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Can This Book Help You Change the World? It’s a Start

Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century

Alex Steffen, Editor

Earth Day is upon us once again and with it come all the resolutions about living a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle.  Switch out your old incandescent lightbulbs with CFLs?  Check.  Recycle your cans and bottles?  Check.  Trade in those plastic grocery bags for reusable totes?  Yes.  Buy a hybrid car?  Well . . .  you’re getting there anyway.  You’re still doing research to find the right one.

These are all worthwhile efforts, but for many of us these steps don’t seem like enough.  Every day we read more news about melting ice caps, rising CO2 levels, vanishing wildlife species and other reminders about the impact of a growing human population that will total 7 billion people this year.  Many of us would like to help minimize this impact in a more meaningful way, something that goes beyond recycling our soda cans, but in the face of so many overwhelming problems we find ourselves thinking, where do I even begin?

Well, for starters, you might try checking out Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century.  The nonprofit media organization Worldchanging has released a timely new and revised edition of its book, which was initially published in 2006.  If you haven’t yet had an opportunity to take a look at this ambitious and impressively comprehensive how-to guide on sustainable living, now is an excellent time

Simply put, Worldchanging is an overview of what people around the world are doing to tackle the dire environmental and humanitarian challenges we face today.  It could also be described as a compilation of innovative ideas, a sort of Who’s Who of problem solvers, or maybe a catalogue of ingenious projects that you wish you could have dreamed up.  In his foreword, Van Jones describes Worldchanging this way:

“Here are the very best solutions to humanity’s toughest problems, chosen by people who’ve made finding solutions their life’s work.  We’ve never needed them more. . . .  With Big Media’s strobe lights flashing in your eyes, it’s easy to forget how simple the most fundamental assumption of this book really is, and how essential:  we are one people, living on a single planet.  We have just a few years to learn how to live together if we want our children to have a future worth living in.  That’s realism in the twenty-first century.”

These solutions cover a huge range of issues.  They include everything from helping people determine the most effective ways to donate money, to engineering “self-healing” materials (such as concrete) that are capable of repairing themselves and won’t need to be thrown away, to “re-skinning” old buildings to make them more energy-efficient, to using bicycles to power computers in developing countries, to putting into place legal processes that would allow squatters to revitalize abandoned urban areas.

These are just a few of the hundreds of projects that are discussed; cherry-picking a small sample doesn’t do justice to the book’s variety.  Worldchanging clocks in at nearly 600 pages and it still feels packed, but the way the book is arranged into seven sections (Stuff, Shelter, Cities, Community, Business, Politics and Planet) is logical and keeps it from seeming too much like a hodgepodge.

Last, but definitely not least, each section is fleshed out with lists of recommendations for further research.  These have been updated from the first edition to reflect current events and trends, and they are the kind of helpful little bibliographies that bring joy to librarians everywhere.  They include classics of the sustainability canon, such William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle and Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, as well as perennial favorites of our researchers here at National Geographic like the State of the World series, and information about blogs, organization websites, and academic studies.  So it doesn’t matter what catches your eye in Worldchanging – whether it’s finding an online magazine that will give you ideas on how to re-use your old doorknobs, or joining an alliance of “bridge bloggers” – you can find the resources to get you started, and the inspiration to make your Earth Day resolutions bigger, better, and greener.