Alex Steffen

After Whole Earth
Alex Steffen Interviewed by Yukiko Bowman and Julianne Gola

In the late 60s, the Whole Earth Catalog popularized an understanding of ecology as a continuum between the self, technology, and the environment. Forty years later, Alex Steffen, editor of the website Worldchanging ( and the recent compendium Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century (Abrams, 2006), is approaching sustainable living from the micro (the design of refugee shelters) to the macro (climate change). A global advocate for a social, high-tech approach to environmental and community sustainability through innovation, Steffen is also the editor of the last (unpublished) issue of Whole Earth, the magazine that grew out of the Whole Earth Catalog. Here, he assesses the legacy of the Whole Earth Catalog in contemporary discussions of environmentalism and how counterculture compares with his notion of ‘bright green’.

Yukiko Bowman: In many ways, today’s mainstream environmentalism comes directly out of 60s counterculture and the Whole Earth approach. These days, 'green' is used as a selling point for everything from gasoline to t-shirts. How do you position Worldchanging – as an extension of countercultural ideals or as an example of environmentalism's increasing popularity?

Alex Steffen: In order to keep fulfilling our function, we need to be on the edge. It is a real challenge for us that our content has moved into the mainstream. As the sea of innovation grows, it becomes harder to cover its surface. You know, I grew up on a commune where Whole Earth Catalogs were bouncing around. That countercultural filter was a big part of how the people who raised me saw the world. Today, the Whole Earth Catalog has become the placeholder in our cultural notation for ‘all that innovative hippie crap’.

Julianne Gola: What is Worldchanging's relationship to the ideals established in the Whole Earth Catalog

AS: They share a format which is inherently in a tradition that comes out of the Enlightenment: a community of really smart and informed people who you've heard of and may have even met getting together, sharing ideas, and cataloging them. They are finding what is on the fringe of the accepted solution set.

Editing the last issue and witnessing the end of Whole Earth was a great opportunity to think about how things had changed. The Whole Earth Catalog had been a back-to-the-land, rural, low-tech, and generally very 'dark green' version of environmentalism, but Worldchanging is urban, pro-technology, pro-design, pro-innovation; more about systems, impacts, footprints and lifecycles. I am a big believer in paying attention to what is going on, but you can’t stop there. You need to move on to optimism. Rather than fleeing from the technological civilization that we live in, Worldchanging tries to transform it. The ‘bright green’ take is that although technology won’t fix non-technological problems (technology can’t even fix itself in some cases), understanding it allows us to transcend limitations and, in turn, empowers us. It’s good to know not only how it works, but also when it’s the right tool and when it’s not. If you aren’t its master, you’re its slave.

JG: What is your ideal scale for enacting change?

AS: The change that we need is so massive and pervasive that it needs to happen on all scales, and if we leave out the top scales – of business and government – it is not going to succeed under any circumstances. The Whole Earth project was never really about politics or business as a larger enterprise; the unfortunate legacy of the sixties is the idea that the best scale is individual. And it’s really not: individuals cannot single-handedly change urban form or mass deploy wind power, for example. Worldchanging takes a different approach, speaking to people who are working on sustainability and social innovation in the design profession and applying their work at larger scales.

YB: How does Worldchanging address these 'top scales'? How do you balance government-focused policy and civic efforts?

AS: Worldchanging is global. We’re trying to suggest broad approaches that could be applied anywhere, and targeting specific examples of successful solutions. We aren’t lobbying for a bill, or trying to enact direct change – we can have more impact by remaining as a discussion of change.

JG: What are the systems that we need to change? How do you measure sustainability?

AS: As a nation, America is slipping behind, largely due to the way we relate to urban space and consumption. It’s massive; roughly half of North Americans in metropolitan areas are living in suburbs. We have essentially gone on a sprawl-building binge, then filled homes in the suburbs with as much stuff as our credit cards will let us buy. Bruce Sterling has this marvelous phrase: ‘the ruins of the unsustainable are the twenty first century’s frontier’. Hyperbole aside, the suburbs are massively unsustainable, financially and ecologically.

North America needs to wrestle with the consequences of the suburban collapse, because the suburbs will collapse, and they are already collapsing. The foreclosure crisis is not happening in the city. The suburbs are becoming low-density ghettos. In twenty years, there will still be rich enclaves, but the suburbs will be largely poor and with a low standard of living.

YB: Sometimes lifestyle choices and larger social and political ideas have a correspondence, and other times one is disguised as the other. How does one promote lifestyle change without being righteous or alienating?

AS: The way of life in the suburbs will not continue – that is not a values judgment, it’s a statement of fact. We can’t afford it, because the materials and energy aren’t there to keep it going. The things that are wrong with suburbs are not cultural; they are laws of physics. You have to move a large amount of weight over long distances at high speeds, which takes an enormous amount of energy. But how long people fight, how hard they dig in to sustain it, is critical. We need to help people understand why what they are doing literally doesn’t work. There is a need to redefine the costs and to rearticulate the benefits.

YB: Does change start by providing a pragmatic analysis or by generating a desire?

AS: It is more important that somebody has a job that is aligned with their values than they shop in a way that is aligned with their values. Or that they are civically engaged rather than a perfect recycler – trying to make their community better in structural ways. Having said that, human beings are notoriously shallow little fashion-conscious chimps. We really love to look at each other and wonder, ‘what is that person doing?’ Another million people throwing their cans in the recycling bin is not going to make much of a difference. But a million people thinking that it is cool to care about this stuff does matter. One can make change by creating a scene around oneself that makes other people think, ‘those are values that I want to have in my life, too’.

JG: If change is about generating 'coolness', then we're talking about a movement coming from young people. Is environmentalism, once again (as in the 60s) a generational project? In other words, is sustainability the assignment of the Millennials?

AS: I see something happening and no one has yet nailed it down as a phenomenon: there are an awful lot of young people moving to or growing up in cities, expressing preferences for bright green things like walkable communities and local food. At the height of the recession, they seemed to be developing in different ways from anything we’ve seen before in the US. But it’s global; you can map people in Berlin as analogues to people in Portland or Brooklyn. They are in a way, urban hipsters (though I suspect that is the least important aspect of it) who are trying to come up with new ways of making urban living sustain in terms of the individual, the family and the planet.

JG: If suburbs are the problem, and a new kind of urban living is the solution, is there no middle ground? Throughout history, architects and urban planners alike have made attempts to bring together the strengths of the two models, from Broadacre City to New Urbanism. Is there still potential for sustainability outside of the suburban/urban dichotomy?

AS: The real problem with the environmental movement is that it perpetuates the myth that moving away from the city reconnects you to nature. The idea that the suburbs could be green if everyone gardened, got an electric car, put solar panels on their roof and moved their grandparents into their spare rooms doesn’t correlate to real systems. We need to build urban places that allow us to use few resources, materials and energy and still allow an extraordinary quality of life. We are learning that cities are really good at nearness – bringing you near things and people so you waste less energy. Technology is also really good at obliterating distance, so if you lay it over already dense urban places, you shift from a property structure based on ownership to one one based on access. This is almost certainly a piece of the future.

We can save cities by making them accommodate a lot more people and remain vibrant, then rework the surroundings as ecosystem services, food sheds, watersheds and clean energy which flow to the city in a sustainable way.

YB: How do you see design as a tool for future change?

AS: A more innovative, green way will actually generate prosperity and growth over the long haul. All these tasks are, in some fundamental way, design tasks, whether they are information design or physical design.

We want people to embrace change as quickly as they can, to come up with better ways of doing things. A lot of the things that define people’s happiness – meaningful relationships, work that gives a sense of purpose, lots of friends, and memorable times – are better delivered in compact communities. It is really important to describe how getting rid of one thing will free you to have another.