(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.