The world is beset by a wide range of problems, from pollution, disease and political corruption, to global warming, poverty and wars. But activist and author Michael Norton says the most serious problem in today's world is apathy: when people watch things go wrong and do nothing. He is calling upon each of us to change ourselves and change the world.
"Lots of people can do lots of little things and can make really a huge difference," he says.
Norton cites the worldwide campaign against global warming as an example, which he says got started when people began to make changes in their lives, because they were concerned about the environment. "For example, they started switching to green energy, cycling rather than going by car, stopping going by airplane: doing simple things in their lives that would make a difference."
Norton says, "When enough people started do that, the politicians took notice and they started think about what governments could do to make a difference. Governments can do a lot more than the individuals, but governments don't really do anything until there's pressure by people who showed that they care."
In his book, 365 Ways to Change the World, Norton suggests a variety of actions that people can do every day of the year to change the world for the better: recycling, giving blood, signing petitions, driving less.
In developing countries, he says, there is a great resource that can be used to make positive changes, but it is often untapped. That is young people.
"If young people were encouraged to care more about the future of their country," he says, "they could make a real difference to the world."
Norton is not only generating ideas, he is turning them into reality as well. Through his organization, 365 Ways Project [365act.com], he is setting up, promoting and supporting a variety of projects around the globe.
"One project I'm working on is called Otesha," he says. "That started when two Canadians returning home from a year in Kenya decided that they were fortunate and that young people in Kenya were not so fortunate. So they decided to set up something to make a difference."
They set up a company to market coffee produced by Kenyan farmers. The project helps bring in income to raise the standard of living in their villages.
Michael Norton also supports projects to help children learn about business. One project, called My Bank, "[encourages] young people in schools to set up banks, to save money and then borrow it to learn to develop their enterprise skills," he says.
Norton says another project called the Street Children's Bank is run by the children themselves. "[They] organize the bank, organize the accounts," he says. "They decide who gets loans to start a business. There are now about 20 Street Children's Banks in six countries in South Asia."
India Line Books is another project initiated and funded by Norton's organization.
"We are publishing books that can change people's lives," he says. "The books are on simple things like breast feeding, dental hygiene, how to make more money, rearing cows and ducks, and about human rights of one sort or another."
India Line Books is run by Supriya Bhalerao, who says the company has three goals.
"One is to give them good quality and useful published material," she says. "Second is to get them to use it by establishing reading clubs and giving them some kinds of other help." The third goal is "to eradicate illiteracy," Bhalerao says, adding the illiteracy rate in India is around 50 percent.
Bhalerao says this year India Line Books is publishing 100 titles and creating more reading clubs.
"We have around 20 or 25 reading clubs happening right now, where a book is read to a group of women members," she says. "They learn when someone else is reading out loud to them." Right now, she says the books are only published in Telugu, which is spoken in Andhra Pradesh state. But Bhalerao says there are plans to publish books in more languages, "so books will go to 15, 20 more states in India."
The newest effort to make the world a better place is the Members Project, which, Michael Norton says challenges American Express cardholders to come up with their own ideas of solutions.
American Express spokesperson Belinda Lang says cardholders have shown "a tremendous interest in environment in terms of becoming much more energy efficient, cleaning up the water supply (whether it is in Africa or local), reforestation, planting trees." Other people had ideas related to community development and education, "finding a cure for Alzheimer, screening for autism, helping our troops coming back home to reorient themselves to their families."
Lang says American Express will post the top 50 ideas and cardholders will vote on which one they want to support. "Then we will use the money that we've committed, which will be at least a million dollars, up to 5 million dollars, to work with an organization to actually fulfill that idea."
365 Ways to Change the World author Michael Norton says he hopes such projects will engage more people, so instead of just complaining about problems, they'll start taking actions to solve them. He especially encourages young people across the globe to come up with their own simple ideas and solutions to help create a better world.