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How to Change the World

I wanted to write another book. The previous two were regularly described as "fun" and "funny," but this one would be based around the ideas of Gene Sharp, the Boston-based academic once described as the "Clausewitz of non-violence." (Are you still with me? Hang in there for a second.)

Sharp's work inspired and underpinned the wave of peaceful revolutions that swept across Eastern and Central Europe in the late '80s. More recently, it helped to inspire the Arab Spring.

For a long time, I thought my book might be called 198 Ways to Bring Down a Dictator without Violence. But that wasn't to be.

I want to be very clear: I'm a huge fan of Sharp, whom I've had the privilege to meet. But I didn't get very far with my book idea. And perhaps that's because I don't personally want to bring down any dictators.

To say this is not to say that I think dictators are great or support them in any way. I know there are plenty out there, some of them real stinkers, but the truth is that they're far away from me and my life, and they're just not on the top of my list of priorities. Anyway, Sharp had already written many quite brilliant books telling people how to topple dictators, and most are available as free downloads on his website.

So it was quite a relief when a fresh idea came to me.

Alain de Botton sent word he was looking for books in a series to be published by The School of Life — which he founded in London and where I teach occasionally. Without thinking it through especially carefully, I said: I've got a book for you. It's called How to Change the World.

The title was, I admit, provocative. When I say it, people always raise their eyebrows and laugh, then say something like: "Just a small thing!"

And I laugh back.

It can be a small thing, because changing the world doesn't necessarily mean changing the whole world — it can also mean changing your worldchanging the world doesn't necessarily mean changing the whole world — it can also mean changing your world. But even that can be massive, because when you make a difference locally, the impact can spread far and wide. We all have the capacity to be an inspirational example to others.

Gene Sharp / Photo by Ruaridh Arrow

Everybody wants to change the world. We worry about things that seem wrong and we want to stop them. Or we have beautiful dreams, which we'd like to bring into reality. For most of us, both things apply. We want to put an end to war, get to know our neighbors better, help our friends when they're unhappy, teach the world to sing, or whatever — fill in your own example.

But what about Sharp? Well, when I was researching the book, I realized that political change always starts with change at the individual level. And I realized that Sharp's teachings on political action necessarily apply to individuals as well as mass movements. His 198 actions fall into three broad categories:

Draw people's attention to the issue that concerns you. (They may know about it already but not take it seriously, or they may have no idea.)

Stop supporting the things you don't like. (Boycott a particular store, or cease to reinforce a negative atmosphere at work by, e.g., refusing to be sarcastic like everybody else.)

Build a better alternative. (You name it!)

On this last blog post, I would like formally to thank Gene Sharp. I can't imagine a better way to describe what's required, whether or not you intend to topple a dictator.

More from John-Paul Flintoff:

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John-Paul Flintoff is an author, broadcaster, and journalist. He has written several books, including Sew Your Own, in which he investigated sweatshops and global resource shortages. He lives in London. How to Change the World is his latest book.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. How to Change the World (School of Life) Sale Trade Paper $7.98

John-Paul Flintoff is the author of How to Change the World (School of Life)

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