Think Global. Vote Local.

(Editors’s note:  HAC is thoroughly stoked to publish the following contribution by Alex Steffen, co-founder of Worldchanging, and one of the nation’s most forward-thinking and inspirational voices on sustainability.)

I spend most of my waking hours exploring solutions for the planet’s most pressing problems. My teammates and I take in absurd amount of information, reading hundreds of magazines, blogs and newsletters, books and reports. Our website’s correspondents and readers live in nearly every major city. I travel frequently, speaking at conferences and doing research trips from Cape Town to Copenhagen, Tokyo to Texas. In short, I think I have a fairly good take on what our planetary priorities should be. So I hope you’ll hear me out when I say that I think Seattle’s election this fall is one of the most important events on the planet.

This fall, we’re going to face a series of choices here—in the mayor’s race, the county executive’s race, the city council races—about what kind of city and region we want to be. Those choices will have global echoes. Here’s why: Seattle looms large in the global imagination. We may be a relatively small city tucked away in the far left corner of America, but everywhere I’ve gone, people know about Seattle and have the idea that we are world leaders in building a path to sustainable urbanism. They’re looking to us for answers.

Right now, the reality falls short of the sparkle. We continue to be a sprawling, low-density, auto-dependent, energy-wasteful and pollution-spewing city, not all that much different from most places in North America. If we are serious about becoming a bright green city, we need to start making some bold decisions now; decisions that will deliver smart growth, a walkable city, public transportation, sustainable design and healthy local ecosystems. Indeed, I think we need to decide now to become a carbon-neutral region, committed to radically good design, clean technologies, sustainable urbanism, and zero waste policies.

But we’re running out of time: another eight years and we’ll be too late. We are already on the verge of making certain choices and missing other opportunities that will together make it impossible to solve our deep problems as a city before the consequences overtake us.

We can’t solve those problems unless things start changing fast. They won’t change fast unless we elect Mike McGinn, Mike O’Brien, Richard Conlin and Dow Constantine. None of these guys is perfect. But all four get what the region needs, and understand that business as usual—from the waterfront tunnel boondoggle to NIMBY opposition to infill, slow progress on transit to low standards for buildings—will ruin this region and contribute to what is quickly becoming a planetary environmental catastrophe. I know these guys will fight for a different future, and all four of them can win.

Another future is within our grasp. By committing ourselves to adopting the best ideas already working elsewhere (and blazing some new trails of our own) we can turn this region into a sustainability powerhouse. That means a thriving economy in a time of rapid change. That means jobs and economic justice. That means healthy kids and a better quality of life. Maybe best of all, that means hope for the rest of the world.

Because the rest of the world is watching. If we can’t embrace real change here in Seattle—with all our natural advantages, with our wealth, with our educated population and mild climate, with our history of innovation and strong base of people who understand what sustainability means and what it demands—with all of this, if we can’t build a bright green city here, then it can’t be done.

On the other hand, if we do it here, we prove it’s possible, and we provide a model for the billions of people in other cities who are facing change in their own lives and communities.

And this is a critical moment in global politics. With climate legislation failing in the U.S. Senate, and the Copenhagen climate summit approaching, the rest of the world is waiting for a sign—any sign!—that Americans give a damn about the planetary crisis we face.

So, friends and neighbors, this race is not just a chance to vote for this candidate or that; it’s a chance to either embrace a better future or accept a planetary catastrophe. That may sound a bit extreme, but as someone who’s traveled the world looking for that future, I can tell you, it’s not. This is the most important local election you’ll ever vote in, donate in, volunteer for, become a part of.

It’s not every day that the things we do matter, really matter, to the rest of the world. This election is different. This election is your chance to exert a powerful influence on the kind of future the planet’s children will inherit. I hope you’ll look inside and find what values most to you in our public life, and act with the passion your values demand. I hope you’ll give everything you can to see this city gets the leaders we need for the future we believe in.

49 Responses to “Think Global. Vote Local.”

  1. Jim Stephenson

    Blah, blah, blah…are you serious? When did this blog get to be so preachy and overtly political? I mean, Dan has always had strong opinions, which I like, but this is just too much. TOO MUCH. You guys are a broken record now. Multiple posts on the same subject (i.e. vote McGinn!) aren’t going to change people’s minds. You’re alienating people.

    I get it. Vote green or die. But I sure miss Dan’s wit, humor, and unique take on the urban environment. Like Ellery said in his comment, the Hugeasscityscapes is a breath of fresh air that is missed in this blog. Bring it back.

  2. boobtoob

    Maybe Dan has something to gain (other than a clean, progressive city), if McGinn and his cohorts get into office? That would explain this excessive drum beat to vote for McChubb.

  3. Ellery

    Just when I thought one more right-on but tedious pro-McGinn anti-tunnel post on this blog would finally push me over the top and force me to throw my monitor out my window (or at the very least, take an extended vacation from HAC) along comes this thoughtful and inspiring post from Alex Steffen. Yes, I agree in part with Jim @ 1, it is getting to sound like a broken record, and you are alienating folks — but Steffen is a heavy-weight in this arena, and I appreciate is perspective on the election, and that he shared it in this forum.
    So, now, is there anything else we can talk about? Please?

  4. Ben Schiendelman

    Jim – I’m not feeling alienated. This is the most powerful thing we can all do, especially in the next few months. I can fight for transit, I can fight for sidewalks, I can fight for better building standards, but if my mayor, my county executive, and my city council are fighting for me, my work is worth tenfold.

  5. Zelbinian


    If people would walk the walk as well as we talk the talk, the preaching wouldn’t be necessary, would it? As #3 pointed out, this guy knows what he’s talking about from a political perspective probably better than any single other person one could name. He already has his own website to talk about this stuff on, one that already gets much more readership than this (awesome) blog ever will. So why is he writing here? Clearly, he thinks your vote is important. So the least you can do is listen respectfully. You don’t have to agree with him, but you should listen.

    Besides, you should know by now that when Dan is passionate about something, he doesn’t shut up about it. :)


    Putting unsubstantiated and possibly libelous claims in writing is both bad form and stupid.

  6. LMIV

    I, like most folks who probably read this blog, agree with Dan and Steffan, but Jim S. has a point. It’s like reading the same news story over and over again, (even if we all agree it’s insanely important.) My twitter, youtube, myspace, facebook generation needs constantly new stimulation :o)

  7. Good Grief

    Boy oh boy — I never get tired of hearing from douchebags who preach at everyone else about how they need to be nicer to the planet while in the next sentence bragging about their globehopping lifestyle in the name of a higher calling. I guess all those lifestyle changes just appply to other people, right?

    My favorite part — “I think I have a fairly good take on what our planetary priorities should be”…what an a-hole.

    Also an interesting point raised here that I have been wondering about — if McGinn rides his bike so much , how *does* he maintain such chubbiness?

  8. paulish

    Geeze, Mallahan supporters are an angry bunch.

  9. David Schraer

    It is great to have Mike McGinn in the race making a ruckus. The legitimate question for progressives is whether he can govern successfully. His anti-tax message and line-in-the-sand on the tunnel got him in the race but raised the question of whether he can accomplish anything with this approach. Will the state work with him? There are many good things about the tunnel from a livable-city point of view and there are many important issues besides the tunnel. I need to know a lot more.

  10. Zelbinian


    And right you are to ask. I keep hoping that, now that the primary is over, he expands his issues page to talk about some of the things he’s talked about on the campaign. Until then, head on over to and show up at a house party or a pub crawl; Mike will be happy to answer any questions you have personally, as he did for me.

  11. Joe G

    My thoughts and feelings exactly! Well said!!

  12. Elaine

    This is EXACTLY why I’m supporting McGinn and O’Brien. Although I grew up here, I have spent most of the last 20 years living and working overseas. It has been a rare occurrence indeed for someone I meet in my travels to not know about Seattle. Everyone is always curious about what is happening here, and they love to learn about the “newest” trend, or music group, or company, or protest (remember WTO?) that will spawn a new way of thinking. When I found out that O’Brien and McGinn were running for city office, I finally decided that it was time to “come home” and work to make Seattle the best possible city, and model, it could be. Because Seattle is not like Las Vegas; what happens here, doesn’t stay here. It spreads all over the world, and changes it. Thank you Alex for expressing this so well.

  13. kurisu

    Would an outright ban or a 20-cent fee on douchebag comments like Good Grief @7 be more effective?

  14. Northwest Native

    I’m a northwest native and ready for a change. I’m for McGinn and O’Brien and they are going to make a huge difference in Seattle. It’s time we take our heads out of the sand and realize that our future is at risk if we continue with the “business as usual” mindset. Vote McGinn and O’Brien

  15. Jon Stahl

    Great essay, Alex. Thanks. It’s a good reminder that the whole world is indeed watching, and that elections really do have consequences.

  16. Transpo guy

    I agree, great essay and it is important to vote for these four candidates. However, the point Seattle’s intelligentsia keeps missing is that the city and the county have little power or access to money to make much progress on transportation and a lot of these other sustainability issues. Our ambitions are continually snuffed out by a legislature and governor who are happy to do nothing more than give lip service to dealing with climate change while they continue shoveling piles of money into the hands of highway builders and exurban tract home developers. Even with McGinn, O’Brien, Conlin and Constantine in office, the revolution will be in a state of suspension until there is some sort of shake up at the legislative level and in the governor’s office (Jay Inslee in 2012!).

    Remember, the AWV tunnel is being crammed down our throats by the governor, chamber of commerce and state legislators. Nickels was more of an accomplice not a leader on this one.

  17. Bill B

    Shorter Alex Steffen:

    “Elect Mike McGinn, Mike O’Brien, Richard Conlin and Dow Constantine to save the planet. I know, because I’ve been places and read stuff”.

  18. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    I really want to agree, but I just don’t believe it. I’m sorry.

    Don’t get me wrong, if we can elect these particular white males (???) it will truly make a positive difference, but our political leaders have limited power and a very rough toolkit to work with. At this point I think what we need is a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of the environmental movement. Politicians–even McGinn–will follow the way the wind blows. We need to change the wind. It’s a social justice issue.

  19. Zelbinian


    I’m going to hope that your implied reverse racism is simply the biproduct of some bad phrasing, and that you don’t actually think the color of any candidate’s skin makes them better or worse for the environmental movement.

    That possible misunderstanding aside, could you define what the “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of the environmental movement” is to you? It’s not that I disagree, it’s that I want to make sure we both think of the same thing when we read those words. For me, they kind of imply a community organizer, an unelected official fighting on the skirts of power – and sometimes clashing with it – to get the change we need for the betterment of all.

    Don’t look now, but that would be Michael McGinn.

  20. Beal

    @16 – Yes much bigger issues and players involved. That’s why it was great having Nickels so keyed into the national scene, and possibly able to help make a real shift in federal transportation policy and funding. Check out MorningFizz at PubliCola today for more on this. McGinn can lead movements, sure, but he’s likely to piss off Olympia, making it even harder to work with the state legislature than under Nickels. And without shifting the discussion at the state and federal levels, there is only so much progress that we can make locally.

  21. JanB

    Transpo guy@16 and JDF@18 are the only sane pieces of information in this posting and lines of responses.

    When Mr. Steffen states this election “is not just a chance to vote for this candidate or that; it’s a chance to either embrace a better future or accept a planetary catastrophe”, it embarrasses me as a staunch liberal and a long time reader of World Changing.

    I’m voting for all of the candidates Alex endorses, but Alex’s assertion that these candidates will be successful at fulfilling their agendas, or that they somehow exist outside of the realm of state and federal policies and funding (“This election is different”), borders on simplicity at best in understanding basic politics and social climates, and ignorance at worst.

    I vote for these people because it is my hope that they, out of all the people running, will fight hard for what they believe is right (what I believe is right). But there are no guarantees. There is no promise in my vote. There is only hope that they will make an impact – hope that they won’t be silenced. Again, Transpo guy is a voice of reason: “Our ambitions are continually snuffed out by a legislature and governor who are happy to do nothing more than give lip service to dealing with climate change while they continue shoveling piles of money into the hands of highway builders and exurban tract home developers.”

    Alex’s failure to recognize this in his article,
    seriously tarnishes his credibility as one of the top advocates for global change. To somehow conclude with certainty (again: “accept a planetary catastrophe” if we don’t align ourselves with the ‘right’ candidate) that this election will usher in vast changes that will be a model for environmental and economic success, is a head-scratcher. It’s scare tactics at the worst level – reminiscent of Bush era atrocities.

    Alex, I ride on your hope. I applaud you for your strong opinions and activism, because I’m there with you, step by step. But please don’t fall victim to the far right way of presenting an argument (ala Glen Beck).

  22. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    I should have been more clear–what I mean is a non-politician, a voice who is seen as having moral authority on the national level. This is a historical archetype that transcends race or political system: William Lloyd Garrison, Gandhi, King, etc.

  23. Paul

    Umm….could we have some examples of specific policies these guys support?

  24. Bill B

    Umm…and how their policies differ from their opponents in terms of any measurable environmental impact.

    Otherwise, yer all blowin’ smoke (or smokin’ something).

  25. David Schraer

    Another take on voting a ticket:

    1. It is easy to support Mike O’Brien for City Council – precisely because inexperience does not carry the same price it might in the Mayor’s office.
    2. It would be very reassuring to hear that Dow Constantine and Richard Conlin are endorsing Mike McGinn – that they want to work with him over all other candidates and are willing to say so.

  26. dan bertolet

    Hey there Bill Bradburd @17: I guess that’s why Alex is so often invited to speak at conferences like this: Since I assume you have also been places and read stuff, I wonder why you haven’t been invited to speak too?

  27. eddiew

    I too will vote for the recommended candidates. I hope the presence of O’Brien and McGinn will help make Conlin braver. We elected officials to exercise good judgment. They hire professional managers. Nickels brought in Ceis as deputy mayor. McGinn’s judgment has been sound: 2007, RTID and joint ballot measure was a bad deal; 2008, ST2 alone and parks levy; and, 2009, Nickels support maxed out at 25 percent and he could beat that with a grass roots campaign.

    Public policy is about choices in the allocation of scarce public revenue to achieve public benefits. it is about zoning at the city level. this blog is about urban issues. the recommended four would advance the urban form much more tahn the alternative candidates.

    the future is about sidewalks, graceful density, transit funding, systemwide tolling, and good design. the deep bore is representative of that struggle. Seattle and King County should lead the state by example.

  28. John of Humdinger

    In his Sept. 1 blog Mr. Steffen tell us:
    “Some people seem to have a hard time even understanding the concept of the rights of future generations. The idea that people who do not yet exist have the right to assert their needs in our lives is one that seems to be hard to fully grasp.”

    Can’t help but wonder…
    Does Mr. Steffen think that these unborn have a right to LIFE?

  29. gene

    So stopping the tunnel, thus ushering in another ten-year-long stalemate on what to do about the viaduct–this will help the environment? Leaving that teetering monstrosity up indefinitely is somehow good for downtown Seattle?

    Do you folks think McGinn is going to single-handedly dismantle the Viaduct and install a surface road/transit system, and pay for it — how? — himself? And get the state government to ignore the fact that 99 is a state road, too, so Seattle can do whatever it feels like?

    I wish someone could explain to me how this is supposed to play out, because it sounds to me right now like McGinn folks are living in a fantasy land.

  30. Joe G

    I don’t think its a fantasy land so much as it is the land we wish Seattle to be. One as described in this post. A leader of how future cities can and will be built.

    It seems to me that this whole thing is really simple. We can discuss how the viaduct will be replaced, and when it is determined that not putting another monstrosity of any sort on the water front is the right solution than that will be implemented. If that takes ten years then i suppose thats how long it takes. Sad though, to think that our law makers and decision makers would take ten years to come to terms with the 21st century. Also, I would imagine that the viaduct would not be standing any longer, after all, Gregoire said that she was going to have the thing torn down by 2012. Thats only a few years away.

  31. gene

    JOe G: We can “discuss how the viaduct will be replaced”? Sorry, but that’s what we just went through for almost a decade! That’s how we wound up with a tunnel decision signed into law.

    This is classic “Seattle process” thinking. When all sides wants to keep the debate going until they get exactly what they want — no compromises — then nothing ever gets done.

    I supported a surface road during the debate but I accepted the tunnel compromise and was just happy a decison was made that wasn’t a rebuild.

    I admit that I am now much more in favor of the tunnel than I was before. I think the wisest environmental decision is one that will make downtown the most live-able neighborhood. I don’t want all that Viaduct commercial traffic rumbling through downtown, which is where I live. If having a tunnel means burying 40% of the commercial traffic that would otherwise be on the streets of downtown, I think the tunnel is worth it.

  32. Joe G

    Ok, ok. I can see your point. Although, I wonder how the tunnel was a compromise. Especially since the transportation funding has been removed from the project. And, as I am a resident of downtown as well, I would argue that the transit surface option is a much more environmentaly friendly and livable solution than a tunnel ever could be. I don’t get where people are getting these ideas about all sorts of trucks and freight suddenly finding its way down first and fourth avenue? Really, I would like to know.

  33. gene

    I guess I looked at the tunnel as a compromise in the sense that it got rid of the AWV on the waterfront, but still gave drivers and commercial interests their roadway through downtown.

    So where is all the Viaduct traffic going to go if there is no roadway? There are tens of thousands of vehicles on the Viaduct every day, right? Some of those trips are surely discretionary and would disappear if there was no highway, but the majority of those trips are still going to have to be made.

  34. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Gene, I realize this is a biased source but here you go:
    I definitely wish it had better references to the WSDOT and SDOT studies.

    The majority of the current trips are for downtown, so those are out. WSDOT also expects fewer trips due to the high tolls.

  35. Joe G

    Exactly, and by giving people options those trips won’t necessarily have to be made by car. That’s one of my biggest objections to the project, is that it is not expanding our transportation options. It’s simply replacing one freeway with another, and with a price tag that will sink most of our funds for years and years. But even besides that, you yourself point out that it was not a compromise. It was only an alternative solution. A compromise, to me, would have involved some sort of significant public transportation option.

    My concern is that we are building all of this infrastructure for cars but we are still limiting people to having to use a car. Now, thats a problem for me because I don’t own a car. You see. I think it would be rad to have a tunnel like this, but when I really think about it I think that it is not the right solution in terms of the environment as well as in fiscal policy. Tunnel are cool. Polluting the earth is not cool, as well as burdening a city with debt, that is not cool.

  36. Walkable Greenwood

    Very funny.

    McGinn is as status quo as one could ever get. His green veneer may be older and thicker, but it is as false as any. He is a power hungry, rude, sit around the pickle jar back slapper. I’ve been at hundreds of meetings with this guy for a decade. His viral campaign entertains him more than actually addressing issues. It’s a game for him.

    And Dow is really going to shake things up, right? Ummm.

    Please pull the curtains back on Oz will you.

  37. gene

    Joshua: I suppose we could debate whether the tunnel is advantageous or not, but I really didn’t mean to get into that. Like I said, when we did have this debate (for a decade), I supported a surface street and would have been happy had that been the option. The point I am really trying to make is, we have made a decision, and while it might not be the best decision, at least it is a decision, and a decision that doesn’t rebuild the Viaduct. I am cool with that and do not want another 10 years of debate that will probably end in a rebuild and/or a Viaduct demolished by earthquake. For that reason, I cannot vote for McGinn, and would hope anybody who wants to see Seattle move forward to other important issues not vote for McGinn either. However, I know most people who read this blog don’t agree, and will vote for McGinn and really hope to block progress on the tunnel and bring us back to square one. I get it. I just don’t agree.

  38. Sirkulat

    The agency to blame for wasted years planning an AWV replacement is WsDOT, followed closely by SDOT, currently headed by ex-ODOT chief Grace Crunican who left that position with no love lost due to her terrible oversight of Portland’s Ross Island Bridge rebuild. She went out of her way to make this bridge “hazardous” for pedestrians and bicyclists. Inner-city state highways is not her thing. Nickels hired a department head with a vindictive streak.

    WsDOT chiefs trotted out the most expensive tunnel designs for years, knowing they’d be rejected as too expensive. This ruse culminated in the March 2007 vote where their preferred option all along, the 6-lane elevated replacement monstrosity, was rejected along with the 6-lane Cut-n-cover.

    After this stinging slap in the face, WsDOT downsized the 6-lane Cut-n-cover into a 4-lane version to reduce construction disruption. This is the tunnel option WsDOT could and should have proffered first. A rough equivalent was my first choice in the Summer of 2001. Coincidentally, it’s cost is about $900 million less than the Deep-bore.

    The Deep-bore’s ‘fatal flaw’ is its lack of access at Western/Elliott where 40,000 Interbay-bound vehicles currently access SR-99 daily. This is about 2500 vehicles per hour that will be directed onto the new Alaskan Way. Even half that much additional traffic there (with 15-20 stoplights) will produce bumper-to-bumper gridlock all day long bringing pollution, noise, frustrated reckless motorists and dangerous pedestrian crossings.

    Get a clue! Think that wide plaza looks nice? Think again. Narrow it by 20′ because Alaskan Way is more likely to become 6 lanes, not 4 lanes. Even then traffic will gridlock. Picture the Wide Plaza with makeshift parking lots and driveways. The Alaskan Way design is a design failure even under manageable traffic conditions.

    In the long-run, it’s better that Seattle bite the bullet and dig up the Waterfront and build the 4-lane Cut-n-cover to maintain the critically important access at Western/Elliott. There’s no avoiding the construction mess of removing the AWV, rebuilding the seawall and Alaskan Way. Then have another look at early designs for the new Alaskan Way. These were best and I’ll wager their designers left when Crunican arrived.

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  40. Chris

    Sirkulat –

    Well said. the 4-lane bypass was my preferred plan at the time as well.

  41. wes kirkman

    The frustrating part is that designs for the tunnel have already come out showing a wider surface Alaskan Way. If people think that having the freeway under the ground is going to make the surface a blissful wonderland, they’re sadly mistaken. We are going to be crossing 6 lanes of traffic (newly decked out with wide turning radii and extra wide lanes) to reach the waterfront.

  42. Sirkulat

    Thanks for the feedback. McGinn is better positioned for a reconsideration of the 4-lane Cut-n-cover. His argument against the Deep-bore is comprehensive – improve I-5, better transit, cut costs.

    Grace Crunican rejected pleas from Portland’s pedestrian and bicycling organizations to widen the sidewalk on the Ross Island Bridge resurface. The sidewalk remains about 5′ wide, barely room for two wheelchairs to pass.

    This Hwy 26 bridge over the Willamette is about 1 mile long with 4 lanes of 45mph traffic inches from the sidewalk. A catwalk was removed from the south side. It could’ve been added 18″ to the sidewalk, but instead went to wider lanes, which increased traffic speed a notch.

    The final insult was the new steel barrier rails. Instead of installing them between the roadway and the sidewalk, the simple example to follow found on Portland’s Broadway Bridge, Crunican installed them on the concrete ballister railings. Crunican approved faster traffic with no protection for pedestrians and bicyclists, exhibiting callous disregard for public safety. Don’t let her get away with doing worse to Seattle.

  43. Joe G

    Dear God, how did this mad women get a job in Washington? And how can we stop her?

  44. Joe G

    woman*. Sorry, I just got so upset with the idea that she may be designing transportaiton needs in my very own city, I started making typographical errors.

  45. Sirkulat

    It’s the nature of the beast, Joe. Crunican was hired by cohorts of the same mindset, at WsDOT where highway-centric planning dominates moreso in Washington than in Oregon, and at SDOT where Seattle streets are forever overrun with reckless, noxious traffic.

    The Alaskan Way redesign is entirely flawed; 4-lanes, 6-lanes, either will predictably result in bottlenecked AND hazardous traffic. Crunican either has no idea how to mitagate traffic or doesn’t care. She may simply be going by the book.

    She’s toast. The problem is she may go on to another, similar position elsewhere. The ‘Old School’ highway planners are still in charge.

  46. Joe G

    I’m sure Oklahoma City can find a place for her somewhere. We need to protest SDOT and WsDOT to be actual departments of transportation or rename themselves for what they are. Departments of Single Occupancy Infrasturcture.

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