An Author Tells How You—Yes, You!—Can Help Save Our Planet

updated 03/05/1990 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/05/1990 01:00AM

Since he began to write for a living seven years ago, pop author John Javna, 39, has churned out 20 books with flip titles like The TV Theme Song Sing-Along Song Book and Cool Tricks! A Grown-Up's Guide to All the Cool Things You Never Learned to Do as a Kid. "I'm a baby boomer; I grew up creating and consuming," Javna says of his publishing strategy. "I figure if I'm thinking about something, then at least 8 million other people are thinking about it too."

What Javna, now based in Berkeley, Calif., has been thinking about of late is the environment. When Northern California was afflicted by drought last year, "I wondered how much water I was using and how much I should be using," he says. "I couldn't get answers, not even from environmentalists."

That gave Javna the idea for his latest and most serious publishing venture. Assembling a team of writers and contributors who call themselves the Earth works Group, he and partner Julie Bennett published 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, a slender (96 pages), low-priced ($4.95) primer for environmental beginners. Once again Javna proved that he was plugged into the concerns of his generation. Although more than 660,000 copies of 50 Simple Things have been printed since November, many bookstores nationwide are sold out. One reason for the shortage is that, in the spirit of the subject, Javna insists that every copy be printed on recycled paper, and he's having trouble finding printers with sufficient supplies of such paper to keep up with the demand.

50 Simple Things' fast passage to best-sellerdom is all the more remarkable because Javna concedes that "there's nothing new here." All of the facts and figures in the book were distilled from government, trade or other environmental publications. "We've just presented the ideas in a new way," says Javna. "It's a style that's derived from TV. We've learned to think in bites—little bits and pieces."

Accordingly, 50 Simple Things offers what-to-dos—on dealing with pesticides and toxic wastes, on conservation and recycling (see box, page 92)—grouped by subject into 50 quick-read chapters of a page or two each. Item: Did you know that letting a car engine idle for more than a minute is less efficient than turning the engine off and starting it again? Item: During a beach cleanup along 300 miles of Texas shoreline in 1988, 15,600 plastic six-pack rings were found in three hours.

Throughout, the Earth works Group avoided a lecturing or castigating tone. "We're not parents telling people what to do," says Javna. "We didn't want it to be too heavy," adds Fritz Springmeyer, a freelance writer who helped dream up snappy chapter headings such as "Your Gas Is as Good as Mine" and "Leave It a Lawn." That approach underscored the book's basic message—"which is," says Javna, "you don't have to understand everything about a subject in order to do something about it."

Javna makes no claim of being an environmental expert. A New Jersey native—his father is a retired builder; his mother worked in public relations and had a decorating business—he dropped out of Ohio's Kenyon College in the late '60s to drift through the communes of Oregon. In 1972 he returned East and then, with a partner, founded a dollhouse factory in Vermont. Ten years later he sold his share of the enterprise to pursue the muse. "A friend had written a book, and it looked easy enough to me," he says.

Not quite. "I made just $2,500 the first year as an author," Javna remembers ruefully. Yet he slogged on and, as a direct result of his 1984 book, How to Jitterbug, he met Sharon Redel, now 35, a public defender for Alameda County. She asked him to teach her to dance and married him in 1986. They are expecting their first child this month.

As the Earth works Group accumulated environmental information, Javna and his colleagues began to practice what they preached. For starters, he installed a low-flow shower head and replaced incandescent light bulbs with more efficient fluorescents. Javna acknowledges that not everyone can follow everything in the book or do it all at once. "It's going to take a while to break habits," he admits. "Work at it at your own pace."

As a soon-to-be father, Javna takes a long-range view of his mission. He dedicated 50 Simple Things to "the not-yet-born," and he is completing a kids' version of the book, due for publication this spring, to teach the next generation what they can do to save the Earth. Like what? "Like being water-leak detectives," Javna suggests, "so they'll have fun while they're doing it."

—Dan Chu, Jane Ferrell in Berkeley

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