A World of Good

Alex Steffen, co-author of WorldChanging: A Guide for the 21st Century, on how to tackle Earth's troubles. By Kiera Butler

In 2003, Alex Steffen founded WorldChanging.com with the simple goal of providing a forum for innovative solutions to the world’s biggest problems. And it caught on: before long, the site was drawing hundreds of thousands of daily visitors. When Abrams publishing company suggested a book, the team jumped at the chance. Now, 60 authors, a handful of editors, and a little under a year of hard work later, WorldChanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century has arrived. Plenty talked to Alex Steffen about the process of putting together a book that just might change the world—and how to use it.

Plenty: How did the idea of the WorldChanging blog come about?

Alex: A number of us were working with environmental and social problems, and while we were finding solutions, we weren’t seeing them covered. So a group of us just started blogging about the great ideas we were hearing about. While we certainly don’t claim credit for the shift in public opinion, the things that we started out covering that were really fringe—sustainability, microcredit, open source software—they’re really now becoming kind of mainstream. It’s really gratifying to see.

Plenty: And the idea for the book?

Alex: We’ve always been thinking of WorldChanging as something that would spawn other projects. When Abrams approached us about doing a book, we had already had some discussions about what a good book would be like. Abrams essentially gave us complete editorial freedom. They said, ‘make the book you want to read,’ and the book we wanted to read was a guided tour through the best solutions that are being developed to address a whole array of problems with some discussion of how those things fit together.

Plenty: Like the Whole Earth Catalog.

Alex: Yes, very much so. I grew up reading the Whole Earth Catalog. There are some great similarities between our book and Whole Earth: Both are about trying to give people tools for doing things better. And both are built on the premise that if you give people better tools, if you give them solutions, they will solve the problems.

But at the same time, I think we’re in a new moment. We are now a global society. People all over the world are linked together in a million ways. You see that if you look at the label on the back of your clothes, if you work for a large company that has offices all over the world, or if you think about the fact that our compatriots are fighting a war thousands of miles away in a resource-rich area. There’s no extracting ourselves from those connections. When you live on a planet full of global problems, you need a planetary mindset to solve those problems.

Plenty: Who is the target audience for the book?

Alex: We don’t have a target audience in the normal sense of ‘alternative 24-to-28-year-old women who also drink soy lattes.’ We’re really hoping people who want to make a difference—people who are emotionally engaged with the kind of massive crisis that we’re facing as a planet—will pick up this book and find inspiration and tools for honing their own approaches to building solutions.

Plenty: How should people use the book?

Alex: A lot of people have said they’ve picked up the book and they’ve come to it from being involved in, say, sustainable design, and then they’ve happened upon, say, the article about Sustainable South Bronx. And they’ve suddenly had a flash of insight of ‘oh, what I’m doing with products is similar to what Majora Carter is doing with the South Bronx.’ And that’s informed their thinking. And that’s what we’re hoping happens: cross-fertilization, lots of people having insights and sudden flashes of creativity.

Plenty: So the projects you picked are applicable not only to the specific problem at hand, but also globally relevant?

Alex: Right. We’re hoping every one of these problems has a lesson for people no matter where they’re working or what they’re working on.

Plenty: Anything else we should know about WorldChanging?

Alex: We made a lot of efforts to green the book as much as possible. We used the best available paper and good ink and wind power offsets. And we ourselves are offsetting our entire tour with ZeroFootprint. It’s certainly not 100 percent sustainable, but we’ve done our best. I was really pleased with how quickly the people at Abrams jumped on this—they’ve told me they’re looking at better paper and better inks and stuff like that for all their books now. It’s a good example of how many solutions are readily available if people can just access them.

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