WorldChanging Book

WC bookBill McKibben reviews five recent books on ideas on the ecological futures of humanity in the New York Review of Books. He discusses books on climate and energy, and what we can do about it.

His review includes his descrption of the new WorldChanging book – Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century:

It is precisely this question — how we might radically transform our daily lives — that is addressed by the cheerful proprietors of the WorldChanging website in their new book of the same name. This is one of the most professional and interesting websites that you could possibly bookmark on your browser; almost every day they describe a new technology or technique for environmentalists. Their book, a compilation of their work over the last few years, is nothing less than The Whole Earth Catalog, that hippie bible, retooled for the iPod generation. There are short features on a thousand cool ideas: slow food, urban farming, hydrogen cars, messenger bags made from recycled truck tarps, pop-apart cell phones, and plyboo (i.e., plywood made from fast-growing bamboo). There are many hundreds of how-to guides (how to etch your own circuit board, how to break in your hybrid car so as to maximize mileage, how to organize a “smart mob” (a brief gathering of strangers in a public place).

WorldChanging can tell you whom to text-message from your phone in order to advocate for international debt relief, and how to build an iPod speaker from an old tin of Altoids mints. It’s a compendium of everything a younger generation of environmental activists has to offer: creativity, digital dexterity, networking ability, an Internet-era optimism about the future, and a deep concern about not only green issues but related questions of human rights, poverty, and social justice. The book’s pragmatism is refreshing: “We can do this” is the constant message, and there are enough examples to leave little doubt that sheer cleverness is not what we’re lacking as we approach our uncertain future. “We need, in the next twenty-five years or so, to do something never before done. We need to consciously redesign the entire material basis of our civilization,” Alex Steffen writes in his editor’s introduction.

“If we face an unprecedented planetary crisis, we also find ourselves in a moment of innovation unlike any that has come before…. We live in an era when the number of people working to make the world better is exploding.”
He’s right.

If there’s one flaw in the WorldChanging method, I think it might be a general distrust of the idea that government could help make things happen. There’s a Silicon Valley air to the WorldChanging enterprise — over the years it’s been closely connected with Wired magazine, the bible of the digerati and a publication almost as paranoid about government interference and regulation as the Wall Street Journal. Like Internet entrepreneurs, they distrust both government intentions and abilities — bureaucrats tend, after all, to come from the ranks of those neither bold nor smart enough to innovate. A libertarian streak shines through: “When we redesign our personal lives in such a way that we’re doing the right thing and having a hell of a good time,” Steffen writes, “we act as one-person beacons to the idea that green can be bright, that worldchanging can be lifechanging.” I’m sympathetic to this strain of thinking; I believe we’re going to need more local and more nimble decision-making in the future to build strong, survivable communities. But it also makes it a little harder to be as optimistic as you’d like to be when reading these pages, which are filled with good ideas that, chances are, won’t come to all that much without the support of government and a system of incentives for investment.

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