Modest solutions

It’s easy to get down about today’s seemingly intractable problems. Every week a new report paints a terrifying picture of the future. There’s global warming, peak oil, the Sixth Extinction, a projected collapse of fisheries by 2048—to say nothing of water contamination, starvation and poverty for billions in the developing world. Anybody who even casually scans news headlines can be forgiven if they worry our prospects are grim.

Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century takes a different perspective. Its authors—all 60 of them—present a multifaceted picture of the many people and organizations around the world working to solve common global challenges. They don’t ignore the severity of these challenges. Nevertheless, their collective work proves to be an inspirational textbook for the green movement.

The book’s topic is sustainability—using our resources with an eye to their ability to be replenished. “Thinking about sustainability should be like planning for retirement,” writes Alex Steffen, editor and founder of the Worldchanging blog. “We’re living beyond our ecological means, and paying our overdrafts with resources our children will need and pollution they’ll struggle to clean up.” There’s an activist element of the book. As Al Gore puts it in the forward, “This book is about rising to meet the great challenges of our day.”

The book is divided into seven sections covering stuff, shelter, cities, community, business, politics and planet. Each section includes chapters that lay out philosophical issues, followed by a series of practical solutions and a resource list of Web sites and books. The topics range from the personal, such as “Eating Better Meat and Fish” and “Your Money,” to the global, such as “Demanding Human Rights” and the “Hidden Vitality of Slums.”

A chapter in Community, for example, is called “Holistic Problem Solving.” It explains the philosophy behind holistic problem solving this way: “To tighten the fabric of our communities, we need to pull on all the threads at once: empower the younger generation, support families, promote education, improve health care, and protect neighborhood safety.” Three cases follow: Harlem’s Children’s Zone, which works with kids from birth to college to support their success in school and get them job skills in this impoverished New York City neighborhood; the Finnish School System, which is the best in the world (interestingly, kids spend less time in class than in any other developed country); and Kunfunda Learning Village, Zimbabwe, which provides programs for the rural population that promote greater self-reliance.

By cataloging our best practices and most current knowledge around green living, Worldchanging helps us see how far we’ve come in dealing with our major social and environmental issues, as well as how far we have to go. What’s special about this book is its thoroughness and optimism. It looks at challenges that touch every part of our lives and every part of the globe—while showing us the people hard at work on coming up with solutions.

And while this is a book about activism, it’s not just for activists: It’s for all of us, because all of us live with the consequences of the choices we make individually and collectively. By taking time to see how these choices fit together, we come away with a new power to imagine our lives and communities—and what they can become. We see this imagining in every city; Sacramento is no exception. From Green Sacramento’s selection of nontoxic house products to the Bicycle Kitchen’s efforts at providing low-cost transportation, the models that will lead to a sustainable society surround us.

At its center, however, this book is about consciousness—which can be painful to gain, difficult to apply, but essential to living successful lives. What’s exciting is how well it executes on its task. Worldchanging assembles a huge mass of ideas into a beautifully packaged compendium that will make a life-affirming holiday gift to almost anyone on your list—one they can start using immediately.