Spring 2007

Electronic Tumbleweed

Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century

Edited by Alex Steffen, design by Stefan Sagmeister.
Harry N Abrams Inc, USD37.50
www.worldchanging.com/book

When someone sets out to make a book to save the planet, they lay themselves bare to our most unforgiving scrutiny. When the book in your hands has 600 pages and weighs the same as a bottlenose dolphin’s brain (1.7kg), it’s impossible not to think of the resources consumed in its preparation: late-night Chinese take-away packaging and flights taken for research purposes, as well as the carbon emitted in its physical production and distribution.

The publishers of Worldchanging inform us that it has purchased wind power credits equivalent to the amount of electricity used to produce the book, 200,000 copies of which were printed in its first run. There is also a chart that enumerates the resources saved by specifying paper made with 100 per cent consumer waste and bleached without the use of chlorine. It turns out that this chart is the one provided by the paper company itself – what it calls an eco audit, and the most basic of its kind. It would have been more interesting if one of the many talented contributors to this volume had applied their investigative skills to a more detailed analysis of the production of this very ‘chunk of tree ware’ (as Bruce Sterling refers to the book in his introduction).

But let’s not lose the forest for the trees. The book is an excellent primer in the issues of the day and the immediate future. Journalists and activists contribute short encyclopaedia-style essays and case studies grouped under the following section headings: Stuff, Shelter, Cities, Community, Business, Politics and Planet. Terms such as sousveillance, biomimicry or open source technology are explained in clear and engaging language.

Worldchanging is also a practical handbook, whose tone is neither haranguing nor overly technical. The editor uses the analogy of planning for retirement by building up an investment portfolio. Changing the world is an emerging industry sector, or a ‘growth opportunity’. The new magazine Good (see pp.62-64) taps the same market and speaks the same language of pragmatism.

The book’s design, reminiscent of an elegant school textbook, is restrained. Shades-of-green colour coding, a slipcase cover featuring a red-breasted bird surrounded by a die-cut pattern and endpapers with Rousseau-like leaves on a black background are the only visual flourishes. Inside, Stefan Sagmeister’s studio has plumped for a simple and legible two-column grid. The excellent photographs are concentrated at the base of these columns unless an image needs a full page or a spread.

Bruce Sterling describes the Worldchanging community as ‘a kind of rolling, seed-spewing electronic tumbleweed.’ We can only hope that

the book will find root in its readers.

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