Worldchanging: A big puzzle with many pieces

REVIEW: “Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century” (2006)


Worldchanging is a behemoth of a topic to try to cover. The world is 6 billion people and quickly growing, as the book points out, and providing innovating solutions for all of its collective problems is near impossible.

Yet, Alex Steffen, and his team at, have asked some important questions of our time and shown us just a glimpse of the good that is already being done. It’s green-colored, leafy design and intro by Al Gore may in some ways misrepresent the full scope of the book. But that may be just the point. “Worldchanging” greenwashes a well-rounded list of today’s issues; it forces us to get out of our specialized areas of expertise and remember that it is all connected.

“Worldchanging” deconstructs the tree-hugging image of environmentalism and re-imagines it as the holistic approach to life that it really is. It takes broad issues typically categorized as humanitarian in concern – human rights, refugees, public health, urban growth, to name a few – and puts them on the same page as those environmental issues that typically fall on other shelves at our local bookstore – global warming, sustainable forestry, biodiversity and green technology.

It will make a Bible-like thud if you try to lug it around to coffee shops, but remember that it is still a mere intro into various ways we can impact our world positively. The book is divided into seven sections that are helpful for getting you started: Stuff, Shelter, Cities, Community, Business, Politics, and Planet. Each section is then divided into articles rather than chapters, and sometimes even those are divided further into more digestible soundbites. The book reads like one long magazine mashed into a college textbook. I’d recommend beginning in the section you are most interested rather than reading it from cover to cover.

The book begins with a discourse on our relationship with the stuff we own. Starting with international trade, it questions consumption asking us if we understand where the things we own come from. It challenges us to think about the food we eat, how it was grown and where it came from. And even asks consumers to pay attention to the materials their stuff is made out of, giving readers a glimpse into the world of product design and advocating the Cradle to Cradle movement, which is aimed at keeping stuff out of landfills.

The book moves to the Shelter section next and addresses some more conventional eco topics such water and power – needs that apply to anyone from Dakar, Senegal, to New York City. It mentions those issues – water conservancy, wind farms and solar power – right alongside those that we forget have anything to do with the environment – refugee camps, humanitarian disaster relief and land mines.

The next section is based on the presupposition that living in compact cities should be the best way to be green. It highlights a few that are on the right track – Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C. – and points out the hidden potential of the squatter communities in megacities of the world. Urban planning topics such as designing skyscrapers and public transportation get a brief primer, too.

Next the book tackles the traditional approaches of worldchanging with a run through of issues covered in the UN’s Millenium Development Goals. But rather than piece apart things that governments are doing in education, public health and economic development, the book articulates small-scale vignettes of hope in various communities that are finding solutions in a variety of ways. Though it supposes that the MDGs are anything but perfect, it acknowledges them as a starting point and adds on a slew of progressive ideas for making the world a better place.

Both the Business and Politics section talk about the need for a new transparency and suggests citizen tools such as investing, blogging and consumer education, to demand socially responsible decision making from governments and corporations. It even gives a brief lesson on starting nonviolent movements and staging protests that made me laugh out loud.

Lastly, the book talks about how we can care for our planet so that we can hang out on it a little longer. The section supposes that we are all ecologists and that we should find ways to synthesize the global knowledge that we have gained about our planet in this age of technology, travel and international commerce with an increased awareness of our local environment.

This includes us forming bioregional councils such as in Cascadia, which extends from Oregon to British Columbia, but it also means joining citizen science networks and aiding researchers while enjoying our favorite hobbies from stargazing to bird-watching and surfing the Net.

The book then goes into regionally specific environmental issues such as forest depletion, the future of small towns, and the story of our polar ice caps.

The book stands atop a soapbox and urges global citizens to embrace the good that globalization can bring. Not only does our technology allow us to know more about what is going on in other parts of the world, but we can eat mangoes in Minnesota and buy shoes made in China. The world we live in is becoming smaller; we should embrace it and do good in it. There is small change that each of us can do as consumers and citizens, and there are also innovative solutions that each of us with individual talents can discover and contribute to the bigger puzzle. That is worldchanging.

Worldchanging is a lot of small changes from a large quantity of people rather than the commonly thrown around billion-dollar numbers traditionally associated with global change. This book is just a compilation of some of those grassroots solutions fit to very specific contexts.

Product designers, humanitarian aid workers, scientists, farmers, urban planners, teachers and businessmen are all featured as pieces in the bigger puzzle of how to make the world a better place.

For example, a man named Fabio Rosa rents solar power to poor Brazilians for $13 a month through a program called The Sun Shines For All. In the U.K., Peter Brewin, of London’s Royal College of Art, is working on a design for a recycling shower. And Dr. Palmira Ventosilla at the Instituto de Medicina Tropical in Lima, Peru, has been advocating the use of coconuts to combat malaria; coconuts naturally incubate Bti, a bacteria that kills mosquito larvae.

No matter what a reader’s current career path is, this book will inspire her to do good and respect the efforts of fellow worldchangers in other worthy types of work.

The whole book also favors the open source movement, and this philosophy of knowledge sharing makes its way into a variety of article entries from more effective disaster relief to the Creative Commons movement. By very nature, the 600-page tome celebrates this philosophy – if we all combine our knowledge, we can solve some big problems.

Despite the length of the book, one gets the impression that she is only skimming the surface of these complex, brain-y issues such as governmental transparency, the economic development of poverty-stricken regions, and global warming. Though the book is a breath of fresh air in a world of pessimism, there is a lack of multiple perspectives on some issues that would offer necessary negative information in order to find even better positive solutions.

To pick one example, the biodiesel discussion was limited and offered few resources or viewpoints. The book elevated biodiesel as the best solution without considering what the push for biodiesel might do to the global economy. Will people learn to produce biodiesel locally? Or will it be made from harvested sugarcane in Brazil or maize in Mexico? If so, how is the new demand affecting the economies and environments of those countries? How does it in turn affect ours? A little research will give answers that put another dimension to the biodiesel discussion.

But the book rarely provides that dimension on any of its varied topics. Instead it expects the readers to pick up another book as soon as they’ve put this one down. To its credit, it does provide recommended books, websites or organizations that can help further educate readers on each topic.

Though it’s definitely helpful to attempt to see the big picture from the collective perspective of some visionaries, after this deluge of information, readers may want to contemplate their own place in all of it first. The frenetic topic-changing can be a little overwhelming for readers (like me) who are prone to over-thinking things. Treat Worldchanging as a comprehensive starting point, and this book will serve you well.

This review first appeared at



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