The Art of Strengths Coaching

D is for Archie Duncanson: Publishing ‘Ecology Begins At Home’

Archie

Ecologist Archie Duncanson set his heart on being a writer when he was a boy. Disappointed by his teenage attempts at fiction, he gave up.

Then, driven by his passion for the environment, he finally committed pen to paper and wrote his first book at the age of 40.

First published in 1989 Ecology Begins at Home is recognised as a standard reference book for people who want to make simple changes in their lives at home.

Here are some responses to his book.

The most important single book any citizen of the planet can read on environmental issues… amazingly clear and simple … immensely empowering … bursting with creativity and the fun of exploring. Pierre Pradervand, author of The Gentle Art of Blessing, in Cygnus Books reviews, April 2009.

An essential guide to low-impact living … easy steps we can all take at home to reduce our impact on the planet. Friends of the Earth, Scotland, 2006.

Read it in one sitting and fell in love with it … fun, immediately rewarding, and easy enough to do right this minute, Community Regeneration, Rodale Institute, USA, 1990.

Easy to read … practical little book. Archie use[s] the choices he makes to change the world. The Environment Centre, Swansea, Wales, 2009

An invaluable guide to reducing one’s impact … riveting… [for] even the most hardened environmentalist, Environment Magazine, UK, 2006.

The best book yet on how to green your lifestyle …makes the whole subject very clear and understandable. Permaculture Magazine UK, 2005.

Inspirational… within minutes I was implementing changes … If you are finding it hard to persuade family members, this book’s non-preachy methods might just work! Green ParentMagazine, UK, 2005.

The most genially simple and concrete guide to practical ecology out today. Should be spread in massive editions, not the least to children, who easily understand it and who are usually less habit-bound than we adults. Swedish Library Service 1990.

You can access the book here:

http://www.alternativ.nu/ecologybeginsathome/

Here is Archie’s story.

Background

As a boy I admired many writers and wanted to be like them. One was Thomas Paine who wrote essays on democracy at the time of the American Revolution. I admired him for speaking out for what he believed-in.

At the age of 13 I had nothing revolutionary to write about, so I tried to write a short story. I didn’t get very far—nothing came!

So I concluded that I wasn’t meant to be a writer and gave up. I became an engineer instead and enjoyed being creative in design and analysis.

As for writing, when I was far from home I wrote long letters to family and friends, giving a travelogue and sharing my reflections with them. I always enjoyed the writing—it gave me the feeling of having a conversation with a like-minded soul.

The years went by and still I felt I had little special to share, apart from my engineering work with colleagues. Then one day a friend who was part of an amateur poetry circle said they were putting out a little booklet of poetry, and asked if I would I like to do some drawings to illustrate the poems.

Despite apprehension and worry about criticism, I decided to give it a go. I had fun using my imagination and coming up with interesting drawings and I got only positive feedback. Thus at age 40 I took my first step out into the public eye.

Discouraged with the World, I Decided to Act

About this time, I became very discouraged with the world’s problems, especially the environment, and with what politicians and authorities were doing to solve them.

Nothing was happening; the environment was getting worse, not better! Out of this discouragement I one day decided to act and see if I couldn’t do something on a very small scale at home in my own little private world.

I set about trying to reduce my garbage – and succeeded, step by step! Then I began cutting down my laundry detergent, other chemicals and electricity. I repaired things instead of throwing them away.

I bought higher quality: fresh organic vegetables, cloth table napkins instead of paper, and other things that last. My life began feeling it had more quality and yet I saved money and pollution.

I was so satisfied with my experiments and results that I wanted to share them with others! But I wasn’t ready for a book yet. You might be, but I lacked the confidence.

So I took a smaller step, I wrote a three page letter describing what I was doing, how anybody could do similar things, and how satisfying it was – that we can each affect the big world problems with garbage, chemicals and energy by doing our part at home. I made one hundred copies and sent them out to friends all over the world.

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Soon I got back many positive replies. Friends liked the ideas and the fact that I had actually done something, rather than just thinking about it. My friend Carol wrote back:

“Someone should write a book telling us what to buy, what to eat, etc. for the good of the environment.”

My eyes fastened upon the word ‘someone’ and I thought: I could do that. The more I thought about it, the more I felt I was just the right ‘someone’.

I had the personal experience, I had the pedagogical skills to explain things simply and I had the desire.

I Decided to Share My Experiences

I put together an outline of the subjects I wanted to include in my little handbook for living ‘environmentally friendly’ – garbage, chemicals, food, clothes, the car, etc. I kept my list short because my intention was not to write an all inclusive reference book.

It was to enthuse and inspire into action others who were discouraged as I had been. I simply wanted to say, look, it’s easy to solve the world’s big problems, just start with your own share at home!

With that purpose I began writing, subject by subject. Instead of talking problems I gave example after example of my solutions.

Using my experiences as a teacher drawing on the blackboard, I used simple diagrams, pictures and tables to get the message across straight-away without a lot of words.

I kept it simple and made it fun, which was not hard since I myself had experimented with enthusiasm and watched my results grow with joy and satisfaction.

When I went to the library in the 1980’s to learn more, I noticed that most of the books on the environment were disheartening.

They detailed fully the overwhelming nature of the problems and solutions were described as being dependent on everyone changing their habits (“If everyone would take public transport to work instead of the car…”) which seemed unrealistic, if not impossible.

Most books were several hundred pages long, filled with small print that made green living seem like a difficult science in which you could make many mistakes if you were not careful. I saw my task as that of a good teacher, to provide the essentials in a given short time, and to make it enjoyable and interesting as well as useful.

With this vision in mind, I had to rewrite some sections of my text again and over again many times until I felt satisfied. The section on the car was the most difficult; I so easily fell into blaming the manufacturers and the oil industry. I had to step back and ask myself:

“What had I written that was new and interesting, that added to the positive alternatives and not just to the blame?”

I started with my rubbish

I knew that I did not have all the answers, but wanted to share the best of the ones I did have. So my approach to the car was to tell how happy and satisfied I felt every time I saved a litre of petrol by riding my bike or walking to the shops.

When I had a rough draft of the whole book, I showed it to friends. My reviewing friends were both encouraging and helpful in their comments.

Out of our discussions came new ideas for solving environmental problems in daily life and new thoughts about how to present the material to beginners. I am grateful still today for all the support that people gave me.

Finally, I was done to my own satisfaction. My story was told to the best of my ability and illustrated with my own drawings. I was ready to go to print.

Publishing My Book and Bringing It Home!

It came as a revelation to me that any person anywhere can go to a print shop and, for a fee, pay to have their manuscript printed and bound as a book!

In fact, most books throughout history were published privately, until the last century or so, when publishing houses came to dominate! I did not have the confidence to go to a publisher, so instead went to a special place in Stockholm.

This was the Writer’s Book Machine (Forfattares Bokmaskin), a nonprofit cooperative print shop where the author prints his or her book cheaply by doing much of the work themselves. This called for doing the layout, mounting, collating, binding, trimming – everything except the actual printing.

They were very helpful and I learned how to make a book. When I did the binding, which required handling each copy many times, I felt like an artisan from an earlier century. It strengthened the feeling that my book was a personal gift to each reader as well as to the world.

It is hard to describe the feeling I had when I brought the first printing of 500 copies home. After living with it for a year so intensively, like a pregnancy, here was my ecology book now in my hand!

As I looked at it, it almost seemed as if a stranger had produced it, and I could not fully comprehend that I had had the perseverance to handle all the thousand and one details that went into its making.

But, like finishing college or running a marathon, I had concentrated on one step at a time, and kept at it until I reached my goal. Like Pooh Bear, I felt very satisfied with myself.

CoverGreenE5

Spreading the Book in the World

I had no publisher to do the selling and advertising, so I sent the book out to magazines and newspapers in Sweden where I lived. I quickly got an excellent review in a popular green magazine, whose editor even offered to help me by selling the book via the magazine.

Despite the fact that the book was in English (a foreign language in Sweden), it received many glowing reviews. They liked its simplicity, positive attitude, practicality, and that it offered the reader a chance to make a difference. I was aglow! All my dreams had come true! I had succeeded!

From the magazine articles, people wrote or called me to order the book. I sold it for a low price to encourage its spread and usually sent them off the same day. I began translating the text into Swedish so that it would be in the reader’s native language.

The Swedish edition came out 4 months later, published at the same place. This time I dared to produce a thousand copies. They sold like hotcakes.

After a very fine review in the Swedish Library Journal, virtually every library in the country ordered it, so I went back and this time printed four thousand copies – the binding and trimming wasn’t quite as thrilling as the first time, but still very satisfying knowing that every reader, even in a public library, was receiving a personal gift directly from me.

Soon invitations were coming in from schools, communities and environmental organizations to talk about the ideas in the book. I had a lot of fun giving talks and meeting some of my readers and others who thought in the same way as I did.

It also gave joy and satisfaction, confirming my belief that people truly want to care for the planet–they just need to know that what they do makes a difference–and a little basic info on how to make better choices.

I loved telling about my many composting failures (before I got it right) and demonstrating how to cook spaghetti and pasta without extra water, saving half or more of the cooking energy. I showed slides from my home experiments and displayed gadgets that I had made.

I summarised my message with a one page handout titled “Archie’s Eco-Checklist”, which gave examples from my actions in the areas of garbage, chemicals, energy and food for the reader to check-off when they had tried them.

Within a year the book and its ideas were all over Sweden, spreading the joy and satisfaction of personal environmental responsibility to homes, day care centres and schools.

I also sent the book to international environmental organisations and to magazines in America, but with no response at all.

With a slight touch of bravado, I sent it off in 1989 to President Ronald Reagan, Soviet Premier Michael Gorbatjov, several European heads of state, Prince Charles of Britain and to the King of Sweden!

The book spread slowly in other countries through friends abroad and readers with international contacts. Due to the difficulty of selling internationally, I decided to send out free copies whenever requests came in.

Over the years I sent out more than a thousand free copies of the English edition to interested individuals around the world. Some wrote back describing their use of the book in environmental education, which was satisfying for me.

My address was in the back of the book, and I made many interesting acquaintances through this work.

In the U.S., I printed a separate edition and with the help of my sisters and friends sold about 500 copies but eventually gave away the rest. Without my presence and without distribution channels, the book never took off as it had in Sweden.

In my innocence I relied on individuals and NGOs to help me spread the book with its ideas, as had happened in Sweden. I had hoped environmental organisations would sponsor cheap translations and local non-commercial editions in different countries. Stubbornly, I refused all offers for commercial editions and so lost many possible translations, with all of their potential readers.

After six years of working with the book in Sweden, demand abruptly died off in 1997 and I had to look for other work. That was OK, because it had done its job in Sweden and I was ready for a change.

But I was not quite satisfied because I still had many copies in English in my cellar and it had never gotten off the ground outside of Sweden. As I took up other employment, I decided to give all remaining copies to libraries and schools.

I began sending them out to universities and public libraries in the U.S. Some appreciated the gift, but from most I never heard anything.

Ecology begins at home pages

Finishing a Dream

Five years and many library copies later, I got the idea to put the book on Internet – then the modern way to distribute information. There it would be available instantly to the entire world! It would also save me a lot of postage and trouble.

So I began revising the book for the Internet because by now 14 years had passed since the original edition, and there was room for many additions and improvements.

Still, much of the text stood the test of time, I believed, and the book could yet serve as an easily readable and practical introduction to living with fewer resources and less impact on the earth.

Just as I finished revising the book for Internet, and being a different person now, it occurred to me, wouldn’t an international publisher be able to spread the book and its message even better? I decided to give it a try, and sent the manuscript to five likely publishers.

One responded positively, Green Books in the U.K., the people who put out publications by E. F. Schumacher, one of my inspirers. I came to agreement with Green Books and rewrote the book with their editorial help to meet the British audience in the year 2004.

I was happy, but still not quite satisfied, because it was not readily available outside of Britain, and freight charges made it expensive. So I decided to finish my idea of putting it up on Internet, to which Green Books generously agreed. A few weeks later it was up for free download at:

http://www.alternativ.nu/ecologybeginsathome/

At Last: Peace, Joy and Satisfaction

Now, at last, I can relax, satisfied and peaceful. My work is done, my gift given. I have come to understand that what matters most in life is to give our gifts, whatever they are.

If I hold back, I feel stingy and unfulfilled – out of nothing comes nothing. When I give, I create something where before there was nothing.

I plant a seed that can grow into something and may some day give back—either to me or to someone else. I have learned that I must believe in myself and dare to do what feels right in my life, day by day, action by little action.

Each time I do that, I experience the satisfaction it gives at the time, and then with its memory even in all the years to come. And like a seed, the gift may grow, providing ever more joy and satisfaction, as it did with my first letter titled Ecology Begins at Home and sent out to a hundred friends.

When a dream, big or small, arises in your mind, seize the opportunity. Believe in yourself, in your own uniqueness, in your own special way of doing things, with your own something special to give to the world.

Publishing my book, and doing it myself, with my own hands at the Writer’s Book Machine, has meant more to me than anything else I have done in life, except being a father and teaching. Were I to die tomorrow, my life would be complete – my book is out, my message said, my gift given. Let me encourage you to do the same!

Ecology begins at home

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