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Books

Hardcover hero

Saving the world with a sleek book

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Published 12/6/2006

To change the world is an audacious goal, but a small group of environmentally minded journalists in Seattle have bravely claimed that very objective as their own. Their Web site, WorldChanging.com, was started three years ago, motivated by writers just plain tired of reporting global gloom and doom scenarios that, while deserving of press, tend to be depressing in large doses.

I first met writer, editor and activist Alex Steffen in Detroit about three and a half years ago while he was touring the country on a six-month journey in search of creative solutions to our nation's woes. What he found was not a golden ticket to blue skies and shared prosperity, but rather "lots of possible solutions, pieces to the puzzle."

When he got back home, he and his like-minded peers decided to "start a little site" that would report on inspiring, innovative people and technologies that individually were making the world a little bit better, but collectively might begin to effect more measurable change on a broader scale. The idea took off immediately, perhaps a beneficiary of being in the right place (cyberspace) at the right time (the turn of the 21st century), or maybe an example of an idea turned into a consistently well-executed reality.Whatever the reason, WorldChanging.com has become a virtual juggernaut. It funnels updates, interviews and firsthand accounts from 30 writers around the globe. The daily updates are on topics ranging from alternative fuels, fashion with a conscience, sustainable development, global food issues, the intersection of science and art, transportation and much more. The site is divided into easy categories, such as "shelter," about where and how we live, or "stuff," about "what we buy, what we use, what we keep and throw away."

The easy writing style is geared toward the intelligent layman, doesn't speak down to readers and isn't afraid to look at an issue from an unusual or controversial perspective. It bears mentioning that these writers are all in possession of hyperintimidating bios — one of their New York-based scribes is a National Geographic fellow, and another writer based in London is an architect educated at Cambridge and Rural Studio, a residency located in Hale County, Alabama. It's like the cyberspace version of the Algonquin Roundtable up in there.

One of the first things you notice upon visiting the site is that its style is far from crunchy; it's sleek, modern and looks like it hates Birkenstocks as much as Perry Ferrell does. In fact, this aesthetic is intentional and core to WorldChanging's inherent philosophy. Steffen explains, "We're writing about a new generation of solutions and we wanted an aesthetic that didn't ring of last generation's aesthetic, that felt contemporary. It wouldn't be possible to write about the 21st-century with a look that referenced the 1960s." Their logo is a digitally drawn sunburst composed of dashes reminiscent of a binary punchcard.

That quality didn't go unnoticed in the world of print publishing. In fact, WorldChanging found itself in the uncommon position of being approached by publisher Harry N. Abrams, Inc., an imprint known for high-quality, visually oriented books. Steffen describes the situation as, "a lovely and rare opportunity. We had complete editorial freedom, which was really nice." The team decided to take the ball and run with it — with the goal of offering readers "a guided tour across the landscape of innovation that we were seeing, the kind of possibility that is emerging," he says.

The book is both weighty (a 600-page hardcover with a slipcase) and broad (covering design, housing and cities, education, food, micro-finance, business and politics). Many of the stories are culled from the Web site. When asked to recount his favorite WorldChanging story, Steffen talks about one that also appears in the new publication, about a landmine-detecting flower whose petals change color in the presence of nitrogen dioxide released by landmines as they decay. "There are millions and millions [of buried landmines] scattered around the world, and we don't know where most of them are. It's an elegant and poetic solution."

And then there's the book's look, which is razor-sharp, courtesy of renowned graphic designer Stefan Sagemeister. He came up with a slipcover that actually alters the book over time: It's illustrated with a bird on a branch, surrounded by an array of dots and dashes punched into the cardboard to reveal the hardcover underneath. Over time, the world leaves its mark on the book as the spots get dirtier — from spilled coffee, dust settling or whatever — giving each reader their own unique edition. Worldchanging is laid out pretty much like a reference book, but it's an attractive one, with color photos on just about every other page and across several spreads to give eyes a much-needed break.

Steffen calls the designer "the best kind of genius. He's incredibly talented and interested in creating a project that works on all scales. We got very lucky. The design he put forward looks different than most of the environmental and socially-responsible publications that I've seen. It's a new tone."

I had to question WorldChanging's decision to go from the Web, backward (technologically speaking), to book form. Plus, there's the pesky reality that publishing words on paper isn't a sustainable method of communicating anymore. (Use that as your excuse for no holiday cards this year: You're saving trees).

Steffen, as is his nature, has thought this issue through. "There are good reasons to publish books, but they are environmentally problematic. Both in terms of readers' experience and making a statement about how available solutions are, we really needed to put them together in book form. It made sense."

He goes on to explain how WorldChanging dealt with the "footprint" that publishing a book makes on the planet. They worked with their publisher to come up with a solution they could live with.

"Abrams really wanted to walk the walk. They used the best paper available, 100% post-consumer paper." Abrams also purchased "wind energy credits" from Renewable Choice Energy (www.renewablechoice.com) in an amount equivalent to the fossil fuels used to print the book. Steffen sums up these efforts by stating, "We wouldn't claim that this book is a sustainable project, but we did as much as can be done in commercially practical terms — as good as it can get for the moment."

The book's selling pretty well for such a specialty title. It was holding steady in the Top 200 sellers on amazon.com as of early this week; it's received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly and lots of blog chatter. Some of this notice may be courtesy of the heavy-hitting authors of its forewords: Al Gore and Bruce Sterling.

How do you get a former vice president to write a foreword for your book? Steffen recounts: "He spoke at a conference we were presenting at, and we had an opportunity to talk to him." They told him about the Web site and the book, and "Gore said, 'Sounds like a great project. How can I help?'" Steffen laughs, "We said, 'Well ... ' It adds some cachet. It's been very helpful. And he said very nice things about us as well."

Bruce Sterling, along with William Gibson, is one of the original cyberpunks and author of the seminal sci-fi book Schismatrix. Over the years he has evolved into a vocal and credible proponent of green design, future-thinking and sustainable technologies. His Viridian list-serv was how I learned of Alex's cross-country trek and convinced him that Detroit was worth a visit.

Steffen credits Sterling as part of the foundation of WorldChanging. He says, "Bruce has been absolutely fundamental to the WorldChanging project; his approach to encouraging the building of a sustainable yet prosperous society, a future that's both bright and green. [He's been] a friend and an ally and something of a mentor to the whole project."

Getting back to Detroit, as is my tendency, I ask Steffen what he thinks about the future of a place like our city, a place enriched by an auto industry that has left our planet a toxic legacy. Ever the diplomat, he answers, "I hope the future of Detroit is similar to the future of the rest of the world. I hope the quintessential 20th-century technology, the automobile, can find a path to the 21st-century technologies that we need." He summarizes the WorldChanging doctrine thusly:

"We aren't going to get the world we want by giving things up, we need better things."

Kelli B. Kavanuagh is a freelancer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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