Sustainable World Sourcebook & Plan C

New Society Publishers, 2009, 2008

In Review

One of the big problems with green literature is that so much of it is black. You probably know what I mean: The in-your-face muckraking that uncovers the nefarious crimes of the chemical industry, the oil companies, or the water thieves, and leaves you, after a few hundred pages, gasping for a little bit of encouraging news. At which point the author, aware of having served you a big downer sandwich, tacks on a chapter or two of progressive responses and thoughtful recommendations. All too often, criticism drives the narratives of environmental books, leaving constructive ideas relegated to a mere coda.

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Thankfully, we have New Society Publishers. This small, independent press based in British Columbia bills itself as an “activist publisher focused on solutions and social change.” There are a few gloom and doom titles on New Society’s list like, for example, Richard Heinberg’s Peak Everything and Whitewash: The Disturbing Truth about Cow’s Milk and Your Health by Joseph Keon. But mostly New Society is in the business of publishing books that provide readers with useful how-tos on subjects ranging from energy- and water-efficient landscaping to solar installation to sustainable transportation. Some of the titles are the deepest of green: Serious Microhydro, for example. Others are targeted at a more mainstream audience, like The Homebuyer’s Guide to Good Green Homes, which has a chapter titled “Where Can I Find a Green Condominium?” Almost all of these books assume that the reader already understands the basics of our environmental predicament and the challenges of the coming energy and resource descents. These books aren’t dire warnings. They’re unfailingly upbeat recipes for survival.

A perfect example of the genre is the Sustainable World Sourcebook, edited by Vinit Allen, an Earth Island Institute project director. This slim volume, which bills itself as “the essential guidebook for the concerned citizen,” is a smorgasbord of solutions. The book touches briefly on the “severity of the threats and the enormity of the challenge,” then jumps to the tactics that can steer us toward an ecological transition. There’s sections on worker-owned cooperatives, small-scale renewable energy, local food production, and community banks – all delivered in easily digested charts, graphs, and sidebars. The book’s spirit of optimism is relentless.

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Another New Society book, Pat Murphy’s Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change, starts out in a minor chord as the author outlines “the triple threats of peak oil, climate change and inequality.” But Plan C quickly pivots to solutions. This is a much denser volume than the sourcebook. Murphy tackles just about every aspect of our lifestyles – the backwash of our info-tainment, personal appliances, transcontinental transportation – and makes useful suggestions on how to make all of these less energy intensive. Like the sourcebook, Plan C argues that community – resilient networks grounded in regional economies – will be the most effective antidote to resource scarcity.

Plan C and the Sustainable World Sourcebook are, at their best, toolkits. Like most of the other New Society titles, they are the blueprints for an ecologically sustainable and socially just world. All we have to do is piece them together, and we’ll have the operating instructions for a wholly different, and better, way of living.

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