the evening by talking about his action campaign, StepItUp. Congress, Bill says, has so far mounted “a superbly successful bipartisan effort to do absolutely nothing,” while the only part of the climate change movement that is lacking was “the movement part.” Therefore, the StepItUp folks are trying to show that popular support for strong government action — the reduction of climate emissions by 80% by the year 2050 — is widespread by loosely over a thousand actions, from posters-n-puppets protests to a dive to spotlight the dangers to coral reefs and a skiing action to draw attention to the world’s dwindling snow pack. It’s a worthwhile cause.

What he was in town to speak about, though, was his book Deep Economy.

The book, Bill said, sprang from a central question: “Does our prevailing mental model of the world really work?” Does the basic presumption that more is better actually serve us in building a better society.

Article PhotoThe answer, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn, is no, that our materialism is not serving us well, and is leading us towards a disastrous collision with ecological reality: “It’s as if the laws of economic reality seemed to us more real than the laws of physics and chemistry,” and the peril we have placed our society is extreme — scientists who once moderated their tones are now ringing alarm bells in “a barely submerged panic.”

James Hansen, for instance, insists that (Bill says) “we have ten years” to reverse the flow of carbon into the atmosphere or we will live on a completely different planet.” Climate change already presents us with a series of miserable choices, but without strong and immediate action, we will progress from misery to complete catastrophe.

In short, he says, our economy as we’ve currently structured it, is dramatically unsustainable: “Plan A seems unlikely to work very well for very much longer.”

Less obviously, it’s not clear that our materialism is making us much happier, and this is particularly true of Americans. Americans use more resources and energy than almost anyone else in the world, but many people are happier than we are, and by quite a few reported measurements — rates of depression, substance abuse, stress and the dwindling number of close friends — Americans are some of the least happy people in the developed world, whatever our vision of ourselves as a nation (“we still think we live in little house on the prairie when in fact we live in big house on the cul-de-sac”).

The answer, Bill says, is to reinvigorate local economies, bring back farmers’ markets and creating distributed energy systems. Local, tight-knit communities, using the Net to keep in touch with one another, needn’t be parochial, he insists: just because they’re not trading ingredients doesn’t mean they can’t trade recipes.

And here’s where Bill and I part company. We agree on the problems, more or less, but we interpret them very differently, and thus come to wildly different solutions.

I have no faith that people in the United States or elsewhere will voluntarily reduce their standards of living: indeed, outside of a few statistical outliers, like the Amish, I know of no evidence that anyone ever has, at least for very long. The way forward is not by going back to some earlier model of living which we believe to have less impact on the Earth, because people won’t accept it, and we need mass popular support for dramatic change if we are to avert catastrophe.

So, we must ask ourselves, How can we deliver the prosperity billions of people expect, while reducing the ecological footprint it exacts?

If increases in prosperity were tied purely and simply to growth in use of material resources and energy, we couldn’t. We couldn’t even keep up the lifestyle we’ve got. But they’re not. We know that, in fact, our existing systems for delivering material prosperity are abysmally inefficient, rotten with corruption and historical accidents and irrationality and bad design. As Bill McDonough says, the major product of our systems is waste.

We also know that it is within our capabilities to reduce that wastage, not only through more efficient products (the Japanese live almost as prosperously as North Americans, but they use a fraction of the resources to do it), but through redesigning the systems themselves.

Sure, we can invest massively in green energy and clean tech, but we do a lot more than that. We can reveal flows, build better cities, create user communities for product-services, dematerialize certain products altogether. The list goes on, as regular Worldchanging readers will know.

Nor do these things need to remove us from community and health: indeed, they can reknit and heal. Many of the best new solutions have the wonderful advantage not only of making our lives greener, more resilient and more economical (at least if there’s anything like true-cost accounting) but making them more healthy and comfortable and connected as well. Whether we’re talking the health benefits of smart growth , the cleaner air in a green building, or the friends you make at the tool library, in this model life gets better when it gets more sustainable.

Conversely, it’s not always clear that all forms of localism and retreat from the global economy are good. There are reasonable arguments to be made even about whether food globalization is bad, and it may be that we need a more sophisticated approach to the issue that global = bad. Similarly, many advocates for the version of green localism most often voiced have a strong anti-urban bias, seeing their exurban lifestyles (which can be among the most destructive around) through rural-colored glasses, while conveniently ignoring both their own participation in global systems and national infrastructures and the gigantic sustainability advantages compact and well-designed cities have to offer. When you run the numbers, urban life beats exurban life every day of the week.

The point is that I believe the time has come to stop talking about a retreat from prosperity and the urban as a path towards sustainability. Indeed, we need to stop talking about any model of sustainability for which we’re unwilling to run the numbers. The steps Bill outlined last night — local food and local energy — are generally good ones, but they alone are not going to get us anywhere close to one planet living. For that, we need truly radical change, delivered through widespread innovation and systemic redesign, and going far beyond the sorts of impacts we can create though individual consumer actions.

In the absence of plans for hacking the huge systems in which we find ourselves enmeshed, most prescriptions for localism seem to me to be scarecrows stuffed with good intentions. There are, of course, some serious folks out there working on truly bold plans for hacking the energy system and transforming communities from the infrastructure up, so I’m not saying it can’t be done, but overall we need to rapidly towards a movement with measures what it does, knows what it wants to achieve and is merciless in rooting out answers that don’t get us there. So when talking about local efforts, show me the handprint, and I’ll believe.

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Alex Steffen Alex Steffen