Book Review: Carbon Zero–Optimism, Utopianism, and the Real Challenge of Making it a Reality.

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Aerial view near Indiana, United States.

One of the marvels of contemporary publishing is the sense of urgency it enables a polemical tract like Alex Steffen’s Carbon Zero to take on. Steffan opens with a stark and still-fresh reminder of his book’s importance – the nearly 14-foot tidal wave that struck Lower Manhattan in late October, less than two months before Carbon Zero hit shelves (or Kindles, whatever). I was at first tempted to label Steffen rather morbidly lucky in that sense, before reflecting that it’s actually becoming rather difficult not to publish a book shortly after some catastrophic event linked to climate change (that link should lead you to a story about heavy downpours and potential flooding in already-soaked England and Wales, during the week of 17 Dec 2012; but if you’re reading this next week or the week after or five years from now, I’m sure a new catastrophe will spring just as readily to mind).

“Steffen’s correct when he claims that we gradualists need to step aside, that we’re not recommending anything that’ll fix these problems anywhere near fast enough. If ever there were an issue well-suited to convincing utopianism, global climate change is it. Nothing else is going to cut it.”

It’d be a stretch to claim that Steffen’s written the most important book of the 21st century – sorry, Alex – but he has written a very readable and really pretty useful book about the most important issue of the 21st century, and that’s a praiseworthy-enough feat, I should think (incidentally, it’s also cheap as these things go, and since you’ve probably got some spare time [and possibly a new e-reader? It’s that time of year] at the moment, you can buy it here). A few months ago, I castigated Fast Company’s “climate capitalist” in-residence, Boyd Cohen, for more or less groveling at the altar of neoliberalism and simply refusing to challenge the systems of production and consumption which undergird early-21st century capitalism; certainly no such criticism can be leveled at Steffen, who devotes an entire chapter to the subject. Carbon Zero really is a comprehensive piece of work, addressing not just all the major systems that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and global climate change, but also potential urban solutions to mitigate or even reverse those contributions. It’s a boldly optimistic piece of writing, the sort of thing that self-proclaimed pragmatists like myself try to dismiss as hopelessly naïve or some such. But Steffen’s correct when he claims that we gradualists need to step aside, that we’re not recommending anything that’ll fix these problems anywhere near fast enough. If ever there were an issue well-suited to convincing utopianism, global climate change is it. Nothing else is going to cut it.

FIRST, THE PRAISE…

Somewhat unusually for this sort of review, I’m going to refrain from quoting Steffen extensively; Sarah’s already posted some pretty significant excerpts from Carbon Zero to the blog, and if we keep going we’ll have the whole book up here. Instead, I’m going to focus on what I think makes Carbon Zero a hell of a lot more effective than (to beat a dead horse) Cohen’s “climate capitalism” or any of the other, seemingly-endless tracts laying out the neoliberal prescription for dealing with climate change: namely, Steffen’s unaffected utopianism.

Overall, Carbon Zero is a pretty optimistic book – almost unbearably so at times, when you reflect on Steffen’s introduction. “We still, just barely,” he writes there, “have the option [to]… pause at ‘extremely dangerous’ and pull back from the brink of chaos.” Maybe that’s why Carbon Zero never quite crosses the line of naiveté – Steffen’s optimism and utopianism are deployed in the service of a very realistic, perhaps even pessimistic (well, we can hope…), goal. Steffen doesn’t claim that we as individuals can save the world today. Instead, he lays out the case for collective action to prevent the future’s becoming too horrible, a case even hardened cynics should take seriously. Because after all, there’s still a chance, right?

“Steffen’s thesis is that cities – well-designed and well-managed cities, that is – can and must be our answer to climate change.”

Steffen’s thesis is that cities – well-designed and well-managed cities, that is – can and must be our answer to climate change. Rather than considering factors that contribute to climate change individually (though that certainly can be done convincingly), he examines five fundamental and very broad systems: energy, urbanism, shelter, consumption and sustenance. These systems function in ways determined by choice that we made collectively, and that can only be un-made collectively; cities and urban regions, Steffen argues, are the venues through which we can un-make some of our past decisions, and reach new ones that move the human race towards a “carbon zero” future.

So far, then, so good. Steffen opens by identifying a problem, the venue(s) in which it can be solved and the levers we’ll need to lean on in order to get there. Each chapter covers one “system” and outlines solutions that will likely sound familiar to urbanists of all stripes, but which aren’t always collected quite so readably in one place. We need dense cities that use less energy (particularly for transport, but also through the built environment more generally), and we need to live and consume in them in ways that minimize carbon emissions and maximize synergies between human settlements and the so-called “natural” world (Steffen is rightly skeptical of any attempt to maintain some human/natural divide, and thank God for it). You don’t need and shouldn’t expect the details from me – I’ll repeat that you should buy the book here, but now (since you’ve come this far) add that you can find it all at here at grist if need be – but they’re there in full. Carbon zero is possible, and Steffen does as good a job as any outlining the possibilities. Whether or not it’s plausible or even likely is another question entirely, but one that Steffen doesn’t and shouldn’t be expected to answer.

“Carbon zero is possible. Whether or not it’s plausible or even likely is another question entirely.”

Is this the best version of imagining (and reimagining) cities?

…AND THEN, THE CRITICISM.

Apparently, rhetorically linking whatever book I’m reviewing to the last thing I read (whatever that happens to be) is becoming something of a trademark move. This time around, I had the pleasure of re-reading John Maynard Keynes’s fabulous essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” just a day or two before picking up Carbon Zero, and was struck by the similar styles Keynes and Steffen employ.

“Possibilities…” is one of the more radical pieces Keynes published, in which he resolves to “disembarrass [him]self of short views and take wings into the future.” Keynes’s fundamental contention is that, given the trends witnessed from the Industrial Revolution up through the essay’s publication in 1930, it is not unreasonable to expect that within a hundred years the problem of scarcity – the Economic Problem, as it has often been called – will have been resolved. “Work” as we conceive of it will be largely unnecessary, limited to a manageable three-or-so hours each week to keep folks’ passions and sense of importance in check. In a hundred years, Keynes anticipates, “[w]e shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter – to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible.”

Was Keynes a naïve fool? Well, no – he was probably the greatest economist of the 20th century, and after all we’re the ones still being suckered in by the “need” for work and the demands of an altogether-unnecessary 40-hour work week. I’d be careful who I called “naïve.” But Keynes will probably be proved incorrect, barring some dramatic change over the next less-than-two decades. There are many parties to blame for this, and our few remaining utopians hardly top the list – but they’re still culpable, dammit, at least to some small extent. In their refusal to challenge the centrality and permanence of the Economic Problem, they’ve not only undercut their own visions of utopia, but also helped limit our ability to achieve them.

“Unacknowledged in Carbon Zero is the tremendous amount of spare time that it’ll take to operationalize many of Steffen’s suggested urban “solutions” to the climate change crisis.”

Unacknowledged in Carbon Zero is the tremendous amount of spare time that it’ll take to operationalize many of Steffen’s suggested urban “solutions” to the climate change crisis. Words like innovation and competition and race-to-the-top are all too often bandied about without any admission that they all require time commitments that most normal people can’t afford to make. Crowdsourcing – publication of Carbon Zero was funded in part through a Kickstarter campaign – can help, but as Steffen recognizes in his afterward, innovation and creativity are expensive. A genius living paycheck-to-paycheck doesn’t have the time to drop by the café where she bump into someone with the other half of her idea for maximum-efficiency retrofitting of historical structures; after work, he or she’s too busy shopping, cleaning, cooking him or herself dinner and (hopefully) relaxing afterward for an hour or so before bed. I’ve done it, you’ve done it – working full-time simply isn’t especially conducive to genius. It’s mostly just exhausting.

If I’ve got one complaint about Carbon Zero, then, it’s that Steffen doesn’t take his utopianism quite far enough. His optimistic prescriptions call for significant investments of time, and that’s something we’ve got no shortage of – the ladies and gentlemen of Jacobin have long made a very excellent case for the “anti-work agenda,” while such mainstream-liberal outlets as the New York Times (well, Krugman at least) and the Financial Times have slowly begun to come around more recently. A future of experimentation, a future of hyperlocal production and consumption, a future in which people drive less and walk more, a future in which small and dense communities are the rule: all of that sounds a lot more compatible with a future in which people have a lot more time to devote to their own interests than one in which they’re stuck for forty-odd hours each week at some job they’re not particularly invested in.

I’m not sure what I’m asking for here – should Carbon Zero have been more ambitious, or should Steffen’s next project tackle the Economic Problem more aggressively? – but I am positive that it’s important. Pretending that we can actually mitigate climate change within the context of contemporary capitalism (Boyd Cohen, I’m looking at you) is a just a waste of time; Alex Steffen’s Carbon Zero clearly isn’t that, but it’s also not a complete answer to the questions it poses. What our current crisis demands is a fusion of Carbon Zero and its ilk, with the really rather inimitable “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Steffen is right to argue that we must devote our hearts and our minds to addressing the problem of climate change. But if we’re to worry about where the planet’s headed, we’ll first need to start spending a lot less time worrying about putting in our forty hours. The climate change problem and the Economic Problem are inseparable; it’s time we finally got around to addressing both.


A native of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, Peter Chomko got his start in planning rethinking the spatial organization of the atypical warehouse environments (those of an arts-and-education nonprofit and a corporate library services outsourcing firm) where he worked. He is presently a Master of City Planning (2013) candidate at the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Design, with a concentration in community and economic development.

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