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. Continue reading