It’s a huge book – almost 600 pages – but, as the publisher points out in an “environmental benefits statement,” the paper is made completely from recycled waste, manufactured with renewable biogas energy. In the process, 3,846 fully grown trees are saved as well as 360,000 pounds of greenhouse gases.

That information is not incidental. The new book, “WorldChanging: A User’s Guide to the 21st Century” (Harry N. Abrams Inc., $37.50, 596 pages), is a compilation of thousands of proposed solutions for saving the planet from global warming, resource depletion, the destruction of wildlife habitat and world poverty.

With a foreword by former Vice President and environmental activist Al Gore, the tome draws from 64 writers, activists and scientists to take on the problems posed by unfettered buying (in a chapter called “Stuff”), housing the world’s growing population and the sprawl of cities, among other things.

The book is designed to be skimmed, says editor Alex Steffen, 38, Seattle author, futurist and environmental advocate.

A skimming reader finds that it’s smart to go in with a group of friends to buy household supplies from a big-box discount store. Roofs should be white to reflect heat, not black, as most city roofs are. Coconuts are natural incubators for a strain of bacterium that kills mosquito larvae and could be used as a replacement for expensive imported larvicides in developing countries.

Steffen says the solutions to global warming don’t necessarily have to involve sacrifice and suffering.

The book is Steffen’s effort to spark “planetary thinking” in all phases of life, from daily purchases to building homes to preparing dinner. He said he hopes the book will spur discussion of other possible solutions to global warming.

Steffen, a co-founder of WorldChanging.com, a nonprofit organization devoted to environmental and social issues, discusses his views, which have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What prompted you to produce this book?

A:
In the last five or 10 years we’ve come to realize that problems we thought were looming in terms of climate change, species loss and environmental decline are in fact here. We used to talk about making sure that the future wouldn’t be worse for our kids. Now we have to talk about the kind of present that will enable us to have a future at all.

While it’s really great that large numbers of people are suddenly looking at the science and listening to the biologists (about global warming), we’ve lagged behind in creating solutions. What we’ve tried to do with the book is compile the best available answers to the planet’s most pressing problems. It’s by no means comprehensive. We don’t claim to be the final authority.

Q: There’s a lot of material. How did you organize it all?

A: We decided to start at the reader’s doorstep with the chapter “Stuff,” the very things we use in our life. We talk about the back story of those things. We don’t usually think about what happened to an object before it got to us, about what’s going to happen when we let it go. But in terms of its effect on the world, that’s where the majority of the impact is. So we talk about how to shop more responsibly, how to better think about your own consumption, how to eat better, change our transportation systems.

Q: Doesn’t all this change mean people will have a lower standard of living?

A: One of the things we’re very aware of is that people want to be affluent and have a high quality of life – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Increasingly, though, people want guilt-free affluence. And there’s nothing wrong with that either. People want to have a high quality of life and be relatively prosperous and have the trappings of success without feeling like they’re cooking the planet or enslaving a 6-year-old. We are trying to show that it is possible to design a material life that allows us to live well without doing bad things in the world.

Q: Is the emphasis on material well-being in the environmental movement a new thing?

A: Part of what we’re seeing is a younger generation of advocates who see things differently than 20 or 30 years ago. The first is that if we rely on people’s ethical virtue alone to change the world, we can’t get as far as we need. We need to combine ethical appeals with self-interest.

Many of our environmental problems are really design problems. It is now possible to build homes that use a fraction of the energy of conventional homes, and homes that use no energy at all from the outside. They’re hip, stylish and comfortable, safer and healthier. If you can provide all the benefits of a really great house without having the cost of energy consumption and pollution and climate change, why wouldn’t you live in that house?

Q: What is the average person’s level of awareness about environmental issues?

A: I’m not a pollster. But I think we are right in the middle of one of the most profound shifts in public opinion in American history. Just a few years ago a lot of people didn’t believe that climate change was real, much less that we should do something about it. I think the combination of better reporting, Katrina and Al Gore’s crusade have really changed people’s opinions. But we’re also seeing a real shift in how people think about global equity and global solutions.

Q: The problem of global warming is so huge – do the efforts of a single individual really count?

A: Cynicism is understandable and feeling overwhelmed is quite common. But ultimately if you want to have any effect on the world, you have to have at least some optimism. And increasingly these days optimism is a political act. There are those who benefit from the status quo, whether you’re talking about people who are selling blood diamonds or the folks who are selling us the gasoline we’re putting in our cars, who would like us to do nothing. One of the big barriers is that people believe nothing can get done, that they don’t matter, that they shouldn’t care.

(Patrick O’Neill is a staff writer for The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. He can be contacted at poneill(at)news.oregonian.com.)

AP-NY-11-01-06 1624EST


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