Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on the Bayer Center blog in May 2009 and has been updated for relevancy, etc.
Sometimes I stay up later than I should at night, Googling issues of concern to me and thinking about the various wrongs in the world. I have been an activist in various capacities since my high school days, but as I age I find myself becoming more acutely aware of issues, concerns, and problems plaguing our planet, its people and animals. At times, I feel overwhelmed with the amount of work that needs to be done for things to improve. I wonder if we are all simply beating our head against the walls.
I was in one of these contemplative moods on the evening before I started to draft this blog post. At one point, a lyric from an old U2 song “Rejoice” entered my brain: “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.” That sent my thought train down a different track. I think this mentality – small, personal change – is likely the key to improving life on our planet and would be more effective than anything all the collective nonprofits in the world could possibly accomplish.
Suspend reality for a moment and imagine if every single person on this planet took personal responsibility for action, justice, and change in all arenas. Imagine a world where everyone made an effort to make the world a better place in small ways, rather than leave it to the nonprofit sector to fix things.
Then I started making a list of small things we could all try to do to make the world a better place. Here’s my top 8. (I tried to get to 10 and ran out of steam. As previously mentioned, this was drafted late at night.)
- Vote. Voting is one of our privileges and responsibilities as US citizens. Always remember that there are many people in the world who are not given this simple right and that we should be grateful that we are able to choose. Educate yourself as a voter, learn about the candidates and their platforms – don’t just vote for the people with the most prominent roadside campaign signs. The League of Women Voters is a great advocacy organization to get you started in the right direction – www.lwv.org.
- Volunteer. Nonprofits need volunteers now, more than ever. If you have an interest, a talent, or a skill to share, chances are there is a nonprofit out there that can use you. There are many ways to volunteer. Check out www.volunteermatch.org for volunteer opportunities in your neighborhood.
- Recycle. Even if you only recycle on a limited basis, perhaps only office paper or only cans, it’s better to recycle those items than not at all. Every little bit that doesn’t go into a landfill counts. Keep in mind that re-using and re-purposing items you own counts towards the greater good as well as recycling. Give things to a friend, a church, or a thrift store. Have a yard or garage sale. Find a creative new use for an old item. For information on recycling centers near you and information on how to recycle, visit www.earth911.com.
- Support small and local business. Yes, big-box stores and online retailers are convenient because they are often one-stop shopping. I sometimes shop at those types of stores too, but I’m finding more and more that I can frequently get the same products from local grocers and other vendors for nearly the same price. In addition, frequenting a small, local business is like visiting the bar on the 80s TV series Cheers – everybody knows your name. Supporting local business is good for our regional economy because it keeps the money here instead of sending it to the home office of a corporation in another state. A bunch more reasons can be found here: www.newrules.org/retail/why-support-locally-owned-businesses.
- Reduce your carbon footprint. Your carbon footprint is a measurement of your activities and how they relate to the emission of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. You can calculate a carbon footprint to gauge how environmentally-friendly you, your household, or your business is. (You want to see lower numbers here.) A side benefit of lowering your carbon output is that it also saves money! Calculate your carbon footprint and learn more here: www.carbonfootprint.com.
- Smile more. This may sound simple-minded, but think about it. It costs you nothing to do this and help brighten the day for those around you. There are a myriad of other benefits as well: www.thinksimplenow.com/happiness/the-art-of-smiling.
- Take care of your piece of the planet. Keep your home in good repair, pick up trash blown or thrown into your yard, and keep your office or workspace neat and attractive (as possible). Basically, just try to leave things in better shape than you find them. There are tons of resources online available to you: www.doityourself.com, www.diynetwork.com, www.organizedhome.com, etc.
- Buy less “stuff.” We are a consumption-oriented society. It’s no wonder; with all the choices we have available to us in the stores and online. Owning “stuff,” however, takes up your time, space, and psychic energy. All the things we own require a degree of maintenance and the more things we own, the higher the collective maintenance will be. Don’t buy into the gotta-have-the-latest-thing mentality. There’s a reason that companies spend billions annually on advertising. Buy “stuff” when you actually need “stuff.” Learn more here.
I know there will people reading this post that will say “but that’s unrealistic – we can’t expect people to act this way.” I say, if we don’t dream big and expect change, it’s definitely not going to happen.
For each item on this list, there are dozens, probably hundreds, of nonprofits out there already attempting to address the issue. As much as the nonprofit sector is my bread and butter too, we cannot continue to rely solely upon charitable organizations for change. We have to take steps as individuals.
Everyone knows and loves the Margaret Mead quote “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I also like this quote from her: “I must admit that I personally measure success in terms of the contributions an individual makes to her or his fellow human beings.”
The title of this article comes from a Terry Goodkind book: be the “pebble in the pond,” the small object (you) that eventually causes great ripples (changes) in the pond (our world). What could you be doing to make the world a better place? Don’t just think about it…start doing it, even if it’s something small! A lot of small changes combined eventually becomes massive change.