Gates goes Green

Alex Steffen calls Bill Gates' speech on climate at TED "the most important speech of the year." Having the world's most powerful philanthropist focused on the climate change problem is undoubtedly important.

But the most interesting part of Steffen's post is its conclusion, in which he offers an improvement to the equation Gates unveiled at TED.

Now we might start with the energy use to deliver those services (E in the Equation). The energy intensity of any given form of prosperity can, I believe, be improved quite a bit; but the idea that E can be dramatically improved without improving the kind of prosperity we're attempting to provide is the very definition of what I call The Swap. The Swap doesn't work.

And we don't need it to. The idea that contemporary suburban American lifestyles (the kind of prosperity most people around the world aspire to, thanks to Hollywood and advertising), the idea that McMansions, SUVs and fast food chicken wraps somehow represent the best form of prosperity we could possibly invent is, of course, obviously ludicrous.

We can reinvent what prosperity means and how it works, and, in the process both reduce the ecological demands of that prosperity and improve the quality of our lives. In most cases, this is a smarter approach than simply improving efficiency.

The answer to the problem of cars and automotive emissions, for instance, isn't designing a better car, it's designing a better city. The answer to the problem of overconsumption isn't recycling cans or green shopping, it's changing our relationship to stuff, so that everything we use and live with is designed for zero waste, and either meant to last ("heirloom design" and "durability") or to be shared ("product service systems") or both. The best living we've ever had is waiting beyond zero. What looks like a wall to many people from this side of zero, looks to like a trellis from the other side, a foundation on which new thinking can flourish.

Cities are the tools we need for reinventing prosperity. We can build zero-impact cities, and we need to. Any answer to the problem of climate change needs to be as focused on reinventing the future as powering it.