Bookplanet: Whole Earth Catalogue for today -- called "Worldchanging"
Go bright green
Review of Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century edited by Alex Steffen, 608pp, Abrams, £24.95
New book exhorts Josh Lacey to embrace his inner geek, grow mushrooms and turn off the vampire power.
By Josh Lacey/The Guardian
How shall we save the world? Here's one way. We must stop flying. We must switch off our cities and get back to the land. We must renounce all the dirty pleasures of modern life. Never again will we eat a fresh mango in March. Alex Steffen and the other contributors to worldchanging.com - and this big book which the website has spawned - describe that puritanical branch of ecological thought as "dark green" and, in opposition, describe themselves as "bright green". Dark greens demand that you dismantle your car and get a bike instead; bright greens recommend you upgrade to a Toyota Prius. Dark greens say the world is already overpopulated; bright greens suggest that with more efficient farming, we could feed another few billion.
Worldchanging isn't quite the bright green's bible, but it is a vision of how things might look if the geeks inherit the Earth. Six hundred pages of ideas, ideals and enthusiasm are crammed between hard covers, suggesting a thousand ways for making the world a better place. The book is divided into seven sections: Stuff, Shelter, Cities, Community, Business, Politics and Planet. Flicking through the pages, you can pause to read a few paragraphs on how the Finnish education system has become the best in the world, why we should all want to live in Vancouver, or what you'll find in the unofficial nature reserve that has unexpectedly sprung up in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.
About 60 writers have contributed short articles on several hundred topics. Some are suggestions for ways of changing your own daily life and others are simply inspirations. In Mexico City, for instance, free short books are being given to travellers on the underground. You drop off the book at your last stop. Page by page, journey by journey, perhaps this will create a new generation of readers from people who would never normally pick up a book. Or how about the "compostable tent city", a transportable refugee camp in which the tents are made of cardboard infused with seeds, spores and fertiliser? Easily assembled to house a sudden influx of refugees, the tents will last a couple of years and can then be ploughed into the land, creating crops and gardens.
Almost every page offers some new and seductive nugget of geeky jargon. "Vampire power" is the energy drained by electronic devices left on standby rather than switched off; apparently, this costs most of us about a fifth of our household electricity bills. If you're wearing a "Hug Shirt" impregnated with electronic sensors, you can get a virtual squeeze from a buddy anywhere in the world, sent via their mobile phone. "Mycoremediation" is the use of mushrooms to purify polluted land. Oyster mushrooms not only flourish on an oil spill, but actually clean it up too.
All this information is sandwiched between thick slices of polemic. The wide-eyed gusto does sometimes get a bit irritating: "Changing the world is a team sport, and there's a spot on that team for every person on the planet." But if that type of thing sends an uncomfortable shiver through your jaded old bones, Steffen has a message specifically for you: "Cynicism is often seen as a rebellious attitude in western popular culture, but in reality, our cynicism advances the desires of the powerful: cynicism is obedience."
Worldchanging is self-consciously modelled on the Whole Earth Catalog (Steffen worked as an editor on one of its descendents) and shares the same altruistic, optimistic, democratic impulses, although the countercultural fire has dimmed in the decades since 1968. But there's no room in this brave new world for hippies, dopers and drop-outs. Bright greens are clean-living, hard-working and thoroughly urban. "If you want to live green, live in a city," writes a contributor. "Manhattanites use fewer resources and less energy than anyone else in America."
Elegantly produced and built to last, Worldchanging exemplifies the intentions of its creators. At the back, an "environmental benefits statement" describes the ecological credentials of the book, explaining that the publisher "purchased wind power credits equivalent to the amount of electricity used to produce this book". And, although intimately connected to the internet, Worldchanging is a pretty good reminder of why books aren't yet redundant and probably won't be for a long time. All this information - and these opinions - are surely available online, but who wants to spend weeks searching for them? Much better to keep this book beside your bed or bath, and skim through its pages whenever you need to be re-enthused about the future.