50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth by John Javnais back in print, updated for the 21st century.
Readers review by Joel Makower
If that doesn't send a mild shiver down your spine, then you are under 25 years old. If you somehow didn't catch the early 1990s, 50 Simple Things, published a few months in advance of Earth Day 1990, was a cultural phenomenon. It caught a wave of interest — notably, media interest — in all things green, which propelled the book's sales to cult-like status. The book sold 5 million copies in all, about a third in one of the 20-odd languages in which it eventually appeared. The principal author and publisher, John Javna — who the first time around hid behind the anonymity of "The EarthWorks Group," basically himself and some helpers — eventually got discouraged and cynical about the book's impact. By the mid 1990s, he had taken the book out of print and took his family, and his newfound wealth, to rural Oregon, where he's been ever since.
I first met Javna in 1988, when green books were just a glimmer in both of our eyes. By 1990, we were both working on our respective tomes — his 50 Simple Things and my book The Green Consumer. I distinctly recall him sitting in my office in early 1990, explaining how his book would succeed because it would be "first, cheap, and simple." And it did. His book was a blockbuster; mine was merely a bestseller. (In 1992 I penned one of the books in the series, 50 Simple Things Your Business Can Do to Save the Earth, which was attributed to, and published by, the EarthWorks group.) In the wake of the original 50 Simple Things, Javna began to understand that his "first, cheap, and simple" book may have had an unintended consequence: While it made environmentalism more accessible to the masses, it may have lulled readers into thinking that snipping six-pack rings or choosing paper over plastic was all they needed to do to address pressing issues like climate change, water and air pollution, and the squandering of natural resources.
"I had this sense that the simple things that we talked about in the book were not the way to go," Javna told me recently. "I just thought, this is not solving problems, and in some ways it's even creating problems because people think that they're addressing an issue in a deep way when they're just skimming the surface. You could say that that book was a mile wide and an inch deep.
It turned out that there weren't 50 simple things we can do to save the earth — just a half-dozen or so rather difficult ones. Eighteen years later, the book is back. It looks pretty much the same — Javna recycled quite nicely the look and feel — but the concept is different. The new edition of 50 Simple Things was written by Javna along with his two kids, 18-year-old Jesse and 14-year-old Sophie. Indeed, it was Sophie who inadvertently inspired the project. "After the green-washing and stuff in the '90s, people just sort of wandered away and lost interest and went back to buying their gas-guzzling cars and not voting for the environment at all. And it just became a sub-issue, even though the environment itself was getting worse and worse.
"For years I thought about it — what would be a way to engage people in a simple way? People did buy and use the book, and a lot of people were pretty encouraged by it, and so I thought, 'What's a way to engage them in a way that really would make a difference?'" "Then Sophie asked me, 'Why don't we compost anymore? And I started to give her my real answer — you know, about how you can recycle all you want. It's not going to take the mercury out of the air, so don't bother.
"And I just sort of stopped myself, and I thought, 'This is crazy because she is in fact the future generation I was talking about when I was talking about 'Let's try to protect the planet' in 1990. And I had really turned my back on her, on the effort to protect her. So I made the decision that I really couldn't afford to be cynical — not if I love my children. I decided that probably the most powerful thing I could do was find a way of engaging people in environmental actions through a new version of 50 Simple Things, but in a way that really mattered.
In this new edition, each of the "things" is an entire issue chosen and developed by an environmental group — 50 in all, from the Alliance to Save Energy to the Wilderness Society. Both large and small groups are represented — the Sierra Club and Environmental Defense, but also Green for All and As You Sow. Each of the "things" has its own page on the book's website (slated to go live on April 1), with additional information and resources.
The book in some ways raises its sights by asking readers to lower theirs. Javna's hope is that everyone who reads the book will do at least one of the "things." Says Javna: "A simple thing is a commitment to an issue. The book says pick one of these issues, not a whole lot of them. Pick one issue and commit yourself — an issue that fits in your life, an issue that feels comfortable to you — and then make that a part of your life. That can be your commitment to trying to change the shape of the world, to protect the life-support system of the planet."
It will be interesting to watch the book unfold anew. A lot has changed — but in some ways not much has. People are still looking for answers — and simple ones are pretty compelling.
Of course, Javna's book will have to compete with all the others — a recent issue of the book industry bible, Publishers Weekly, listed no fewer than 70 green books coming out the spring and summer (2008), many advocating easy ways to live an eco-friendly lifestyle. They include at least one derivative title — Go Green, Live Rich: 50 Simple Ways to Save the Earth and Get Rich Trying as well as a spate of eco-fabulous titles: the Eco Chick Guide to Life; Green Chic: Saving the Earth in Style; Green, Greener, Greenest: A Practical Guide to Making Eco-Smart Choices a Part of Your Life; Green Is the New Black: How to Change the World with Style; and Gorgeously Green: 5 Simple Steps to an Earth-Friendly Life.
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