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What's Next: John Thackara
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The Dance of the Big and the Small

Suppose Bill Gates were to purchase six and a half billion copies of Worldchanging, have them translated into the world’s major languages, and then give a free copy to every citizen of the on the planet. Would the challenges we face disappear?

I don’t think so. Reading, writing, and discussing are important precursors to meaningful innovation – but they do not, of themselves, change material reality.

On the contrary. Although hundreds of millions of people are now demanding that “something must be done? to avert climate change, they – we – are confronted by a debilitating cacophony of often contradictory ideas and solutions.

Think, for example, of buildings and energy. Passionate advocates of different technologies insist to us that each has the ideal solution: Wind turbines, nanogel insulation, hydrogen fuel cells, solar panels, wood-chip boilers. How can each one be the answer?

Or take energy infrastructure. One group of innovators insists that each building can become its own power station. Another says that micro-generation is only viable when 50 houses do it as a group.

As many organisations offer advice as there are technologies to choose from. In the North East of England, for example, when we set out (in Designs of the time ) to reduce the carbon footprint of a single street, we encountered 20 organisations already busy trying to help people save energy.

We’re swamped by innovation, but starved of meaning. So what steps should we take, and in which order?

I believe the solution is to scout the world for situations where the question has already been addressed - whatever the question may be. The Danish theatre director Eugenio Barba describes this as “the dance of the big and the small?. We need to be global hunter-gatherers of models, processes, and ways of living that already exist.

In the same way that biomimicry learns from millions of years of natural evolution, we need to adapt lessons learned by other societies to our present, ultra-local needs.

Where there are gaps, we can invent stuff. But let's ease up on inventing for it’s own sake: it delivers as much smoke, as solutions.

John Thackara,


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There's a more material problem to 6.5B copies of Worldchanging. Using data from and, Worldchanging is around 540 books per 8 trees. As a result, Bill's order would wipe out around 100M trees. Shipping the 12M tons of raw materials around through the printing and distribution process would not be without implications as well.

Obviously the point of this post wasn't to propose actually printing the books, but Prius's, Worlchanging: The Book, solar cells, etc, while all good, also have their own environmental footprint that, at scale, can't be wished away with carbon offsets and the like.

Posted by: David Douglas on 25 Dec 06

...they – we – are confronted by a debilitating cacophony of often contradictory ideas and solutions.

...we encountered 20 organisations already busy trying to help people save energy.

I've noticed this - and this is one of the goals of Appropedia, the wiki site for appropriate technology, sustainability and international development. It allows collaborations to be carried out, and categorization of different organizations. See the page for sustainability, appropriate technology and development organizations.

It also has project writeups from various organizations, and topic pages where information and experience can be shared, and facts checked. I think the wiki solution is an ideal one, and it makes it easier for organizations to work together and build on each other's skills and experience.

Posted by: Chriswaterguy on 25 Dec 06

I will note that we have done our best to reduce the ecological footprint of the book and our operations as a non-profit

and we will continue to find ways to do more.

That said, I take your point, David. Thanks.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 25 Dec 06



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