Alex Steffen: Worldchanging II  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

WorldChanging is no more but the new WorldChanging book arrived in my letter box this week. It looks to be a substantial update to the first edition - well worth a read, particularly if you didn't get the first one.

Change Observer has an interview with Alex Steffen about the book - Alex Steffen: Worldchanging II.
Change Observer: How has the world changed in the five years since you published the first edition of Worldchanging?

Alex Steffen: The biggest change is that sustainability and the awareness of the need for sustainability are mainstream in ways they’re weren’t five years ago. Then, outside of specialized conversations, it was hard to find many ideas about sustainable design or green buildings or sustainable urbanism. In the intervening years, we have not only seen a lot of really dire news that convinced many mainstream, credible people that these were important issues that deserved attention, but also social and cultural movements that have really taken off: the food movement, the trend towards walkable neighborhoods. Green building has rapidly moved from a hot topic to the way things are done.

In trying to think through a new edition of Worldchanging, we had an opportunity to stop and consider, “What do people really need to know now that the basics are largely familiar? What couldn’t we have told them five years ago?” In this edition, we left out almost all of the small-scale personal incremental actions you could take precisely because they’re readily accessible; thousands of websites will tell you how to do these things [e.g., buy ecologically responsible clothing]. We tried to include more of the innovative approaches to sustainability that are involved in making leaps.

CO: Such as?

AS: A key message we tried to bring forward was that the degree of scope, scale and speed of these problems demands that we look at systemic answers: how an entire system works for everybody, not just what we could do for ourselves. Of course, individual actions that help us connect are important. But we need to look more deeply at how things are designed and built. What our role is. What the parts of a system are that we don’t see. How to live into our capacity to be citizen designers of those systems.

CO: Who is your reader? Has that person changed over time?

AS: There are two completely different groups of readers. Some start at the beginning of the book, and read through it cover to cover and take it as an overview of how people address problems. It’s used in college classrooms that way. A lot of other people consult it as an occasional spur for inspiration. They’ll pick it up, glance through it, find something interesting. We tried to make this edition accessible in both ways, so if you start at the beginning you’ll get a thought-out presentation of one way of looking at the world’s problems and how they interconnect, but you can also read a chapter and explore something when you have a question. It’s a really good book to have at hand. ...

CO: You sound more than cautiously optimistic.

AS: I think that the big open secret about sustainability work and innovation is not how bad things are. The real secret is how good things can get. There’s more and more evidence that many of the changes we need to make not only can be done but would vastly improve our lives. They would make us more money, provide us more jobs, make us healthier and happier. Our cities and energy would be cleaner and more affordable, our goods would be manufactured more sustainably. There’s still a bit of reticence to talk about how good things could get. It’s too bad. Buckminster Fuller had it right when he said people never leave a sinking ship until they see the lights of another ship approaching. Another ship is approaching, but we haven’t turned on the lights. If the book is doing a good thing it’s shining a light on what’s happening.

Andrew Revkin at "Dot Earth" also has a look at the book and an interview with Alex - Alex Steffen, a Designing Optimist.
Anyone following this blog is aware that there are smart, informed people in this world with completely divergent views of the sources of human progress and problems and the best route forward as populations and appetites crest in coming decades.

One nearly universal thread I’ve found, though, is a conviction that, without conscious attention, there will be substantial, avoidable and regrettable human and biological losses.

There’s no better introduction to the options for designing our way forward, as opposed to just letting business as usual unfold, than Worldchanging. This initiative, for lack of a better word, started as a Web site seven years ago but was crystallized in a book, Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, that was first published in 2006 and now is out in a substantially updated edition.

The Web effort, which ( sadly) ended recently, had two founding fathers, Alex Steffen and Jamais Cascio. Steffen is the editor of the new book (with Carissa Bluestone). ...

If I had to label Steffen, I’d call him the “designing optimist,” placing him somewhere in the general vicinity (but a bit to the left) of the “ despairing optimist,” RenĂ© Dubos, and “ The Rational Optimist,” Matt Ridley. ...

As I said above, the book, despite being nearly 600 pages long, is unavoidably just a sketch of what could lie ahead. It’s the printed equivalent of a long hallway of marked doors, each giving an appealing glimpse of an issue — “density done right,” “ending violence,” “reinventing the workplace” — that is the equivalent of a trailer for a movie that’s still in production.

Steffen told me he sees that structure as useful in two ways:

The book is designed to be read either cover to cover, as an overview of efforts to tackle the planet’s most pressing problems, or consulted at random, as a way to find unexpected solutions and inspiration.


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