Alex Steffen says Earth Observation is part of Worldchanging

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Picture of Alex Steffen, co-founder of Worldchanging.

Alex Steffen, co-founder of Worldchanging.

Green futurist Alex Steffen believes Earth observation plays a key role in helping make the world a more sustainable place.

Steffen, a Seattle-based writer who helped create the best-selling ‰ÛÏWorldchanging‰Û book and website, will give the keynote speech at this year’s IEEE Professional Communication Society conference at the University of Cincinnati. He offered an advance look at his Oct. 17 talk during a recent interview with Earthzine.

Steffen says his message is focused on two central themes: The degree to which small steps can result in big changes, and the need to better educate the public on scientific findings that demonstrate the need for action.

‰ÛÏIt’s hard work, but we actually do know we can make things better than they are now,‰Û he said.

‰ÛÏI personally believe that what we need to do is not lower our ambitions in order to do things that feel easy, but to raise them.‰Û

One example is efforts toward achieving sustainability, such as building carbon-neutral cities and providing more environmentally friendly products to the masses.

Essay Logo for 2011 Third Annual College and University Student Essay and Blogging Contest: ‰ÛÏHow Can Earth Observation Help Us to Build a More Sustainable World?‰ÛThere are many fields related to sustainability where incremental steps become increasingly more expensive until you get to a system shift, where you get greater progress at a much lower cost per unit,‰Û Steffen explains.

Leaders need to think about the strategic systems where intervention will pay off over time, such as urban planning, Steffen said.

‰ÛÏIf you try and approach the problem of a metro area’s transportation emissions by small steps of changing the actual vehicles, the odds of us getting where we need to go are very small,‰Û he said.

‰ÛÏOn the other hand, we know transportation emissions are directly related to land use. Compact communities tend to drive less.‰Û

Creating denser communities also results in increased use of public transportation, more walking, and people who don’t own cars at all.

‰ÛÏThe most sustainable trip is the trip you never had to take,‰Û Steffen added. ‰ÛÏWhat you end up with is a city where emissions drop much, much more quickly than they would if you were trying to change it vehicle-by-vehicle.‰Û

From that come other benefits, he explained. More physical activity results in better health and less emissions result in cleaner air. Infrastructure also is less costly to build and maintain in denser communities, and such areas can enjoy a larger tax base.

Steffen thinks there’s low awareness among the world population when it comes to the concept of sustainability. ‰ÛÏBut if you describe it as more general principles — not taking out more than nature is able to put back in, that sacrifice people’s long-term ability to live — those are human ethics that almost everybody understands.‰Û

Still, there aren’t enough people who grasp the basics of topics like climate science, and the profound effect that human-induced changes to the planet could have on the ability of humanity to survive.

My sense is that we have a unique design problem in front of us, which is learning to tell stories that respect the accuracy and complexity of our attempts to understand the world

(See Changing the Media Discussion on Climate and Extreme Weather)

‰ÛÏMy sense is that we have a unique design problem in front of us, which is learning to tell stories that respect the accuracy and complexity of our attempts to understand the world, but that also are digestible and understandable to people who are really lacking some of the basic knowledge needed to participate in that process,‰Û Steffen said.

‰ÛÏWe have discussions within our professional fields, but that takes for granted all sorts of insight into the nature of the world and the scientific process that understands that things are complex, but we can still talk about uncertainties and acknowledge that we have what we believe are a working set of insights.‰Û

One of the big challenges is learning how to better describe the systems that run our planet, our relationships to those systems, and what we’re learning about how those systems are changing. In that sense, the connection to Earth observation is direct, he said.

‰ÛÏSatellites, for instance, are our eyes on the planet,‰Û Steffen said. ‰ÛÏWhat we learn through the data generated tells us a lot about the systems around us.‰Û

Observations taken from the sky or on the ground also can identify huge problems that aren’t immediately noticeable to the naked eye.

‰ÛÏI think that if those of us who care about science informing our decisions in life and in policy want to see a good outcome here, we have to be smart about how we communicate the insights that we’re having and observations and conclusions we’re drawing from those things, so they make sense to a wider group of people.‰Û

The ‰ÛÏWorldchanging‰Û book, first released in 2006, is in its second edition.

Steffen is now working with Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit design services firm that aims ‰ÛÏto build a more sustainable future through the power of professional design.‰Û

For more information on Steffen and his work, see