Alex Steffen’s Middle Path

Worldchanging‘s Alex Steffen epitomizes the grass green thinker. From cautioning against carbon blindness to questioning the benefits of local food, he presents a passionate and articulate vision of sustainability, one that steers a middle path between the hypocrisy of lime green consumerism and the alarmist finger-pointing of forest green thinkers.

Steffen’s most recent two posts stake out this perspective more clearly than ever. Responding to Bill McKibben’s forest-tinted new book Deep Economy, which calls for reducing our consumption and returning to local economies, Steffen makes the point that most people just aren’t going to give up their levels of consumption voluntarily. Rather than implore the populace to make token efforts to scale back, we should be coming up with systemic solutions that will provide us with the same level of comfort that we’re used to, only without the enormous inefficiency and waste of contemporary consumer culture.

But neither is Steffen content to leave it up to the free market. In today’s post Strategic Consumption: How to Change the World with What You Buy, he responds to the slogan of a green product convention claiming that we can “buy a better future.” Steffen calls out the phrase for the feel-good lie that it is: “at the moment it’s essentially impossible to live a North American consumer lifestyle and do no harm… indeed, the vast majority of the green products around us are, at best, a form of advertisement for the idea that we should live sustainably, a sort of shopping therapy for the ecologically guilty.”

The relentlessly upbeat (if urgent) message of Steffen and his fellow worldchangers is beginning to break through to the awakened ears of CEOs and concerned citizens alike. Grass green thinking is likely to be the dominant paradigm of the next few decades; if our leaders listen closely enough, it just might successfully guide us through the impending triple pinch of peak oil, global warming, and America’s trade imbalance.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think that political and technological solutions alone will be enough to create a zero-waste society. As long as it’s our primary concern to sell more widgets, it doesn’t matter how sustainable those widgets are – we’ll be left with an unsatisfied, if materially wealthy, world. At some point, our institutions must learn to value the well-being of our citizens, and indeed, our weakened habitat, over the corporate bottom line. In that sense, Alex (and the rest of us) could stand to learn a thing or two from Bill McKibben.


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