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

Chasing a guilt-free, consumption-rich lifestyle can be exhausting. Managing your ecological footprint, however, isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. It starts with incremental change(s) – or, as this book suggests, it first necessitates a certain awareness of your environment, the objects in it, and the origins, travels and projected lifespan of said objects. Fittingly, the book begins with a chapter on “Stuff” (and, incidentally, the Guide was printed on recycled paper and wind power credits were purchased to account for the energy it took to print each copy). One of seven sections transposed from the Worldchanging blog (Shelter, Cities, Community, Business, Politics and Planet are the other six), “Stuff” alone left me dumbfounded as I perused my home. Nevertheless, the book’s steadfast optimism and do-what-you-can attitude rescues it from the preachy, doom-and-gloom self-righteousness that can plague a lot of ‘environmentalist’ works. The Guide also provides informative sketches of communities far and wide that are exploring and enacting change of all types. It’s a good introductory resource on a staggering range of material — everything from biomimicry to freecycling, citizen science and social entrepreneurship to prefab and Brazil’s telecentros. If you happen to know each of those in detail, there’s more than 500 pages of other ideas (plus dozens of other books and sites highlighted within). Sure you could just tune into the blog, but owning a physical, inspirational snapshot of where we’re at now means you can revisit it in time, if only to see what sticks.

*

In your home, you may already have several “smart” appliances – machines that automatically shut off or go into a sleep mode to conserve power. These appliances use built-in features that would react the same way whether they were plugged into the wall outlet or connected to some space-age power supply.

But a new generation of truly intelligent appliances is emerging. These machines actually interact with the smart grids to help protect both your wallet and the grid itself.

For instance, the GridWise project, a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Whirpool, and IBM, has already developed machines that can detect drops in power from the grid and cycle down just enough to reduce power demands. The shift is virtually imperceptible to consumers using appliances at home, but it eases the burden on the grid enough to prevent a crash.

*

The Japanese company Mujirushi Ryohin meaning “No brand, good product,” is better known as Muji. Often described to Westerners as a merging of IKEA and Target, Muji sells products for all aspects of life, out of large retail spaces in urban areas. But unlike so many other companies that fit this profile, Muji makes products that feature no distinguishing markings, logos, or trademarks. Muji is a brandless brand.

Of course, simply by virtue of labeling itself as an “unbrand,” Muji is a highly unique and recognizable company. But it makes a point and stand by it: customers don’t need bells and whistles; they don’t need to form personal identities based on the things they own; they simply need useful, well-made, efficient products – and that is just what Muji gives them.

*

Today, we are a planet on the move. According to the Population Resource Center, hundreds of millions of us have left the countries where we were born to start new lives abroad. Hundreds of millions more travel long distances for recreation and business. Jet contrails crisscross the skies, signals flash through fiber-optic cables, and the planet seems to shrink every day.

With all this travel, we’ve lost our connection to the land around us. Few of us could match the local ecological knowledge of our most ignorant ancestors. On the other hand, we’ve gained a greater understanding of the wider workings of nature. We may not be able to identify the tree growing in our own backyards, but we can instantly conjure up a satellite photo of our neighborhood on our laptops. We might not be able to point south without the aid of a compass, but our cell phones can tell us our near-exact latitude and longitude. We may not be able to name the birds singing outside our windows, but we can empathize with the sorrows and joys of Antarctic penguins at our local movie theater. We are, in short, completely uninformed about the regions we call home, and yet tuned-in as never before the workings of the planet as a whole.

What we need to do is to synthesize the two – the global and the local; the technological and the domestic. We need to use the best of the remarkable suite of environmental technologies that are emerging from labs and workshops around the world, and combine them with the kind of local ecological wisdom that comes only from a deep engagement with place. Combining the two will give us unprecedented tools for solving the planet’s most dire problems.

[DISCLOSURE: Kevin Kelly's name is one of several that appear on the jacket cover of this book and within. Yes, he publishes Cool Tools. No, he didn't give me the book or suggest I cover it. -- SL]

Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century
Alex Steffen (Edited), Al Gore (Foreword), Bruce Sterling (Introduction)
2006, 608 pages
$25

Available from Amazon

Also independent bookstores near you

Sample Excerpts:

Good intentions are great, but remember that only passion changes the world. There are more avenues for action than even the most motivated overachiever among us could ever pursue. So we shouldn’t try to do everything: we should try to do the right things. When we seize the chance to make changes that are both important and speak to us as people, we transcend good intentions and more meaningfully express who we are. Why be boring? Why follow other people’s instructions for designing a better life? The world needs more passionate people, deeply engaged with the business of designing their own lives in ways that speak to them. From passion comes creativity, and from creativity come better answers.

The equation we should all follow is this: do the easy things, then do a few more challenging things that we really believe in and enjoy. If we’re home repair geeks, we should green our homes. If we’re policy geeks, we should find the best practices around, adopt them, and improve them. If we’re fashion geeks, we should show the world exactly how fabulous dressing green can be. If we’re business geeks, we should make our fortunes selling a sustainable product the world really needs. If we’re gardening geeks, we should make the yards in our care thrum with life. The world doesn’t need our suffering, it needs our shining examples, and every one of us has an example to set.

*

How can we tell if the two-by-four we’re about to purchase came from a muddy clear-cut or a careful, selective harvest? Did it have the tree’s equivalent of a happy, cage-free, grass-fed life?

Forestry nerds spent the better part of the mid-1990s figuring out how a wood buyer could answer those questions. The result was a system of third-party certification, in which a trusted entity separate from both the buyer and the timber industry vouches for the wood. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – an independent agency including environmentalists, foresters, and indigenous peoples – sets the standard. Accredited audit firms inspect forests and mills; the ones that pass may affix the FSC trademark to their wood. Globally, 168 million acres (68 million hectares) are currently certified. It may sound like a lot, but combined, that worldwide total only actually equals the size of Texas…

Beware of imitations: a year after FSC started up, Big Timber’s main trade association, the American Forest and Paper Association (AF&PA), created its own standard, called the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI). For all its slick public relations, SFI has yet to shake its reputation as an industry greenwashing group. The tip-off? Every last member of the AF&PA, from International Paper on down, has won certification, despite their widespread practices of clear-cutting and raising single-species tree farms.

*

Seafood Watch, a program launched by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, has created a concise, informative list to help fish lovers keep track of which species we can grill free of cares, and which are ecological no-no’s. The Californian aquarium offers this information to visitors on a wallet-sized reference card. It can also be downloaded or requested from the aquarium’s Web site… Updated regularly to reflect improvements and declines in fish populations, the searchable online Seafood Guide has detailed information on the ecological status and nutritional value of different species of wild and farmed seafood.

*

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Communist Cuba not only lost its biggest buyer (the Soviet Union had paid above-market rates for Cuban industrial-agriculture products such as sugar), but it also found itself faced with a U.S. embargo, and at a distinct advantage in the global economy. As a result, Cuba had no money with which to buy oil, fertilizers, or pesticides – the main ingredients in factory farming.

One result was hunger. In 1989 Cubans were consuming an average of 3,000 calories per day; by 1993 that number had dropped to 1,900 – the equivalent of skipping one meal. The Cuban response to this crisis, born out of necessity, was to create a system of sustainable agriculture that was not reliant on fossil fuels or global shipping systems…

The government instituted a program that turned Havana’s many vacant lots into farms or community gardens, virtually handing the land off to anyone who agreed to turn it into a viable food source. This scheme was so successful – many neighborhoods were able to produce at least 30 percent of their own food – that it quickly spread to other cities. Today, Havana’s crumbling buildings are stitched together with farms and gardens. Forty-one percent of Havana’s urban area is used for agriculture, and the city generates 51 percent of Cuba’s vegetables…

Best of all, most of what Cuba produces is de factor organic, because the lack of available pesticides and fertilizers meant that scientists and farmers had to devise ways of protecting and controlling crops using only what nature provided.