Ideas for a better world in 2011

In many ways, 2010 is a year you may want to relegate to the filing cabinet quickly. It began with a massive earthquake in Haiti and wound down with North Korea once again being an enfant terrible – bizarrely trying to conduct diplomacy through brinkmanship.

In between came Toyota recalls and egg scares, pat downs at airports and unyielding unemployment numbers, too little money in the Irish treasury and too many bedbugs in American sheets. Oil gushed from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico for three months, mocking the best intentions of man and technology to stop it, while ash from a volcano in Iceland darkened Europe temporarily as much as its balance sheets.

Yet not all was gloomy. The winter Olympics in Canada and the World Cup in South Africa dazzled with their displays of athletic prowess and national pride, becoming hearths around which the world gathered. In Switzerland, the world's largest atom smasher hurled two protons into each other at unfathomable speeds. Then came the year's most poignant moment – the heroic and improbable rescue of 33 miners from the clutches of the Chilean earth.

There were many transitions, too – the return of the Republicans in Washington and the Tories in Britain, the scaling back of one war (Iraq) and the escalation of another (Afghanistan), the fall of some powers (Greece) and rise of others (China, Germany, Lady Gaga).

To get the new year off to the right start, we decided to ask various thinkers for one idea each to make the world a better place in 2011. We plumbed poets and political figures, physicists and financiers, theologians and novelists. Some of the ideas are provocative, others quixotic. Some you will agree with, others you won't. But in the modest quest to stir a discussion – from academic salons to living rooms to government corridors – we offer these 25 ideas.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

The seal in the lobby of the CIA in Langley, VA. (Dennis Brack/Newscom)

ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN, former top CIA counterterrorism expert on weapons of mass destruction, now a lecturer at Harvard University

Idea: A CIA for the world

Weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, organized crime, people smuggling, cyberattacks, climate change. These conflicts girdle the globe and cannot be solved by one nation. They must be addressed collectively. What's needed, says Mr. Mowatt-Larssen, is a sort of global CIA or Russian FSB but without the clandestine shenanigans – something to analyze and understand what's happening at a deeper level. He calls for the formation of a "global intelligence institution, conceived and built to the specifications of today's and tomorrow's problems."

The idea isn't to usurp the CIA, but to build a modest-sized international organization that will share its findings on contemporary and common threats. He says, for instance, major "gaps" in understanding remain over the 18 known cases of the smuggling of nuclear materials. A new global agency could focus on the criminal or other networks involved. Such a unit, he suggests, might be located under the auspices of the United Nations or perhaps the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"Rapid information sharing; far less secrecy; a devaluation of the role of espionage in favor of confidential sources who see themselves helping the world, not working against individual countries, is what we need," he says. "There has to be recognition that if you give this organization information, it will go to the US, but then you're also going to give it to Iran or the Libyans or whoever you don't like, too."

Henry M. Paulson, Jr.

Workers rest on steps near an advertisement showing a wind turbine outside the venue of a green industry expo in Beijing, Nov. 25, 2010. (Alexander F. Yuan/AP)

HENRY M. PAULSON JR., former US Treasury secretary and former chairman and chief executive of Goldman Sachs

Idea: US and China should team up to clean up

Mr. Paulson writes: The United States and China should together eliminate all tariffs on clean technology products, galvanizing global action on the seemingly intractable issues of trade and environmental protection.

New clean technologies are the only way to continue the economic growth that will raise living standards across the globe while also mitigating its effects on our climate, water, and air. And it is not enough to simply develop these technologies – they must be deployed at scale to have an impact.

But bringing this technology to the people who need it is hindered by high tariff and nontariff barriers that many nations place on environmental goods and services.

Take one simple but powerful example: There is a water technology available right now that could help local communities reduce the pollution entering rivers from power plants. Yet in China, for instance, a tariff of 22 percent on water filters makes this technology too expensive for many communities to adopt.

As the two largest economies in the world, the two largest emitters of carbon, and the two largest importers of oil, the US and China, acting together, can have a big enough impact to jump-start progress.

China and the US could follow their own action with a coordinated effort to persuade the other nations in the Group of 20 to do the same. These nations represent 80 percent of global carbon emissions, and a similar share of global trade.

Joint US and Chinese leadership on removing trade barriers to clean technologies would be a small but significant step that could catalyze the broader action so urgently required.

Kayhan Barzegar

President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad of Iran smiles as he answers a question during a news conference in Istanbul, Dec. 23, 2010. (Burhan Ozbilici/AP)

KAYHAN BARZEGAR, an Iranian analyst affiliated with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University and a director at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran

Idea: The time is right for US-Iran talks

Three decades of mutual hostility between the US and Iran might appear to be an immovable object, as negotiations continue into 2011 over Iran's controversial nuclear program. But amid the noisy rhetoric from both sides – and American fears of an Iranian bomb – one strategist finds a silver lining that could transform the Middle East.

"The existing controversy over the nuclear issue also possesses potential for engendering greater proximity between Tehran and Washington," says Mr. Barzegar, contacted in Tehran. "Iran's nuclear program is at the point where the two countries' strategic needs converge."

The priority the US currently puts on security should compel Washington to want to engage in direct talks. At the same time, he argues that America's near obsession with the Iranian nuclear issue creates a "political parity" that should make future negotiations acceptable to factions in Iran.

The result, if reason prevails, is an "inevitable" move toward a win-win compromise, because at present "neither side … is able to totally ignore the other side's demands," says Barzegar. "Iran cannot give up its independent nuclear fuel cycle because it has paid a high political price on it, and the US cannot put up with a so-called nuclear-armed Iran. The main balancing point would be a win-win game, [in which] the US accepts the independent fuel cycle on Iran's soil and Iran accepts all necessary guarantees to ensure Iran's nuclear program will not have military objectives."

Such a deal could help ease the current regional standoff between the Iran-led axis of resistance – which includes Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria – against the US and its allies, and Israel.

"It is now clear that neither side can marginalize the role of the other in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, or Palestine," notes Barzegar. "Washington and Tehran must choose between interaction or war. Evidence indicates that both parties prefer interaction, though they want to rely on their own tried and tested tactics [of keeping] the upper hand."

Michelle Rhee

US President Barack Obama reads 'Twas the Night Before Christmas to 2nd graders at Long Branch Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, December 17, 2010. (Jim Young/Reuters)

MICHELLE RHEE, former chancellor of public schools in Washington, D.C., and founder of Students First, a national movement pushing education reform

Idea: Start with students

Ms. Rhee's recipe for revitalizing education in the US sounds simple: Focus on the best interests of students, not adults.

But it's not easy, she says, to "shift the balance of power" away from politically influential teachers' unions.

One powerful idea: End the last-hired, first-fired policies that most school districts use when they lay off teachers.

Keeping teachers with the most seniority is fair from an adult's perspective, Rhee says, but not from a child's – especially when more-talented new teachers are let go.

She cites the example of Liechty Middle School in Los Angeles, which opened in 2007 in a low-income neighborhood. "Over a two-year period, these teachers absolutely just knocked it out of the park," she says, with the students making some of the strongest academic gains in the district.

"Then the pink slips came, and this school got absolutely decimated. Because they had so many new teachers, [about] half of their staff got laid off."

A Los Angeles Times analysis showed that many of those laid-off teachers ranked in the top 20 percent in the district in producing student achievement gains.

"Any policy in which you are laying off some of the top-performing teachers is not about children," Rhee says. "We've got to be willing to fight on behalf of the kids."

Hoshyar Zebari

HOSHYAR ZEBARI, Iraqi foreign minister

Idea: Lower the walls in the Middle East

Mr. Zebari would like to see more economic integration to build confidence in a region where the biggest problem, in his view, is the lack of trust between countries and sectarian groups.

"For the region there should be more economic integration – gas, oil, electricity, railroads, airports. This is what everyone aspires to. In the North, despite Kurdish-Turkish tension, there are apparently 600 registered Turkish companies in Arbil and about 15,000 Turkish workers. It has really changed the perception – it has changed the tension, it has changed the [relationship]. There is still a problem with the presence of the PKK [Kurdish Workers' Party, a rebel group], still there is a problem with some Turkish ideas, with their role throughout the region and so on, but economic interests open up the vein of relations – I think it needs more."

Jacques Attali

JACQUES ATTALI, economist, historian, adviser to French presidents

Idea: Empower weaker nations

Practical world change in 2011 must take place at the highest global institutions – but also among the world's most needy. Mr. Attali advocates a union of the G20 and the UN Security Council, but he also wants to help the world's poor through microfinancing and loans.

Attali works these issues daily. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he cofounded the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development that helped rebuild the former East bloc. Later, with Nobel Prize winner Mohammed Yunus, he founded PlaNet Finance – helping people in poor nations get a start.

Attali is a free-market entrepreneur who believes in social democracy. He's a prolific author – "The kind of guy that writes books in airports," a friend says. His latest, "A Brief History of the Future," argues that governments may soon have to choose between bankruptcy and paying pensions.

 

He believes two areas need attention in 2011. The first is developing nations. He calls for "answering the demand of poor people in the form of microfinancing" – helping motivated individuals in developing countries. "It is fundamental to increase the ability of hundreds of millions of people," he says. "This growth is different – it is not coming from finance, but is creating markets and demand for real people in many places." He urges establishing more microfinance foundations, especially in the US, where there is money but less interest.

The second need is a more established global rule of law: "I'm not talking about a global world government, but a sound system that tells entrepreneurs the rules of the game are stable." To do this, he suggests merging the G20 and the UN Security Council, or at least organizing "less powerful nations into a system that gives them voting rights." "Voting in the G20 today is still too informal," he says. "It is in the hands of a very few leaders."

Greg Mortenson

GREG MORTENSON, author of the bestselling book "Three Cups of Tea," which chronicles his quest to build schools in war-torn Afghanistan and Pakistan

Idea: Educate every child on earth

Mr. Mortenson's idea for 2011 is a simple one conceptually but difficult to put into practice. "I'd like to see a commitment made so that every single child on the planet can go to school," he says. He cites figures from UNICEF that 112 million kids worldwide are deprived of formal classroom learning, 74 million of them girls.

Mortenson has established friendships with Islamic mullahs and local tribal elders in Afghanistan while, at the same time, earning the respect of top US generals. Military officials acknowledge, he says, that there is no military solution, long-term, to the problems plaguing the region. "The greatest allies of terrorists are illiteracy and ignorance," he says.

He believes that global illiteracy could be cut in half over the next 10 years by spending just half the $100 billion annually the US is putting into Operation Enduring Freedom (largely the war in Afghanistan). Mortenson says that Dr. Farooq Wardak, Afghanistan's education minister, told him that roughly $248 million annually is spent to operate the country's 24 universities. "We are spending about $1 million per US soldier each year in Afghanistan. Let's let just 248 soldiers come home to their families and instead write a check to fund the country's entire university system. Send a couple of thousand troops home and replace them with schools and salaries for 10,000 teachers. It would alter the dynamic of the war. We'd be giving Afghanistan a future."

Dave Eggers

DAVE EGGERS, writer, editor, and publisher who has helped launch youth writing programs in eight cities (coordinated by the nonprofit 826 National) and the Voice of Witness project, a series of books in which ordinary people tell their stories to illuminate human rights crises

Idea: Tell a story, change the world

Mr. Eggers writes: Human rights abuses are uniquely possible in a place and time when empathy is absent or at an ebb. And one powerful way to engender empathy is through plain old storytelling. Through listening to stories of people who have lived through injustice, we understand, we empathize, and we can act morally. So Voice of Witness takes on issues by letting the narrators tell their stories, at length, and own their narratives. We find again and again that readers who felt they knew an issue – like hurricane Katrina or undocumented workers in the US – have their perceptions completely realigned once they read the life stories of the people behind the headlines. Studs Terkel, the godfather of modern oral history, said, "I've always felt that there's a deep decency in the American people and a native intelligence – providing they have the facts, providing they have the information." We're trying to provide that information, one story at a time.

Harold Attridge

HAROLD ATTRIDGE, dean of the Yale Divinity School and professor of the New Testament

Idea: Start your day with a hymn

Behind many of the specific ideas to improve the lives of human beings around the globe, says Mr. Attridge, are the "daily habits of the mind, the heart, and the hand." Part of religious leadership is to learn to develop and integrate such habits, and to proclaim them.

This is why Yale Divinity School integrates scholarship with a vibrant program of worship in which well-attended services are held daily. "The music played and sung in those services comes from all corners of the globe," he says. "One of our students' favorite hymns these days is from South Africa: 'Njalo' or 'Always.' Its lyrics proclaim that "always we bless, always we give, always we pray."

The song encapsulates a part of what a divinity school is about: shaping our daily habits so that everything we do, from our thoughts to our emotions to our actions, contributes to the flourishing of human communities and individual well-being.

"Perhaps the song could offer a message for the new year," Attridge says. "The world would be a better place if all of us would think each day of ways to bless one another, especially those opposed to us; if each gave a little more to relieve poverty, hunger, and disease; and if each offered a daily prayer for peace and justice."

James Davison Hunter

JAMES DAVISON HUNTER, director of the Institute for Advanced Studies of Culture at the University of Virginia, who coined the phrase "culture wars" in the 1990s

Idea: Keep politics out of the pews

Mr. Hunter argues that the Christian community should move away from the "politicization of everything." Churches are now too often destructive battlegrounds of an ideological right and left. He advocates something called "faithful presence" – a humble reappraisal of what is distinctive and different about church and its public expression. "This is active, not passive; it requires engagement, not an opt-out. It is not ideological, but it is public," he says.

The title of Hunter's controversial new book, "To Change the World," is ironic. While American Christianity often imagines itself a major player in US public life, it is, in fact, marginalized, he says. Despite large numbers, they don't influence the actual structures of power and culture. Worry that a Christian America is fading has not brought a deeper commitment to church but anger. Political efforts to conform law or policy to narrow or sectarian teaching are often acted out coercively, not compassionately.

The "faithful presence" Hunter calls for transcends politics. The point, he says, is to serve faithfully and well in relationships, tasks, and networks of social influence. "Christians need to abandon talk about 'redeeming the culture,' 'advancing the kingdom,' and 'changing the world,' " he said in the magazine Christianity Today. "Such talk carries too much weight...."

In the case of abortion, he suggests that 10,000 families could get together in Illinois and announce they will adopt a child of any background and declare no unwanted children in the state; it's a public but not a political act.

Sidney D. Drell

SIDNEY D. DRELL, physicist, professor emeritus at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, and a fellow at the Hoover Institution

Idea: Let's start with START

Mr. Drell writes: The New START treaty, with its comprehensive transparency measures for monitoring compliance, once it has entered into force, will set the stage for further efforts "to make the world a better place in 2011." These efforts should focus on "preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism," an objective cited by the Obama administration as its No. 1 goal in the nuclear arena.

A first step, in view of the growing worldwide demands for energy and limiting greenhouse gases, will be to establish international control and management of the entire nuclear fuel cycle for civilian power.

One scheme that has been proposed would create fuel banks to guarantee the availability of low-enriched uranium to power the reactors producing civilian nuclear power to cooperating nations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Another would be to internationalize facilities producing nuclear materials.

A second step would be to negotiate more effective "verification teeth" for the International Atomic Energy Agency. Currently the IAEA has only limited authority to make challenge inspections of suspected, undeclared nuclear sites. Increased focus on the need to extend on-site challenge inspections globally, beyond the current number of about one-half of the NPT signatory nations, is evident from current confrontations with Iran and North Korea.

Finally, the US should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The urgency of the US taking this action is shown by views expressed by a number of countries whose cooperation we must rely on to prevent nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Currently all but nine of the 44 nations that must ratify the CTBT before it can enter into force have done so. The US is one of those nine and the others, including India and China, have indicated they are waiting for us to ratify it before they jump on board, too.

Accomplishing these three steps will be challenging. But together with ongoing programs to provide the highest standards of security for all nuclear weapons material everywhere in the world, they are urgent and essential for making progress in a global effort of "preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism."

Enrique Krauze

ENRIQUE KRAUZE, Mexican historian, author, and director of the cultural magazine Letras Libres

Idea: Rx for Mexico's drug wars

When Mexican President Felipe Calderón assumed office in 2006, one of his first acts was to dispatch the military to battle organized crime. Since then, brutality has exploded, with some 30,000 people killed in the nation's drug wars.

Some call it unparalleled violence and reflect on a hopeless time in Mexico's history, 200 years after its independence and 100 years after the Mexican Revolution.

But Mr. Krauze says that while the problem will not be solved next year, Mexico must now wake up to desperately needed reforms to steer the country in a new direction.

"I believe that the seriousness of the situation is going to make the country, for the first time since the 19th century, realize the necessity to create a judicial structure and culture that respects laws," he says. "Mexico is a stoic, deep, and resilient country.... But this period is the most difficult since the revolution. I believe that the legalization of drugs, in particular marijuana, would be desirable. But we cannot trick ourselves: In Mexico, the 'war' will be long."

He adds: "We need many different actions, gradual and coordinated: cut off financial flows [of cartel proceeds], improve and make more secure the troubled jails, reform the judicial system, run campaigns against drug use, improve education, and start from almost zero the creation of a police force. This will all take a generation, at least."

Chester E. Finn, Jr.

CHESTER E. FINN JR., senior fellow, the Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Idea: Make students free agents

Mr. Finn writes: How to make serious and rapid progress on education reform? The system is famously change-resistant and money is tight, so major breakthroughs depend on bold actions.

Four controversial moves would make a big difference:

•Let principals really run their schools – including all personnel decisions, budget decisions, curriculum, etc. Get school boards and downtown bureaucracies (and burdensome union contracts) out of the way. Stop wasting scarce money on them.

•Attach all the money to students (with sums varying according to their needs) and let them choose their schools, so that the revenues of the schools they select – district, charter, virtual, even private – depend entirely on attracting students.

•Hold everyone – students, teachers, principals, school board members, etc. – to account for their academic results, measured against new multi-state "common core" standards. Reward (with diplomas, gold stars, college admissions, bonuses, promotions, etc.) those that succeed. Intervene big-time in those that fail.

•Make results transparent so that parents, taxpayers, and elected officials can see how every school is doing against those standards and other key measures, such as retention and graduation rates, educating challenging kids, etc.

Much grumbling and pushback will greet these changes – and political prudence says don't even try. But then nothing will change and mediocrity will endure.

Naomi Foner

NAOMI FONER, screenwriter who was nominated for an Academy Award in 1988 for "Running on Empty." Her other screenwriting credits include "Losing Isaiah," "A Dangerous Woman," and "Bee Season."

Idea: Reinvent Hollywood heroes

Ms. Foner writes: No good art is made without the space to fail. Our culture has become risk averse as the economy as slowed. Certainly the movie business has.

The more expensive your movie is, the less likely you will be allowed to take any risk. So instead of many smaller movies, with a range of subjects, some of which take risks and question authority, we have a few monsters that question nothing. And it's not just movies: books, music, art, everything's moved to the great middle.

I remember movies opening the world for me, showing me people and places and possibilities I would never have known. Our job as filmmakers, as artists of any kind, is to "disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed." We need to take risks. We won't survive as a culture without it.

Sometimes it is history that pushes us to such risks. "Angels in America" and "The Diary of Anne Frank" were hugely transformational – iconic – for their era. If you move people, they will think about what they have seen.

We are in such a time again. We need heroes, we need heroines. We need to allow our women to grow old with grace instead of disappearing from our screens. We need to give voice to our immigrant underground. We need to show that questioning authority is the highest form of patriotism.

Movies have done that: Paul Newman as Cool Hand Luke and Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Heroes take risks. We need them again.

Robert Pinsky

ROBERT PINSKY, poet and author, former US poet laureate

Idea: A college meritocracy

Mr. Pinsky writes: Two modest, simple, cost-cutting proposals for improving American education:

1. Give public school students access to the same English and writing teachers as students at top prep schools like Andover, Exeter, St. Mark's, and Marin Country Day School: The teachers I mean hold master of fine arts degrees. MFA graduates who are recommended as good teachers by their MFA programs, where they have taught undergraduate writing courses, should be able to teach Grades 7-12 without presenting the school of education credentials many states require for public school jobs – not required for teaching at the private prep schools.

Right now, poets and fiction writers who complete Boston University's MFA program often teach at those private schools. But a graduate of our program can't hope for a job in Boston's public schools, not even if [my BU colleagues] Leslie Epstein, Louise Glück, Ha Jin, and I write letters affirming that this is a wonderful, effective teacher.

2. Above a certain objective threshold set by an institution (grades, SATs, whatever), make college admissions absolutely random. No consideration of athletic skills or cunning essays or alumni donors in the family or well-roundedness, etc. Education is about education, period, and excellence is about excellence. Of course, the rich, hard-to-get-into schools would have to take the lead: Amherst, Yale, Stanford, and such should set a new standard of seriousness about learning.

Sima Samar

SIMA SAMAR, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, often mentioned onunofficial "short lists" for the Nobel Peace Prize

Idea: Raise status of women in Afghanistan

Ms. Samar writes: I always fight with people when they say human rights are a Western value. Generally, the understanding of Afghan people is that they are very traditional, tribal, and backward, and so therefore they will always be negative on women's rights. Instead of saying that these people never had a government, we have to look [at] why the people have been like this [and] see that they are also human beings.

If we make our strategies and policies based on the universality of human rights and for the sake of dignity, then we might reduce the mistakes we are making [in Afghanistan]. The problem [with the international community] is that they are looking for an exit strategy, and the excuse of respecting culture has been used in this country for 30 years – it's not new.

Peace cannot happen without respect for human rights and of course participation of women as half of the population. We need to recognize women's existence and include them in all the policies. Not symbolically, but really believe in that and do it.

John H. Adams

JOHN H. ADAMS, cofounder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, whom President Obama recently selected to receive a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying: "If the planet has a lawyer, it's John Adams."

Idea: A fuel-stingy car in every garage

He wants to require US cars to get 60 miles per gallon of gas by 2025. "It's a solution that will save the planet, sustain America's independence, and rebuild our economy," says Mr. Adams. He also sees it as a primary way to fight global warming, extracting a "giant chunk of carbon from the atmosphere."

Federal fuel economy standards are already in place that will boost mileage requirements to 35.5 m.p.g. by 2016, up 42 percent. But Adams wants to stretch that to 60 m.p.g. by 2025. (In October, the Obama administration acknowledged that it would be feasible for Detroit to increase standards to 62 m.p.g. by 2025.) He estimates that would cut oil consumption by 44 billion gallons by 2030, put $100 billion back into drivers' pockets, and stem the flow of cash being sent overseas to import oil from the Middle East. "The 60-m.p.g. goal is at the intersection between what is achievable technologically – and what is necessary," he says. "It's a national standard that can spread globally and be a steppingstone to even higher fuel standards in future."

Joel Kotkin

JOEL KOTKIN, is a distinguished fellow at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and author of "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050"

Idea: Beware the megacity

Mr. Kotkin writes: Perhaps a good place to start is redefining the most overused word of our times: sustainability. Perhaps the world would be a better place if equal emphasis were put on other things that sustain us – like social well-being and economic health.

These things have to be considered as equal priorities. If not, the sustainability movement becomes little more than a path to poverty – something unacceptable in "rich" nations and even more so among the developing ones.

When we look to curb greenhouse gases, perhaps we should find ways that also increase productivity and social well-being. For example, instead of pushing to make communities denser to make them sustainable, perhaps we may look for ways to make lower densities less energy wasting – for example, through the use of telecommuting and dispersion of work.

In many places, particularly in the developing world, lower-density development can be paired with local agriculture and artisanal industries. Bringing ever more people into megacities can be harmful in terms of human health and social development, and can even cause local warming, what is known as the "heat island effect." There has to be a way to commingle social preferences, economic performance, and long-term environmental goals. The world would be better off if we found it.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.

JOSEPH S. NYE JR., professor of international relations at Harvard University and former US assistant secretary of Defense for international security affairs

Idea: Why the US isn't Rome

Mr. Nye writes: Sixty percent of Americans think the US is in decline. A recent poll shows 47 percent think China's economy is stronger (though the Chinese economy is unlikely to equal the size of America's for another 20 years).

Why does it matter? Because a fearful, inward-looking US is less likely to provide leadership that the world needs to solve transnational challenges such as climate change, financial stability, cyber-security, and terrorism.

Americans are prone to cycles of belief in decline. Polls showed a belief in decline after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, after Nixon's economic adjustments and the oil shocks in the 1970s, and after the closing of Rust Belt industries and the budget deficits of the Reagan administration in the '80s. Such cycles of "declinism" tell us more about American psychology than real shifts in power.

As I show in my new book, "The Future of Power" (February 2011), rather than declining, the US is likely to have more military, economic, and "soft power" resources than any other country in the coming decades.

But to play a positive international role will require reforms at home: particularly in improving K-12 education, coming to terms with the budget deficit, and making repairs to the political process.

 

In recent years, American politics and political institutions have become more polarized than the distribution of opinions in the American public. As The Economist concludes, "The basic system works; but that is no excuse for ignoring areas where it could be reformed."

Top on the list should be eliminating the gerrymandering of safe seats in the House of Representatives and the blocking procedures in Senate rules and filibusters. Neither requires a constitutional amendment to change. The US political system is not as broken as implied by critics who draw analogies to the domestic decay of Rome.

Bill Nye

BILL NYE, educator, engineer, comedian, television personality, best known for hosting the children's show "Bill Nye the Science Guy." He is also executive director of The Planetary Society.

Idea: Let's launch a kilowatt revolution

Mr. Nye writes: Everything that you do affects everyone in the whole world because we all share the same atmosphere. There are several things we can do to fight climate change.

For instance, we squander about 30 percent of the energy in our homes. What's surprising is the amount of heat we lose through the area behind electrical outlet junction boxes. Insulate it and the rest of your house. Put in double-pane windows filled with inert gas. It lowers your electrical bill immediately and also makes your home much quieter.

There are economic advantages, too. You're paying someone to insulate your home and those materials are nominally manufactured in the US. It's what people these days call a "multiplier." We should have solar hot water systems. If you go to Beijing, every building has solar hot water on the top. Not because they're a bunch of hippies trying to live off the grid, but because the heat's free.

The car is the biggest decision you make with regard to the environment. Right now I'm driving a Chevy Volt hybrid car. Yesterday, I got 140 m.p.g. Plus, the pickup in an electric car is unbeatable. Why? Because the most torque an electric motor has is at zero speed. Very few gas-powered passenger cars can beat the Chevy Volt off the line.

It would be even better if we didn't rely on cars so much. I bet you know more than one person who drives his car to the gym to run on a treadmill to nowhere, and then drives back home!

We have to do everything all at once when it comes to climate change. If you save one kilowatt-hour, it's not that much. But if you have millions of people doing that every day, it adds up in a hurry.

Lisa F. Jackson

LISA F. JACKSON, Emmy Award-winning producer/writer/director of documentary films. Her latest, "Sex Crimes Unit," which goes inside the Manhattan district attorney's office, will air next summer on HBO.

Idea: Make my movie obsolete

Ms. Jackson writes: In 2008 I made a documentary film. The world would be a better place if in 2011 that film became totally irrelevant. The film is called "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo," and it describes in harrowing detail the plight of women and girls in that conflict-ravaged country. Eastern Congo is a living hell where it is more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier. It is a place where a battle for resources has killed more than 5.4 million people and where rape and sexual violence are the weapons of choice. Millions of people have seen my film, and as a result many thousands more have picketed, protested, and prayed that our leaders would make an effort toward ending that war, ending the deliberate destruction of women's bodies and ending the impunity that allows rapists to ravage at will.

In 2011, if resolving the conflict in the Congo is made a foreign-policy priority, if "The Greatest Silence" is reclassified as "history" instead of "current events" and the horrors it contains are seen as a record of what once had been instead of what is still happening, the world would be a far, far better place.

Bjørn Lomborg

BJØRN LOMBORG, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist" and "Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming"

Idea: Make green energy cheap

Mr. Lomborg writes: What one or two steps could be taken in 2011 to make progress in global climate change?

Accept that the current approach to global warming does not work economically or politically. Using carbon cuts to keep temperature rises under 2 degrees C would cost $40 trillion a year by 2100 and avoid less than 2 cents of climate damage for every dollar spent, according to research by climate economist Richard Tol.

The public has a low acceptance of expensive carbon cuts. Outside Europe, few leaders have managed to pass significant emission-reduction legislation. (The European Union's legislation will cost $250 billion. And what will it achieve? Standard climate models show that, by the end of this century, the EU's approach will reduce temperature rises by approximately 0.05 degrees C – almost too small to measure.)

Green alternatives are not close to being ready to replace oil and other fossil fuels. Change track. We will never succeed in making fossil fuels so expensive that no one wants them. Instead, we should make green energy so cheap that everyone wants it.

This requires much bigger investments in green energy. Research by McGill University's Chris Green for the Copenhagen Consensus Center shows that an investment on the order of 0.2 percent of global gross domestic product – amounting to about $100 billion – would help us create the needed breakthroughs. If we had affordable green energy sources, everyone – including China and India – would buy them, and long-term emissions would drop dramatically.

Richard Pound

RICHARD POUND, Canadian lawyer, former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, and former vice president of the International Olympic Committee

Idea: New sheriff to police sports doping

Mr. Pound may not charge his foe in shining armor like Ivanhoe, but he's on a crusade of his own – to rid sports of illegal drugs – and he sees a vast army gathering pace to join in the fight: governments.

Until recently, catching dopers was primarily done through testing athletes for an alphabet soup of banned substances. But increasingly, governments are casting a wider net, deploying everything from police investigations to congressional hearings to catch not only suspect athletes, but doctors, coaches, and others who have abetted their illicit behavior.

Pound rattles off a number of government probes starting in 2002 with the BALCO scandal in California, which eventually resulted in indictments against track star Marion Jones and baseball great Barry Bonds for perjury, noting that such actions serve the end goal.

"It doesn't matter to me whether you catch Marion Jones, Bonds, or [Roger] Clemens sticking needles in themselves, as long as you get them out of the competition," says Pound. "It's kind of like getting Al Capone for tax evasion."

As the inaugural president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, Pound spearheaded a global push to create a united front against dopers. Crucially, WADA got buy-in not only from sports federations, but 202 countries ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

 

Going forward, Pound sees a 50-50 partnership between sports and government authorities, where sport insiders serve as a CIA of sorts to provide intel on which drugs are hot, when it would be most advantageous for athletes to take them (to better target unannounced testing), and which athletes and coaches are suspect. Right now, he says, the policing is more like 90 percent sports officials, 10 percent government, but heading in the right direction with tougher laws and longer jail sentences. "The needle is moving," he says.

Matt Ridley

MATT RIDLEY, British journalist, writer, and businessman. His latest book, "The Rational Optimist," argues that humanity's collective intelligence will save it from disaster.

Idea: Fill it up with ... shale gas

Mr. Ridley's concrete idea for boosting humanity's fortunes in 2011 is not concrete – it's a gas. "Shale gas," he says. "If we put our minds to turning that gas into energy, well, it would change everything."

Challenging everything from climate-change alarmism to the idea that too much affluence is bad for the soul, the book makes the case for growth, progress, and faith in humanity. It even coaxed a rare essay out of Bill Gates, who objected to Ridley's claim that Africa needs industrialization rather than aid (it needs both, Mr. Gates said).

Now, Ridley is feeling optimistic about a gas that is produced from shale and is widely used in the US but not elsewhere. "The discovery that this abundant, geographically ubiquitous, and potentially cheap gas is within our grasp is enormous," he says.

"Making use of this gas, which is even found in Blackpool [England], would challenge Russia's and Iran's stranglehold on gas, so it would change the geopolitical picture. It would be good for the environment, too, since gas has half the amount of carbon of coal for each unit of energy."

"One of the key reasons living standards rose from the 1800s onward was because of the cheapening of energy and the reliability of energy sources. A new cheap and reliable form of energy could give our material lives and aspirations yet another boost."

Paul Harding

PAUL HARDING, musician and writer, whose debut novel, "Tinkers," won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He was also a longtime drummer for the rock band Cold Water Flat.

Idea: See beauty the way Keats did

Mr. Harding writes: I think it's a good idea to think about what you find beautiful, not in any trivial, insipid sense – as in what you find pretty – but in something like the Keatsian sense, of equating what is beautiful with what is true, and what is true with what, in the St. Augustinian sense, is divine. What we find beautiful is what we value. I think that if what we as a culture tend to value these days is looked at and called beautiful we might find the exercise sobering and as a consequence possibly helpful.

Bob Kerrey

BOB KERREY, president of The New School, a university in New York, and former US senator from Nebraska

Idea: Pick up a mitt and get in the game

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Mr. Kerrey writes: My advice for anyone wanting to make the world better is to believe that you can. All available facts should convince you that the billions of individual and collective actions that are taken every minute are improving life upon this planet. If they do not, then no advice from me or any other will persuade you to overcome cynicism with action.

More to the point, if you believe (as I do) that for every bad choice made by someone or some group there are eight or 10 good ones being made at that same moment by eight or 10 other people or groups, then figuring out what to do is pretty simple. For all that is necessary is to pick up a mitt and get in the game.

All that is necessary is to muster the requisite bravery to do something you believe will make the world better and the odds are in your favor that you will. And if you discover that the old woman you helped across the street didn’t want to cross the street or if the good you try to do turns sour in your mouth, don’t despair.

Keep your sense of humor and try again. The law of averages is on your side. The only reasonable guide for us is to make as few decisions as possible when we are angry, when we hate, or when jealously or prejudice blind us. We need beauty to remind us of what is possible and we need to keep on trying to make the world better, not perfect.