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Chapter 14  Choosing to Do Things Actively

Bianca McHale, Reading: 25 April 2012

Dear Toby,
Your mother, Bianca, would love to write you a letter. However, at this stage, you are just two months old, and Bianca has a 24-hours-a-day job looking after you. Because of this, she doesn’t have the time or energy to write a letter, so she suggested that I write one on her behalf.

During the twelve years I have known Bianca, she has always been involved in a variety of activities intended to help other people and make the world a better place. The sheer diversity of these activities would make it difficult to write about them all in anything other than a superficial manner. However, there is an underlying principle that has run through many of her activities. So I will start by discussing that principle, and then afterwards provide some examples of what Bianca has done to make the world a better place.

14.1  Choosing an Active Role Instead of a Passive One

Many things in life can be done in either passive or active ways. For example:

You can listen to music (passive), or you can play a musical instrument (active).
You can watch fictional programs on television (intellectually passive), watch documentaries (intellectually active), or read non-fiction books (even more intellectually active).
You can watch a football match on television (passive), or you can go to a local park with some friends and play a game of football (active).
You can commute to work by travelling in a bus, train or car (passive), or by cycling (active).
You can eat pre-prepared food (passive) or cook your own meals from scratch (active).
You can let the elected politicians run the country (passive), or you can play an active role in your community and thus play a part in the running of it (active).

14.1.1  Doing Things Actively May Require Extra Effort

Doing things in an active way tends to take more time than doing them in a passive way. This is illustrated by the graph in Figure 14.1.

Figure 14.1: Effort required to do a task in a passive and active way

The graph shows that a small amount of effort is required to do a task in a passive way. If you switch to doing the task in an active way, then the amount of effort required shoots up. This reflects the fact that you might have to learn new skills or spend more time to complete the task. Or perhaps you will have to make inconvenient changes to your daily schedule. If you stick with doing the task actively, then after a few weeks or months, you will master the new skills or adjust to the new schedule, so doing the task will become easier. Eventually, the effort required to do the task actively will settle down to a new level, which still may be higher than the original effort required to do the task passively.

14.1.2  Personal Benefits of Doing Things Actively

Since doing something actively usually requires more effort than doing it passively, this raises the question of why you would want to do a task in an active way. The most likely reason is that doing the task actively brings you some benefits that outweigh the extra effort required.

For example, cycling (active) instead of driving a car (passive) offers several significant benefits. First, the annual cost of owning and using a bicycle is thousands of pounds less than the cost of owning and using a car. Second, (according to a book Bianca read) the fitness benefits of cycling far outweigh the risk of being involved in a traffic accident or the health risk of breathing the exhaust fumes from cars while you cycle. Because of this, cyclists tend to live several years longer than non-cyclists. Third, just like other forms of physical exercise, cycling is a great way to relieve stress. So if you feel stressed out when you leave work or school each day, then cycling home is likely to help you feel relaxed.

Likewise, it is easy to think of benefits of cooking your own meals from scratch instead of eating pre-prepared food: (1) it can save hundreds or thousands of pounds per year; (2) it is healthier; and (3) home-cooked food usually tastes better.

Even performing altruistic tasks can provide personal benefits. For example, doing volunteer work in a community group is a great way to make friends and broaden your social network.

14.1.3  Relevance to Making the World a Better Place

Doing things actively can often provide benefits not just for an individual, but also for the world. For example, I already mentioned some personal benefits of cycling, but cycling also benefits the world in two ways. First, cycling has a lower carbon footprint than driving a car. Second, unlike car exhaust fumes, cycling does not contribute to air pollution.

Likewise, preparing your own meals instead of eating pre-prepared food from supermarkets and takeaways offers benefits for the world. This is because there tends to be far less packaging on raw ingredients than there is on pre-prepared food. Thus, preparing your own meals reduces the amount of packaging waste that you throw into your bin.

The benefits to the world of doing things in an active way may be small when considered individually. But they start to add up when a person performs several tasks actively on a daily basis. And they can add up even faster if, nationwide, many people do those things in an active way.

14.1.4  Doing Things Actively Nurtures Perseverance

If you want to switch from doing a thing passively to doing it actively, then you first need to get over the hump shown in the graph of Figure 14.1. The extra effort required to get over that initial hump is too much for many people, and they give up. But people who continue making the effort until they get to the plateau on the far side of the hump are developing an important skill: perseverance.

The more you do things that require perseverance, the more your ability to persevere will increase. So, when you have put effort into doing one thing actively, you will then find it easier to put effort into doing a second thing actively, and then even easier to put effort into doing additional things actively. If that seems strange, then just consider that if you can learn to play one musical instrument well, then it becomes easier to learn to play a second musical instrument, and then even easier to learn how to play additional musical instruments. Likewise, if you can speak only your native language, then you might find it difficult to learn one foreign language. But once you have mastered that, it becomes easier to learn additional foreign languages. The same principle applies to doing things actively. At first it is hard, but it then gets easier as you learn to do additional things actively.

14.2  Examples of How Bianca Makes the World a Better Place

Bianca does a great many more things in an active way than do most other people. And because doing things actively often provides benefits to the world, there are many ways in which Bianca helps to make the world a better place. I provide examples in this section. Some of these examples involve me as well, but it has typically been Bianca who has initiated the activeness of a task, and I have just gone along with it, so Bianca should get most of the credit.

14.2.1  Reducing Household Waste

A few years ago, Bianca and I watched An Inconvenient Truth and The Story Of Stuff. Those documentaries encouraged us to reduce our materialistic ways, and we have been gradually incorporating the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle concept into our lives.

Bianca took charge of doing experiments to reduce our household waste. By doing more cooking from scratch, she cut down on the food packaging that was thrown into our landfill bin. By getting a compost bin, she cut down on the amount of food waste and grass clipping that also went into our bin. By switching from buying plastic bottles of milk from a supermarket to getting a home delivery of milk in reusable glass bottles, Bianca cut down on the amount of plastic containers that went into our recycling bin. (Sterilizing and reusing glass bottles is much more effective than recycling plastic ones.)

By making a series of small steps like those, Bianca reduced the amount of rubbish we throw into bins by about three-quarters. That reduction happened over the course of about six months. We found it to be a fun and intellectual challenge to think of additional ways to reduce the amount of rubbish we were throwing out.

We subscribed to the mail preference service, which is a way to opt out of receiving junk mail through the postal service. To cut down on hand-delivered junk mail, we put a sign on our letterbox that says we do not want to receive junk mail, leaflets, free newspapers, catalogues, charity bags, menus and so on. Those two steps have reduced the amount of unwanted stuff being put through our letterbox by about 99.9%.

More recently, Bianca’s decision to use washable nappies instead of disposable ones means we will avoid putting several tonnes of soiled nappies into a landfill site for each child we have. The use of washable nappies will also save us hundreds of pounds.

14.2.2  Using Freecycle and Freegle

Freecycle is a network of regional mailing lists that aim to keep items out of landfill sites. If you want to get rid of something that you no longer use, then instead of throwing it in the bin, you can send an email to your local Freecycle mailing list to offer the item free-of-charge to anyone who might want it. If somebody on the list wants the item, then they email you to arrange a mutually-convenient time to collect it.

Freecycle started off in 2003 as a mailing list for one town in America, but the idea quickly spread, and now there are thousands of Freecycle mailing lists in over 85 countries that, between them, keep over 500 tons of stuff per day out of landfills. A few years ago, many of the volunteers who managed Freecycle mailing lists in England had a disagreement with the head organisation (I can’t remember the nature of the disagreement), and they decided to set up an alternative set of mailing lists called Freegle (a phonetic abbreviation for “free and legal”). In this way, our local Freecycle list became a Freegle list, but since then another Freecycle list has started up in Reading, so we are spoilt for choice.

Whenever Bianca and I do some spring cleaning, we usually discover a few no-longer-used items that we can offer on Freegle. It makes us feel good to know we are not putting still-usable items in the bin, and to know that we are helping the recipients to save money.

14.2.3  Organic Food

For health and environmental reasons, Bianca decided that, wherever possible, we should buy organic or eco-friendly products instead of mainstream equivalents.

We have found that organic food tastes better than non-organic food, but it is more expensive. However, this additional expense has been largely offset by reducing how much pre-prepared food we buy and instead doing more cooking from scratch. Also, Bianca decided to become vegetarian (and I have reduced my meat consumption a bit), which has saved us more money because vegetables are cheaper than meat. I remember being surprised to learn that reducing our consumption of meat also significantly reduced our carbon footprint. Apparently, the carbon footprint of eating meat regularly is greater than the carbon footprint of having a car.

14.2.4  Household Cleaning and Personal Hygiene Products

Mainstream household cleaning products and personal hygiene products often contain chemicals that are harmful both to the environment and to humans. Because of this, Bianca switched to buying eco-friendly products that contain only natural ingredients.

Is, say, eco-friendly shampoo more expensive than a mainstream shampoo? Yes, if you compare it to the cheapest brand of shampoo you can find. But if you compare it to the well-known brands of shampoo that advertise on television, then it is not more expensive.

For many years, Bianca has suffered from recurring health problems, such as skin rashes. Switching to eco-friendly hygiene and household cleaning products has noticeably reduced the frequency and severity with which she gets rashes. And switching from using tampons to using a Mooncup has eliminated recurring thrush infections, while saving us money and reducing our landfill rubbish.

14.2.5  Eco-friendly Construction

Our house has three bedrooms. The largest bedroom is where Bianca and I sleep (and you too, Toby, at the moment). For many years, the smallest bedroom served as my home office, and the middle-sized bedroom served as Bianca’s home office, but was also used as a guest bedroom.

When we decided to have children—we hope to have two eventually—we realised that we would need a bigger house. We considered two options.

The first option was to sell our current house and buy one with five bedrooms: three bedrooms for us and our two children to sleep in, and the remaining two bedrooms for use as home offices. However, upgrading to a five-bedroom house would have cost us hundreds of thousands of pounds, which was beyond our means.

A second, and much cheaper, option was to construct a two-room building at the back of our garden. These two new rooms would serve as our new home offices, thus freeing up two bedrooms for use by our children. This option, which we chose, cost “only” tens of thousands of pounds, and was (just) within our means. This option also meant that we don’t have to move, which is great because we like the house and area in which we live.

I would have been content to have our home offices built with mainstream construction materials. But Bianca insisted we should look into eco-friendly construction options first. When reading up on this topic, we found that the carbon footprint of the mainstream construction industry is higher than the carbon footprint of the airline industry! One of the main reasons for this is that the process for manufacturing cement requires heating the raw ingredient to 1500 degrees centigrade—that temperature is reached by burning lots of fossil fuel. Construction techniques that reduce, or eliminate, the need for cement have a much lower carbon footprint. If you use a carbon-based material—such as wood or straw bales— as your primary construction material, then the carbon footprint of a building can actually be negative.

Eventually, we decided to have our home offices constructed from wood. Our builder estimated that the use of wood instead of mainstream construction materials added about 10% to the cost of the project. We felt that 10% “eco tax” was an acceptable price to pay, for two reasons.

First, sometimes you have to pay more to be eco-friendly. Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is.

Second, I mentioned in Section 14.2.4 that Bianca has suffered from recurring health problems, such as skin rashes, for many years, and that switching to eco-friendly hygiene and household cleaning products has noticeably reduced the amount of rashes she gets. Although these changes have improved Bianca’s health, she remains with some unidentified allergies. We think she may be suffering from what is known as sick building syndrome (SBS). Put simply, the materials used in the construction and furnishings of our house might be making her sick. When we decided to build home offices in our back garden, we knew we needed to avoid the possibility of introducing new causes of SBS. Hence, the few thousand pounds extra it cost us to have the home offices constructed from natural materials is an investment in Bianca’s health. As time and finances permit, we plan to replace carpets and laminated wood flooring in our house with natural wood flooring. We are slowly replacing flat-pack furniture (typically made from laminated chipboard or MDF) with solid wood alternatives, and will ensure we use paints made from natural ingredients when redecorating the house. In this way, we hope to reduce the number of artificial household furnishings that might be contributing to SBS.

14.2.6  Cycling

Bianca used to have a car years ago, but when it broke down and couldn’t be repaired, she switched to using buses to travel around Reading. Unfortunately, the bus service in our area is frustratingly infrequent. Finally, Bianca switched to cycling. When she found it was faster to cycle around Reading than to get buses, and that cycling avoided the stress of never knowing when a bus would finally arrive, she fell in love with this eco-friendly form of transport. We find that cycling serves almost all of our local commuting needs. A handful of times per year, when we feel the need for a car, we take a taxi. This combination of cycling with just an occasional taxi ride is thousands of pounds per year cheaper than owning a car.

14.2.7  Volunteer Work at True Food

I estimate that only about 1% of the food sold in UK supermarkets is organic. For anyone who wants to eat organic food, being able to buy such food can be a bit of a challenge. To overcome this, in 1999 a group of local people decided to pool their money so they could place bulk food orders with organic suppliers. Over time, this organic food-purchasing group grew. In 2004, they started holding once-per-week food markets in community centres around Reading. Then, about two years ago, with the aid of a lottery grant, they were able to open a shop called True Food; they still run weekly community markets, so they can make organic food available in different parts of Reading.

True Food is not run like a typical business. Instead it is a cooperative. Shoppers are encouraged (but not required) to volunteer three hours every four weeks to help run the shop and markets. For example, every Thursday, some volunteers help to set up a mobile market at a particular community centre. Some of those volunteers unload goods from the True Food truck, while other volunteers arrange those unloaded goods on tables. Once the set-up is complete, those volunteers can go home, and a second set of volunteers arrive to help run the market. Finally, when the market is closing for the evening, a third set of volunteers arrive to reload unsold goods back onto the truck.

This volunteering system provides benefits all round. True Food benefits, because the volunteers help to keep down the cost of running True Food. Customers benefit because True Food pass on that cost saving, thus helping to make organic food available at an affordable price. Finally, volunteers benefit in two ways. First, they receive some money-off vouchers to use at True Food as a “Thank You” for their efforts. Second, many of the volunteers—and customers—feel there is a real sense of community at True Food, which makes it an enjoyable place to shop.

For several years, Bianca volunteered at True Food to help set up one of the weekly markets. She (reluctantly) gave up this form of volunteering during late pregnancy. She has also been a member of the True Food committee but will step down from this position at the forthcoming AGM (annual general meeting), because raising a young baby does not leave her with sufficient time to devote to committee business.

In late 2009, when True Food was able to use lottery funds to lease a shop, volunteer help was needed to refurbish, clean and decorate the shop before it could open. This happened to coincide with our Christmas holidays, so Bianca and I spent ten days working with Alex, the shop manager, and some other volunteers to paint the shop. Then, soon after the shop opened, True Food printed leaflets to advertise it. Bianca and I spent another ten days delivering 7000 leaflets to houses in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Although True Food has grown relatively quickly, it is still in the “struggling to make ends meet” phase of a young business. Because of this, Bianca and I decided we would not spend the money-off vouchers that she receives for her volunteering. Instead, Bianca staples those vouchers to a promotional leaflet that contains the address and opening times of the shop and weekly markets, and she gives them to people she thinks might be interested in shopping at True Food.

14.2.8  Lifelong Learning and Passing on the Knowledge

Bianca gets bored watching television. Instead, one of her favourite pastimes is to read non-fiction books on topics she thinks might be useful to her. For example, several years ago, Bianca became disillusioned with the state school system—both as a career option and as a way to educate her future children—so she started reading books on home education. Likewise, when planning to have children, Bianca started reading books on related topics, including fertility, natural childbirth, breastfeeding, sign language (because babies can learn to communicate through sign language long before they learn to talk) and development during the first few years of a baby’s life. And, of course, when Bianca became interested in environmental issues, she started reading books on that topic.

When Bianca develops an interest in a topic, she is rarely satisfied to read just one book about it. Instead, she is likely to read five or more books. Unsurprisingly, this results in Bianca becoming very knowledgeable about such topics. And she is happy to share that knowledge. She loves sharing tips and advice with other knowledgeable people. And she regularly looks in charity bookshops and on the Amazon marketplace sellers to see if she can buy cheap second-hand copies of some of her favourite non-fiction books, so she can pass them on to others.

Bianca is not content to just read informative, non-fiction books. She also wants to write such books herself. For example, Bianca is fluent in four languages and, over the years, she has read hundreds of books on the topic of teaching and learning foreign languages. Many of these books were mediocre, but some were excellent. She has compiled an annotated bibliography of what she considers to be the most useful books, CDs, DVDs, websites and so on for learners of French. This 50-page document is called Effective Resources for Learning French, and she makes it available free-of-charge from her website. In the future, Bianca hopes to write annotated bibliographies on other topics, such as eco-friendly living. She is also writing a French grammar textbook that she plans to make available free-of-charge under an open-source license.

14.2.9  Politics and Protest Marches

Bianca and I have written to our local MP (member of Parliament) twice, and met him once, to express our concerns at a misguided proposal for a change in the law. We have also attended protest marches in support of issues we feel are important, such as home education, LGBT rights and environmentalism.

14.3  Final Words

“It takes ten years to become an overnight success.” The contradiction in that statement arises because the media usually focus on a person’s “sudden” success and ignore the years of work that preceded it. Such selective reporting gives the false impression that success often happens without much effort being required.

Contrary to what the media might have you believe, sustained work is usually required for any type of success, whether it be success in a career, or success in making the world a better place. And to be able to do sustained work, you need perseverance. As I discussed in Section 14.1.4, you can develop your perseverance skills by switching from doing something passively to doing it actively.

I urge you to take inspiration from Bianca’s perseverance in doing things actively. You don’t need to get excited by the specific issues Bianca is working on to make the world a better place. For example, if cycling and reducing household waste don’t particularly excite you, then don’t worry that you don’t share those passions with your mother (you will find other issues to feel passionate about). Instead, seek inspiration from how Bianca develops and uses her perseverance skills. For example, if you ask her about the journey she took from doing something in a passive way to doing it in an active way, including tactics she used to overcome any obstacles she faced, then you are likely to find useful advice.

All our love,
Mum and Dad

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