Decades-Old Environmental Action Handbook Pivots to ‘Permanent System Change’
Three decades after 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Planet first took America by storm, its bestselling author is still pushing simple steps to help people reduce their environmental footprint. But he’s also urging his readers to go after the legislative, institutional, and structural changes that will be needed to enforce better climate and environmental performance.
Self-published in November 1989 by John Javna, the little handbook “featured ‘unbelievably easy’ steps, like installing low-flow showerheads and bringing cloth bags to the grocery store,” Grist reports.
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“With sales buoyed by media coverage and events surrounding Earth Day’s 20th anniversary in 1990, 50 Simple Things topped bestseller lists,” the e-publication adds. “It went on to sell five million copies and was translated into 23 languages, including Turkish and Bulgarian.”
Not everyone was thrilled with the book’s message, however, with critics arguing “that meaningful change required complex and large-scale policy changes, not simple fixes,” Grist notes. By 1995, a disillusioned Javna was in full agreement with his critics. Pulling the book out of print and moving his family out to rural Oregon, Javna “even stopped taking his own eco-friendly tips.”
His children, however, would not allow him to give up. With their help, Javna eventually shook off his despair, publishing a new, revised edition of 50 Simple Things in 2008.
While it’s still a guidebook of “simple steps,” the new edition “encouraged readers to pick one cause—like bringing back the electric car or saving coral reefs—and get involved with environmental organizations, pressure companies to do better, and lobby their legislators for their cause,” Grist writes. Urging readers to see themselves as citizens with the democratic responsibility to demand accountability at the highest levels, and affirming that policy-makers should act in the public interest, the 2008 edition of 50 Simple Things hearkens back to the decade before its first publishing.
“In 1970, everyone took for granted that tough laws were needed to protect and clean up the environment,” said environmental historian Adam Rome. That decade launched the very first Earth Day, in which 20 million Americans took part, and saw the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, adoption of the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, and myriad other environmental regulations.
In that civic-minded time, Grist says, even the simplest of environmental action books “tended to conclude with a stirring call for citizens to demand large-scale change.” Case in point was the 1972 children’s book S.O.S. Save Our Earth by Giancarlo Masini, which “ends with a section telling kids to send postcards with examples of pollution to their city council, members of Congress, and the Interior Department, responsible for overseeing national parks and forests.”
After that, the 1980s were “a tough decade for the environmental movement,” Grist observes. “Ronald Reagan’s two-term presidency, in its zeal to unleash the free market, eroded faith in government action,” producing a “shift in how Americans thought of themselves—not so much as citizens but as consumers who could vote with their spending power.”
The original 50 Simple Things spoke to that devolution, with its introduction asserting “that institutions alone couldn’t solve environmental problems, but the sum of millions of people taking action just might,” writes reporter Kate Yoder.
“Only people who had been worn out from a decade of fighting would say that,” Rome said, “because it’s obviously the opposite of what you need to say. Until institutions change, we aren’t going to solve any of these problems.”
True to the redirection in his rewrite, Javna has since dedicated himself to helping individuals work collectively for meaningful, permanent system change. In 2009, he helped establish the Oregon-based Ashland Food Project, a list of citizens who’ve made a long-term commitment to supply food banks with donations picked up by volunteers.
“The idea is that each person does a small part—a ‘simple thing’—but understands that their part is just as essential as everyone else’s,” Grist writes.
In the last decade, the project “has brought millions of pounds of food to local food banks, with nearly a quarter of households in Ashland participating.” And the model “has spread to dozens of communities, spawning independent food projects from the West Coast to Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Florida.”