Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, February 18, 2007

How to be good

by Ziauddin Sardar

New Statesman (January 22 2007)

Worldchanging: a user's guide for the 21st century
Edited by Alex Steffen Abrams, 596 pages, GBP 24.95
ISBN 0810930951

Let's face it, the world is in a total mess. Global warming is irrevocably changing our atmosphere. We drive petrol-guzzling cars, heat our homes with inefficient gas and gorge ourselves on food that has clocked up thousands of air miles. At the same time, a billion people are trapped in abject poverty and millions of children die daily because of malnutrition or preventable diseases. Wars, violence and strife have engulfed the globe like uncontrolled forest fires. So what are you going to do about it?

You can, of course, decide to do nothing. You can take comfort in the fact that the world has existed for aeons and will surely continue to do so. You can put your faith in technology and hope that it will solve all those problems that seem so intractable at present - just as it has done in the past. You can wallow in countless predictions of a glorious future just over the horizon, issued with banal regularity by people whose job it is to paint the future in high-definition technicolour, and retire to the sofa in front of Celebrity Big Brother. But reality has a nasty habit of biting back. You will end up drowned in your own waste, poisoned by genetically modified food and infected by some frightening new disease such as bird flu. Forget that crucial Big Brother vote. You will be lucky to have a roof over your head, let alone a new HD television.

If I were you, I would go out this very moment and get a copy of Worldchanging. The introduction explains that, within the next five years, two billion extra people will join the global dinner table. The world's natural resources are disappearing at alarming rates, and our ability to burn oil, brew pesticides and manufacture dangerous plastics is out of all proportion to the renewable resources at our disposal. The planet is being consumed at an unprecedented rate: one person, one day, one decision at a time.

The divide between rich and poor, between nations and within nations, cannot be sustained any longer. It won't be long before shanty-town poor start kidnapping Goldman Sachs employees. Soon you will, like me, be nodding in agreement with Al Gore's observation, in the foreword, that human civilisation has reached a turning point.

So complacency is not an option. The future is imminent. And it will not come - as the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, who knows about these things, says in the introduction to this massive volume - flying in from outer space, perfect, ready-made and chrome-plated. It will contain unimaginable horrors. We have only 25 years to avert this nightmare, and only one shot to get things right.

And it all depends on you. You are not a totally hopeless, powerless and useless person. You can be a hero if only you understand that the future is not a priori given; it can be shaped by your actions, decisions and commitment. You can usher a sustainable future simply by switching off the television, cutting down on the stuff that surrounds and flows through your daily life, and reducing your carbon footprint. You can empower yourself by cultural jamming (subverting corporate advertising), organising yourself around film and theatre, and even start a non-violent revolution. You can make yourself useful by becoming a citizen scientist, by documenting corporate misbehaviour or human-rights violations, and by connecting with millions of other global citizens who want to change the future.

Your heroic journey to become an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, ecologically successful, personally fulfilled, holistically healthy, non-additive organic consumer begins in the mind. Think about everything you do. And Worldchanging, which began life as an online compendium, is designed to help you think through every aspect of your life from the most minute to the earth-shattering. It's a book of ideas. It doesn't contain a list of dos or don'ts or tell you what to buy or where to shop. Instead, you learn how to buy better clothes, create a healthy home, preserve biodiversity and design a sustainable world. It provides keen planetary insight without the corporate overheads.

Indeed, it is a gold mine of sound, sustainable, green advice. Everything from housing to business practice, communities to cities and politics to direct action is covered. Everything is geared towards pragmatic and practical steps that you, as an individual, can take. And everything is examined with a keen critical sense. You say choice is good for you? Not so fast. Worldchanging says that our consumer culture is relentless: the more choice we have, the more effort we need to evaluate our options, the more tired we get and the more likely we are to be dissatisfied with the outcome. You want to help refugees and disaster victims? Worldchanging provides you with an easy-to-follow guide to lifesaving, blueprints for a refugee camp, suggestions for getting hold of a mobile hospital, even instructions to make a solar power station that can provide much-needed energy in areas with damaged infrastructure. Upset about city bonuses? Worldchanging shows you how to generate your own community capital.

So you have absolutely no excuses. Worldchanging wakes you from reality-TV-induced slumber, takes you by the hand and walks you step by step towards a sane and sustainable 21st century. You learn how to live a stress-free, gender-neutral, uncomplicated life. You acquire essential skills to appreciate and enjoy other traditions, religious or secular or those that choose to practise neither, to help the poor and the needy of the world, and to save the planet. It may not be as lavishly illustrated as that other celebrated do-it-yourself manual, The Joy of Sex, but it's a damn sight more useful. If your kids and grandkids have nothing to eat, drink or breathe, it will be your own fault.

Bill Totten


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