Review: Imagining systemic change

November 1, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Review: Bruce Nixon’s A Better World Is Possible


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It is easy to lapse into cynicism when the world is so royally messed up and fortified against serious reform. How does one begin to understand the complexities of climate change, Peak Oil, ecosystem destruction and poverty — not to mention dozens of other scourges — and how they may be interrelated? How does one begin to pursue credible solutions and build practical alternatives? Paralysis is an entirely natural response.

But hope and creativity are also part of the human condition. They just need an intelligent framework through which to focus their energies. That is an apt description of Bruce Nixon’s new book, A Better World Is Possible, which seeks to provide a useful, one-stop guide to the urgent problems of our time and outline the most promising directions forward. The book’s subtitle explains it best: “What needs to be done and how we can make it happen.”

There is a temptation among many social critics, especially academics, to believe that penetrating critiques are adequate. The truth is that the more urgent challenge is to learn about the many positive, workable solutions that might actually transform our broken political and economic system. Nixon takes this challenge to heart and devotes more than half of his book to describing in detail the principles and projects for building a better world.

The virtue and limitation of A Better World Is Possible is its simple clarity. Without getting lost in the weeds, it synthesizes a large literature about the current economic crisis, ongoing ecological decline and myriad social problems. This is an important task for anyone seeking to mobilize citizens to take action. “The two key arguments of this book,” Nixon writes, “are: The whole global system has to be transformed to serve everyone, everywhere. [And] we ordinary people need to turn our anger into effective action to bring about radical change.”

Nixon then sets about “making sense of the situation we are in,” which in his account is the story of “how we, 6.7 billion people, are robbed and our futures are endangered by a few.” Nixon does not hide his passions behind the veil of academic neutrality or policy expertise. He speaks as a citizen justifiably outraged by the deceptions of politicians and CEOs and failures of our democratic institutions. Yet he is determined to showcase the real opportunities for change and hope. He writes as a pamphleteer aiming to argue, inflame and galvanize readers to take action.

Through a series of interlocking chapters, Nixon covers a lot of ground with a broad brush. A chapter on the financial crisis patiently deconstructs how the financial industry devised an enormous global Ponzi scheme and then used neoliberal ideology to cloak it in high-minded public purpose. Another chapter describes the troubling decline of democracy and how this has enabled the corporate class to win legal protections, subsidies and other privileges for its dubious, self-serving schemes.

The failures of democratic governance to oversee the market is a key reason why we have so many overlapping ecological crises today, all of them inflamed by a commitment to relentless economic growth and an economy based on mountains of debt. Our ecological plight is also directly related to the corporate form itself, which assiduously externalizes as many costs as it can onto the environment, communities and future generations. Modern societies remain tethered to these ideals — economic growth, debt-driven market activity and the corporate form — even though they are no longer credible answers for the problems that we face. And yet the alternatives remain dim in many people’s minds.

It is here that Nixon devotes a great deal of energy, outlining some of the most promising policy solutions and self-directed projects now available. Most of these solutions involve building a new “green economy” that is based on different forms of governance, global institutions and trade policies. He outlines, for example, the vision of food sovereignty and security that many communities are pursuing. He extols the virtues of bioregionalism and localization, and the need for communities to have real choices in managing their economic futures. He describes the promise of the commons; the appeal of the Transition Town movement; and many working projects that could be taken to greater scale in the future. For example, Bristol has made itself into one of the most cyclist-friendly cities in the UK. Dongtan, China, is pioneering dozens of new green innovations in urban design. Permaculture projects are showing new ways to grow food profitably and sustainably for local consumers.

While A Better World Is Possible is a wonderful showcase for many emerging projects and ideas, it sometimes reads like a scattershot list of alternatives — when what is really needed is a strategic guide to the pressure points that could truly effect change. That, indeed, remains the elusive goal of contemporary activism: What strategies can make change happen in our political culture? With the problems so large and intertwined, how can the concerned citizen become a credible agent of change?

The initial answers, paradoxically, may lie at the smaller, more local scales of engagement: in the patient rebuilding of local communities; in the development of new modes of local food production and distribution; in the building of new green technologies and social practices. In short, in imagining and building new sorts of commons.

At some point, however, the small-scale revolution now emerging in so many locations must “go wide” and become a more coordinated, shared public message. It will require a federated movement of grassroots-fueled change. That is the only way that the current system can be displaced and new alternatives launched. Nixon’s book takes us to a high plateau from which we can contemplate this larger mountain. Now we just need to figure out the best path forward.


David Bollier is an independent commons scholar who works with the Commons Strategy Group and blogs at He is the author of ten books, most recently Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own This article, © David Bollier, 2011, is released under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.

Bruce Nixon is a veteran “change agent”, sustainability consultant, OD consultant, writer, facilitator, speaker, business school teacher, activist, researcher and mentor. I gained corporate experience in many sectors, in London UK, Jamaica and North America, first in HR, later in strategic leadership development and internal consulting.

David Bollier

David Bollier is an activist, scholar, and blogger who is focused on the commons as a new/old paradigm for re-imagining economics, politics, and culture. He pursues his commons scholarship and activism as Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and as cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group, an international advocacy project. Author of Think Like a Commoner and other books, he blogs... Read more.

Tags: Activism, changemaking, social change