Changing the World

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world from outer space

Imagine changing this [johnlemon / Flickr]

We’re ringing in the New Year on a note of optimism with help from the eco-friendly encyclopedia Worldchanging: A User’s Guide For the 21st Century — a companion to the eponymous website.

What the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue was to the 20th-century consumer, this volume is to the 21st-century citizen. From sustainable agriculture to microscopic supercomputers, green architecture to Grameen microfinance, this work is a compendium of ways in which people are making positive changes throughout the world.

We need a new vision of the future. The Bible says, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’ Today, facing so many problems, many of us find it very difficult to envision a better future, much less the kind of solutions that might make such a future possible…To build that future, we need a generation of everyday heroes, people who — whatever their walks of life — have the courage to think in fresh ways and to act to meet this planetary crisis head-on.

Al Gore, from the foreword to Worldchanging: A User’s Guide For the 21st Century

We’ll be hearing from people who aim to turn today’s inconvenient truths into artifacts of the past. How do you want to make a difference this year? What changes do you want to see in the community? The country? The cosmos?

So let’s kick off the New Year by recycling those champagne bottles, writing our resolutions in non-toxic ink, and raising a glass to making the world better in 2007.

Alex Steffen


Ethan Zuckerman

Founder, Global Voices Online, Founding Chairman,

Fellow, The Berkman Center for internet and Society

Dawn Danby

Susatinable Designer, contributing writer,

David Bornstein

Journalist and Author,

How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas

The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank

Related Content

  • One of the big changes I hope to see around the world is responsible shopping. The world needs to get past the obsession with finding as cheap prices as possible and move on to caring about the details of what we buy. What is it made of, how is it made, and who makes it… we are now mature enough and advanced enough as a society to know this and to want to know this.

    Or so I hope.

  • missiongreen

    The America I live in is a small tribe in Africa. You must cross a river and walk through a forest path to find it. A small collection of mud-brick dwellings sprout from the plain beyond the forest. The villagers are dressed in skins. They gather outside and enjoy the vast plain. They watch the gazelles. They paint designs on each other. They sing and dance by the fire. They tell stories.

    There is a small creek that runs alongside the village. If you follow that creek, you see men in black suits, stationed every hundred feet. They wear earpieces and conceal handguns under their blazers. Ahead, there is a tall barbed-wire fence with signs warning of high voltage. The fence is guarded by more men in black suits with concealed handguns. They speak to each other over their earpieces as you approach the black wrought iron gate, which towers over you. Behind the gate, a cold steel skyscraper looms over the entire plain. It’s shadow stretces all the way to the village you just came from.

    You cannot get inside, but cameras attached to the gate watch you as you stare at the massive structure. You know that behing those cold steel walls more men in more expensive blazers sit at their lofty desks sipping cocktails. These are the “deciders”. They are the men who “govern” the villagers, who sing and dance around the fire, dress in skins.

    I think it will be important for global citizens to redefine their relationships with their own national governments. In the Global Village, we are lucky enough to have a constant feed of information, that may or may not represent some kind of truth. I see hints of truth as I watch the web and hear the radio news, but it is only by thoroghly sorting through this publicly available information that we, as villagers, can formulate practical knowledge about the world we live in.

    In a time when transparency is heralded as the most useful weapon to better our understanding, we global citizens find ourselves in a pickle. On the one hand we have the chance to better our lives and the lives of our fellow villagers. The unprecedented access to information gives us enough proof that such a transformation is within our grasp. On the other hand, we are isolated as global citizens, who in this new era, lack the methods with which to bring about substantial change.

    Transparency in government has given us the burden of proof that the fundamental forces of change are wielded by a relatively small few. They live in their million dollar homes. They never ride the subway. They dine with lobbyists. They don’t bike to work. The “Deciders”. They veil their own self-interest in the National Interest, and use political campaigns and media to mold the public opinion. Tony Snow, recently said at a W.H. press briefing, “Public opinion is not something chiseled in stone. Quite often it’s shaped by, among other things, political campaigns.” Public opinion should be protected from the manhandling forces of political campaigns. The responsibility of government should be to promote an informed understanding of the world and to respond to the true opinion of such an informed public.

    We have a challenge in this New World Order: to synthesize our citizenship and our global awareness. We must recreate government in our own image. As Global villagers, we are empowered with unrestricted access to information and many modes of immediate communication. When working together as a village, we have the potential to bring about great change. Government, howevers stands in the way of great change. Because over time the ruling elite, without the checks and balances brought about through transparency, have remade government as a multinational corporation which serves only its self-interests. Our responsibility is to return government to its rightful place as a reflection of the people.

  • A Haiku:

    The winds of change

    Sweep the sands of indifference

    rippling grains of hope

  • Let me try that again with the usual number syllables.

    The soft winds of change

    Sweep the sands of indifference

    Rippling grains of hope

  • nice haiku sidewalker thanks.

    “‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’

    As a visual atist I have been thinking about how to use a visual language to illustrate critical issues. I’m working on paintings for a show now with themes of rising water. Most are fairly abstract oils but I was given some old geoligical maps of the Island that I live on and I’ve painted the tide in along the 100 ft elevation lines. Our town is halfway under water and our valleys have become bays. Small Islands disappear. I’m sure high tide will be the least of our problems if we reach that point but I wanted to supply a visual image that would personalize and bring home the concern of melting icecaps.

  • actually, my maps could be seen as visions of doom but I guess I feel we have to see the problems before we can visualize the solutions.

  • I agree, peggysue. If we are and become the stories we tell, then we need to imagine possible futures, some no doubt uninviting, that provide beacons towards more sustainable ways of knowing, doing and being. Will you show us your visions?

  • enhabit

    -everyone fed

    -everyone housed

    -everyone attended medically

    the world’s population was @ 2.5 billion when i was born in 1959. today there are roughly 1 billion people living in conditions that are deplorable, immoral, inhuman, even genocidal. there can be no peace for our souls or our times without our direct action on this condition. even the most selfish and callous among us can agree that the next plague may be festering among these people. we would be shocked to find zoo animals living like this, why are we so tolerant of people..just like our own families in every in such squalor?

    we are all the stuff of ancient novae that has become self aware…amazing… is this really just randomness? that 1959 population has almost tripled in size…once we all learn to take care of one another, to care for one another…what can’t we then accomplish? $2 billion dollars a week in iraq? for how long? imagine what that kind of spending could accomplish in the right hands!

  • rc21

    To bicyclemark; You are advocating for poor people who are struggling just to pay the bills, to start buying more expensive products.What world do you live in?

    We are not all rich, Some of us have children to feed. I need to stretch my dollar. I will buy the products that fit my budget, as will most others. Your post however well intentioned was quite condescending and smacks of eliteism.

  • iiicalypso

    Is the digital age responsible for the desperation that I feel? It seems to me that the instantaneous reportage of bad news and the resultant hand-wringing causes as much anxiety as it does provide solutions. When I wake up to news of a hundred tragedies in a hundred countries, is it any wonder that I feel completely overwhelmed?

    If anything, I think that the explosion of blogs and web campaigns and self professed pundits has served to make the problems of the world worse. It is wonderful that there is a forum for the free flow of ideas, but to what end? How much real change comes about from reading a blog or “signing” a petition? All that seems to do is soothe the conscience, but does it really affect change?

    As for what I am going to do this year… I am not sure. I am not a power player, or a world leader or a master of industry. But I am going to work hard to change things in my small world. I will continue to teach English, because I believe in the importance of what I do. I know that communication is the key to understanding across cultures, and if i can make that easier for the next generation, I will be satisfied. I will smile at strangers and hold the door open for the person behind me. Wherever I go in the world, I will carry myself with pride and act honorably, and hope that I will rest in a stranger’s mind as the model of what an American is, hopefully replacing the image of a country lead by ignorant and violent impulses. I will not take a bus to anyplace I can walk and I will not take a car to anyplace I can take a bus. I will pick up litter.

    To me, these small things are a lot more meaningful and productive than using my iBook to purchase carbon offset credits or posting yet another self serving message on a website.

  • I agree with Enhabit. If we took all the money now being spent creating more human misery in Iraq and funded free birth control clinics (instead of demonizing birth control) and education that would be a good start. Then, taxing the rich instead of giving them tax cuts seems like an obvious way to redistribute wealth. bicyclemark has a point but so does rc21. We need not only our shoppers but our manufacturers to take responsibility for the real price of the goods we use.

  • sidewalker, I’m trying to upload a new image to my profile. (It says uploading a new image will automatically replace the old image but that is not true and never has been. The old image just keeps coming up.) I forget how I got around it before but I’m trying to send you an image of a small oncoming wave… I may have to dash off to work before I accomplish this.

  • bmp1975

    Cheers for the topic! I think this may spill into several other shows but that’s a good thing. I can idenitify with both bicyclemark’s and rc21’s comments. We often seem to buy things that we don’t necessarily need because its offered at an attractive price or because it seems like we *should* need the item. I wonder just how much thought goes into the average purchase. We’ll be better off when we are more cogniscient of what it is, where its from, how it got here etc, as we make consumer choices. RC21 is right that on an individual basis being entirely sensitive to fair trade and green choices, can be quite an investment of money and time. More people becoming aware everyday even if not make large changes is progress.

  • bmp1975

    On a personal level I’m now:

    -eating veg. unless I know where the meat/fish has come from (fish must be sustainable source; poultry, cows and pigs should be humanely and naturally raised). I’ve only recently opened my eyes that modern factory that is an environmental and health hazard not too mention ethical dilemma in our treatment of other creatures. Its exciting to see lots of positive changes being made in this area by some in the food industry. I’ve also promised not to be preachy.

    -supporting local produce whenever possible

    -putting time into letter writing campaigns (with Amnesty Int’l)

    -less TV and movies, more life outside the box!! (not tossing my tv though)

  • enhabit

    i would hope that we could all agree to stay away from anything that smacks of eugenics. however, the massive increase in scale of demand that the population explosion has created must be addressed creatively. for example, is wood really a renewable resource in such a context? when one considers the forest’s ability to convert co2 to o2 is it wise to harvest at such scales? what about loss of habitat? also, are we throwing away the hydrocarbon molecule? the day may come when our decendents wish that they had such a useful molecule for non-combustable, even reuseable purposes. our landfills are already full of reusable metals and other materials. aluminum is a good example, large amounts of energy are spent in its initial processing but the global average for recycling aluminum cans is approximately 30%. In the United States, less than half of all aluminum beverage containers are recycled placing an estimated 760,000 tons…that’s TONS…of energy hungry aluminum beverage cans into landfills every year. By one advocacy group’s estimate, this is more than enough aluminum to replace the world’s entire commercial airfleet twice. Any such group’s data is to be received skeptically but if they are even half-wrong, their illustration is dramatic. This costly metal can be recycled at a mere 5% of the energy used in its primary production and with little or no structural degradation. no one would deny that it is useful.

    the point is that we are likely to already have the resources to attack our problems without waiting for some magic technology or singling out any one demographic to shoulder the burden…even though many of us would hand our decendents that bill. we must all come to respect our resources and apply them wisely not for suv’s and starter mansions but for things that matter. can we not all agree that life itself, in all its forms is of primary importance? it is in the wise allocation of limited resources..allocated so that all life benefits…with a sense of urgency…that life will continue. otherwise well who knows…we live in the greatest population explosion that our species has ever known…while more of the other species are threatend and declining.

    we are in the driver’s seat more than we know.

  • hurley

    I thought to mention this as a possible show in itself, but it seems to fit here: last year the Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Muta Maathai launched a global initiative to plant a billion trees. I’ll be doing my part, tending what I’ve already planted and planting some more. This seems to me something ROS might further in interesting and productive ways, every interested listener pledging to plant a tree, posting photos, etc. I imagine Wangari Muta Maathai would be only too happy to join in the fun.

  • nother

    It may sound cheesy to some but my resolution is to smile more. I’ve worked in the service industry for a while and I’ve learned something important through experience. When I smile people are more receptive and I get better tips. I decided to employ this in my everyday life and whata know, it works! It’s hard sometimes to work up those muscles on the side of my face when my mood is glum, but when I do begin to beam, something miraculous happens, people beam back, a direct cause and effect, and when my eyes take in that requited smile, my resistant spirit gives in, a connection is made, an unspoken connection that says sure this deal is a struggle, sure we are both suffering here, but we a conscious, and we are conscious of each other, and that’s worth smiling about.

  • nother

    Ugh, I’m conscious that I meant to write, “but we ARE conscious.”

    Have a Happy New Year ROS Nation!

  • OliverCranglesParrot
  • mcasemo

    We still have leaking levees “protecting” one of the great cities in America. Education of the economic, geographical, and cultural importance of New Orleans would serve us all well. It was drowned by a federally funded “system in name only” of levees, and the incompetent leading of the recovery effort seems to be approaching the disaster level of the failed levees. From comment sections on blogs and editorials in papers across this country New Orleanians are criticized and judged, declared ignorant, lazy, and drunk. Those that have visited here know the truth. American citizens in New Orleans are feeling less and less American.

    Structurally sound public housing will be demolished in a supposed effort to help clean up the public housing system, all when lack of housing is choking the cities recovery. Very simple and blatant actions such as this lend much credence to the accusations of a racial cleansing of the city.

    The US Army Corp has admitted fault, but no one has listened, Congress has not reacted. America is letting the busiest port in the U.S. (carries 20% of all U.S. exports, and 60% of our grain exports) die for some reason. An area that supplies 20% of domestic oil production no longer seems important to this country.

    Innovative social and economic programs and flexing our technological muscle to help save New Orleans would be a change I would welcome.

  • Potter

    from Galway Kinnell:

    “What troubles me is a sense that so many things

    lovely and precious in our world seem to be dying out.

    Perhaps poetry will be the canary in the mine-shaft warning us of what’s to come.”

    “Maybe the best we can do is what we love as best we can”

  • Ben

    Great topic to start off the year! Kudos to the guests and ROS. Are there any plans in the works to generate carbon footprint or other ethical information regarding products and services? It has seemed to help some with nutrition. Information and education seems the most powerful tool behind economics.

  • Ben

    ….carbon footprint or other ethical information labeling…

  • hux435

    One change that I’d like to see this country strive for is to find a better way for goods and materials to be packaged. It seems that disposable packaging has become so much of a convenience that we hardly realize the amount of waste the average American produces on a daily basis. The amount of waste that is produced just by throwing away materials that stuff is wrapped with is absurdly unnecessary. What incentives can be placed to encourage reusable or renewable packaging on the part of the company and the consumer? Is it possible for manufacturer’s to reasonably find a way to package their goods with reusable materials? Should the consumer be equally responsible for utilizing better methods for reusing these materials?

    People should be charged in the grocery store for the plastic bags that they leave with, and those who bring in their own bags and containers should be granted reasonable discounts. So much packaging and waste is deeply imbedded in the way the average American does their shopping that most people tend to be stubborn in their ways. If grocery stores made it more convenient and cost effective for customers to supply their own containers and bags, would people take advantage or would they pay the price on the plastic? How much would it take on the part of both the manufacturer and the consumer to realize it is more cost effective in the long run to waste less? The goal is to transition over to a society that is designed to maximize the amount of reusable materials to reduce the amount of waste (an inevitable problem of the future). It is my hope in the future that more focus is placed on encouraging small adjustments to be made to the way that consumer products are packaged.

  • enhabit

    with regard to design:

    -reusable materials

    -demountable assembly



    -easily understood

    remember that recycled does not mean that the material has been waylaid on its way to the landfill as with “plastic wood” (fiber and plastic, hard to separate) but that a cycle is closed and reuse may be essentially indefinite as with aluminum.

  • robert leaver

    “Something is happening here” and what it is becoming clearer…There are many local movements that are changing the face of the planet. Here in the US: 330 cities have based an ordinace in support of the Koyoto accords. 6000 practitioners — bulders, architects and so on — attended the November 06 Green Build conference in Denver. Business Alliance for local living economies has 45 chapters in the us — each shaping a local living economy..525 people attended the June event in Burlington VT.

    Venture capitalists have discovered the green movement. And the economy is shifting to knowledge, creativity and innovation with less mass and lighter impact.

    Transit oriented development is a new urbanist practice that locates more dense development along transit lines. Compact (more dense in mass and height)mixed use (zoned for retail, work, and living in the same building) and mixed income development is taking over the community development business. The national Local Initiative Support Corporation has 45 sites in the US and is launching a new effort called sustainable communites in 11 of its sites.

    A conversation beyond sustainability is moving forward as well because sustainability is holding up and not doing enough. As Bill Reed says: you need move beyond sustainability to restoration and a generative practice.

  • iiicalypso

    hux435 Says:

    “How much would it take on the part of both the manufacturer and the consumer to realize it is more cost effective in the long run to waste less? The goal is to transition over to a society that is designed to maximize the amount of reusable materials to reduce the amount of waste (an inevitable problem of the future). It is my hope in the future that more focus is placed on encouraging small adjustments to be made to the way that consumer products are packaged.”

    What it will take is a greater political will and a public interested in more action and less lip service. There are plenty of examples of modest changes that can be made to lifestyle that add up to a significant difference in end waste.

    Two small examples– in Korea and Taiwan there is a modest charge (less than a nickel) for grocery bags at all large chain and convenience stores. There is a similar deposit for soda or coffee cups that are to be taken out of the store. At all fast food restaurants the trash receptacles have separate chambers for food waste, paper waste, “other” and soda cups.

    These changes did not come about as a result of enlightened social responsibility by 7-11 or Starbucks or McDonalds. The amount of extra effort on their part, and that of the customers, is minute compared to the good it does. And tangentially, it quickly changes the way people think and act. After a few weeks of being amusing to me, it became second nature, and I now blanch everytime a Dunkin’ Donuts cup ends up in a wastebasket because there is no easily available alternative.

  • enhabit

    with regard to Grameen. we shouldn’t forget the successful housing program that they started. it won an aga kahn award and has housed thousands.

  • jazzman

    The world as we apprehend it is an internal idea construct, therefore the most effective way (indeed the ONLY way) to affect changes in that construct is to change ourselves – by altering our attitudes, beliefs, and actions.

    For example: nother’s smiling changes his world and the worlds of those that respond in kind. If each of us operates in ways that we believe make a positive difference in our personal reality and others’ realities and persuade our friends and acquaintances to do likewise then our world and the world at large changes.

    The key is to realize that every action affects every other existence and less than ideal actions on our part diminish each of us as well as ALL consciousness.

    Peace to ALL


  • sana

    Citizen of commerce, I cast a vote with every dollar I spend, whether I am paying attention or not, for the way the world will work.

    In missiongreen’s world, would all the clean air and water be inside the gates? And what would keep or get me inside?

    I would like to hear further discussion about the externalized costs of goods created around the world, who is paying those costs now, and who will escape having to pay in the future?

  • Listening to this program has inspired me to try and calculate my own carbon footprint. Seems like there are several online calculators – any experiences, recommendations?

    Aside from not having my annual electricity use handy at the moment, I am also noticing that they do focus primarily on energy and transportation use. I wish they also took into account product consumption, generation of waste (I pride myself on generating relatively little “landfill” waste), etc. What about the cost of family size and social structure? What about a carbon footprint calculator for my cat?

  • Dang! Try as I might. I am unable to upload a new image to my ROS profile. My Earth First! David refrigerator magnet stubbornly refuses to go away.

    But… maybe that’s the image for this disscusion after all. Up against globalized corporate/military power, climate change and a population careening out of control… it’s good to remember that a stubborn little guy still has a shot at success.

  • hurley

    The link to Wangari Maathai’s Billion Tree Campaign:

    I’m good for at least 10 seedlings this year (I hope more), and care of the rest I’ve already planted. Anyone care to join in?

  • In terms of where the clean air and clean water are, I would suggest listening to an excellent short discussion between Susan Davis, chairperson of Grameen Foundation and Vandana Shiva, winner of the 1993 Right Livelihood Award and author of Earth Democracy. The conversation, if youre interested, is archived on the Dec. 13t 2006 Democracy Now.

    SUSAN DAVIS: “I think in this world, it’s not rights deigned from on high. I think rights are only real when, in fact, people can exercise their rights. And so, what you see here is a very practical solution about people being able to organize for power and being able to also give voice to the various needs….

    In order to respond to the horrible water problem that existed with arsenic in the water, you actually don’t have the capacity if everybody is acting in an atomized, fragmented way. And I think you would agree that organizing people so that they can promote their own collective interest is the way to actually realize the rights that may be on the books, de jure, but are never going to be enforced, de facto, unless people have some means of power.

    So first, they have to stabilize their own household. They have to be able to eat every day. They have to be able to imagine that they have a future. And then they are able to actually take action in a social and political and economic spheres, so that we’re talking about full citizenship for every person.”

    Shiva responds, recognizing that Davis’ view assumes that capitalism is the end all and be all of socio-economics.

    VANDANA SHIVA:” I think the assumption that the deepening capitalist order entering every sphere of our life, determining how water will flow on this planet, whether it will flow according to the law of gravity or against the law of gravity walking upwards to money, or biodiversity and seeds, whether they’ll be seen as gifts of nature and a commonwealth to be shared and protected or treated as the property of giant corporations under the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement of the WTO, I think each of these issues needs something beyond capitalism. I think — and it’s not an issue of creating another future, it’s an issue of defending the future that is in people’s hands right now.

    People in Rajasthan have made rivers come alive by working together to conserve water. And I think we need to recognize that there are those other means of organizing. I think we need to recognize that there are systems beyond capital and at least for maintaining the ecological processes of this planet and defending the commons on this planet. It is not capitalism, but countering the logic of capitalism that will make sure we have an atmosphere, that’s now getting so degraded that climate change is wiping us all out, that the seeds being sold to peasants are renewable and not with terminator genes. I think accepting the logic of capital in these vital areas of life is something that makes life impossible. And we’ve seen that with climate change.”

  • hux435:

    When I go to wholefoods and decide not to use a bag, this decision is reflected in a “bag credit” on my bill. I think its a 10 or 15 cent discount or refund. Whatever the details, while small, it is something along the lines of what you were thinking.

  • I believe my new invention (recently posted on make) will help make the world a better place. A tool for the thinkers. Partly inspired by the sometimes photographed radio open source chalk board diagrams 😉

  • jfink

    I’m still trying to figure out what will make the Green Movement this time around any different than the movements of the ’70’s. The ones that inspired books like “The Whole Earth Catalog”, sold a zillion solar panels and got everyone to make their own granola. What happened?

    Don’t get me wrong. I love all that stuff. But, ten years later it was all forgotten. The cynic in me thinks that we are all trapped in a fashion cycle driven by the marketeers.

  • zeke

    During the broadcast, Ethan mentioned the name of an acquaintance of Chris Lydon’s from Ghana. I was very interested in what he is doing, but it went by too fast for me to catch the name so I could look him up. Can anyone help?

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