How individual initiative solves world problems;%Helping Ourselves: Local Solutions to Global Problems, by Bruce Stokes. New York: W. W. Norton. $12.95 in hard cover, $4.95 in paperback.
"Helping Ourselves" is full of new information about how people from China to California are finding their own ways to better their working conditions, conserve energy, build their own homes, grow their own food, take care of their health.
The book is a product of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, which keeps an eye on global food and resources. Since the institution is heavily influenced by Malthusianism, its doomy books of recent years --"The Twenty-Ninth Day," "Running on Empty," "Losing Ground" -- have come to sound like a Greek chorus forever warning of dire fates. Indeed, these gloomy forecasts from the organization's president, Lester Brown, and his colleagues have sometimes sounded like Dr. Pangloss turned upside down: All's for the worst in this, the worst of all possible worlds.
Now along comes Bruce Stokes, like an in-house Candide, saying that this is all very well, but let us cultivate our garden. Literally. He wants us to grow tomatoes, onions, and beans in the front yard. Or if we don't happen to have one, try peppers or tomatoes in milk cartons on the windowsill.
"Violent political revolutions," Mr. Stokes concludes, "have been based on people's efforts to control their own destinies. Today, there is an opportunity for a quiet revolution, one based on people helping themselves."
No storming of the barricades in this cheerful self-help manifesto. Instead, we're to get busy and caulk the windows and weatherstrip the doors, turn down the thermostat, and wear woolly sweaters, park the car, and bicycle or walk.
As in all Worldwatch books, the facts are encyclopedic. We learn that between 10 million and 40 million Americans jog. Over 200,000 American families design and build their own houses every year. Gardens are grown by 42 percent of American families, though these provide just 13 percent of the vegetables consumed.
One can quarrel with some of the book's approaches. There could have been more discussion of how the traditions of localism, self-help, and community action grew out of the mutual assistance required by old-fashioned farming (You help me get my hay in before it rains and I'll help you with yours).
Mr. Stokes observes that people in modern cities "smoke too much, eat too much and exercise too little . . . drive too hard, work too hard and worry too much." But he fails to analyze the psychological costs of city life, which tend to make us so harried and self-indulgent. Perhaps the time for analysis and talk is over; just get out and jog and grow those tomatoes.
A few figures need careful examination. Mr. Stokes has the world's population of 4.4 billion growing at 1.8 percent a year, to level off ultimately at 12 billion. Washington's authoritative Population Reference Bureau puts yearly growth at 1.7 percent and projects population to peak at 9.8 billion. Compared with Mr. Stokes's figure, that is 2.2 billion fewer, a difference equivalent to half the people on earth right now.
These criticisms, however, weigh little against the merit of Mr. Stokes's job of highlighting, with careful research, how the real solutions to our problems are likely to be the sum of countless small decisions and actions by unnoticed, humble little nobodies out there doing something for themselves .