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Book review: WorldChanging - A User's Guide For The 21st Century

WorldChanging isn't a real user's guide. This collection of articles is not a collection of HOWTOs, it is a collection of inspiring examples supporting a message: The tools, both technological and social, to create a better, greener, healthier, sustainable, more human-friendly future are available, and using them won't make us uncomfortable. We can ignore the tools, and let our planet go down the drain, or we can decide to use them.
Written by many authors cooperating through the internet, WorldChanging demonstrates that free software-like methods also work for other ways of changing the world, such as writing a book meant to inspire to change the world.

The book has seven chapters, more or less organized by topic from small to big things: Stuff, Shelter, Cities, Community, Business, Politics, and Planet. Many topics could fit in multiple places in this organization, for example our choices in the "Stuff" we buy will have an influence on the whole "Planet". The amount of connections between chapters, and also the fact that it was written by many different contributors of WorldChanging.com make the book hard to read sequentially.

It's impossible to write a summary of the whole book, because it consists of summaries itself. So I'll choose one idea I really like as an example: Armchair Microfinance (page 348).
Microcredit is a great concept by itself: it forces the person receiving the money to use it properly because it has to be paid back. This causes the greatest possible positive effect on the economy at the lowest possible price. Giving a personal microcredit through an organization instead of donating to that organization anonymously is an even better idea: the donor knows for sure his money is well spent, more care is taken to decide who deserves a microcredit and who doesn't (because there are many more donors than employees of a microcredit organization), and because of the personal connection there's more incentive to pay back and more incentive to lend.

The other topics included in WorldChanging range from free software to farming. Free software, which we at Libervis like so much, is described by WorldChanging as a problem solving tool, a way to get software proprietary software companies can't be bothered to write, an example of effective cooperation, and a way to bridge the digital divide. It is really too bad the book calls it "Open Source", a term designed to hide the previously mentioned properties, by naming the method instead of the result (freedom).

WorldChanging practices what it preaches: it is printed on recycled paper, and wind credits equivalent to the amount of energy used in its production have been bought. Still, it doesn't look like the Treehugger's Manual, it has a very beautiful design. So the first impression tells us part of the message: the "right" thing and the "nice" thing don't have to be opposites.
Unfortunately, the book had a plastic wrapping around it when I bought it, which completely spoiled that impression. Also, I wonder about the environmental impact of shipping the heavy recycled paper, which I suppose had to be heavier than normal paper to get the same strength. Making a "green" book may not be as simple as deciding to print on recycled paper.

Improving the world may also not be as simple as this optimistic book can make it seem. Because it focuses on solutions rather than problems, problems for which no solutions have been invented yet are omitted. Also, many of the articles lack depth. Of course, to pay proper attention to each topic would require a two or three times bigger book - a behemoth of about 1200 to 1800 pages that not many would want to read. Fortunately, there are lots of references to books and other texts that could teach us more about each topic, enough to fill a library.

I am a little worried that many readers will use the book to "greenwash" themselves: read the book, feel good about it, and then continue business as usual.
If you truly want to be a world changer, and are looking for inspiration, you should buy this book. Unless, of course, you can borrow it, or your local library has it. If you're looking for a manual for solving a particular type of problem, you're looking for a different type of book. It could be one of the many other books WorldChanging refers to.

WorldChanging - A User's Guide For The 21st Century, Alex Steffen and others, Abrams, 2006, ISBN 978-0-8109-3095-7


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Comments

By the way, I have reason to

 

By the way, I have reason to believe someone at the Economist read this book, the Christmas issue seems to have taken some inspiration from it. I don't know what that means, but I guess it's good.

Thanks for a very well

Thanks for a very well written review. You make some interesting points about the approach that WorldChanging is taking (the book obviously reflects the organization itself). I found their focus on solutions rather than problems novel and attractive. It actually made me think maybe if Libervis would take a page from that we'd maybe be even more convincing or successful. But then again focusing too much on existing solutions may lead us away from finding solutions for problems for which they don't yet exist, as you said.. I guess the balance between the two wins again.

Anyway, I'll consider buying this book.

tbuitenh wrote:

By the way, I have reason to believe someone at the Economist read this book, the Christmas issue seems to have taken some inspiration from it. I don't know what that means, but I guess it's good.

That's good to see.. Maybe the book is less of a practical guide than inspirational content, but then it can inspire positive action, which might be happening in some at the economist. Smiling

Thanks

the E

 
libervisco wrote:

That's good to see.. Maybe the book is less of a practical guide than inspirational content, but then it can inspire positive action, which might be happening in some at the economist. Smiling

The E wasn't really doing any world changing in those articles, they elaborated on some things mentioned as asides in WorldChanging: the first boycott ever, the etiquette of bribing (calling it things like "a little something"), and something else I'll remember later.

Sound's an interesting book,

Sound's an interesting book, I'll have to pick it up in one form or another sometime in the near future.

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