Sometimes it’s all you can do to get out of bed in the morning. We’ve all been there. Sometimes, like now, very little progress can be made on things. The next election is an eternity away, the bill is stalled in Congress, payday won’t come any faster. The trash is piling up in the streets—
Wait a minute.
Okay, I can’t clean up the neighborhood. But I can keep that wiggly plastic bag from hitting the water and becoming an enticing jellyfish to a marine mammal. I’m walking that way anyway and there’s a trash can at the end of the block. It’s hardly any effort to bend down and swipe it off the ground as I pass.
I can’t ban plastic bags all by my lonesome, but I can keep a few reusable bags in my pack or in my car and use them whenever I buy something.
I can’t stop Starbuck’s from using paper cups and plastic lids, but I can carry my own cup and stop using them myself.
I can build small actions into my life in such a way that they take next to no energy. I can create a new routine for myself so that these things are just the way I handle these everyday tasks, and as they disappear from my bandwidth I can look for more things to add. I can spend my energy on the big things, like town hall meetings, letters to the editor, protests—you get the idea. The most important benefit is the new mindset I’ve created for myself. I’ve become part of the solution instead of the problem. A person who picks up trash doesn’t create it. A person who actively looks for ways to be of use will find them. And it feels good. It fills part of the hole in my heart that living in a neighborhood full of trash and tags can create. The new way of life that will get us to a future we can all live in starts with me.
What does that future look like to you? What do you see around you that has to stop? What do you see around you that we need to see more of? Most importantly, how can each one of us facilitate it in ways that don’t alienate others? For instance, I was recently at a large event. The organizer bought bottled water for an outdoor lunch. Given the situation and the community level of awareness, it was the best choice, and she’d committed herself to recycling the bottles. Yet people still complained. I was part of the work crew for this event and someone took it upon themselves to snipe about the choice to me. I took a deep breath and chose my words carefully. I had a pewter tankard of water in my hand, and I said as nicely as I could that it was our choice to take a water bottle or not. If they preferred, there were glasses in the dining hall and tap water. I don’t believe I changed a mind, but at least the subject was dropped. And my choice was clear, in my hand.
I find it very freeing to eschew guilt whenever possible. We are, after all, not necessarily the ones who caused the problem, but we are responsible, both for our choices, and for cleaning up the messes we have inherited. There’s no one else, after all, and we are responsible for the world we leave to the next generation. Will they curse our name, or revere us as the ancestors who made the right choices when it was crucial?
Our small actions add up. What we pay attention to grows. How many plastic bags have been avoided by the fact that reusable bags have become a fashion statement? How many pounds of garbage have I pulled out of the woods, a pocketful at a time? How many pounds of garbage can we avoid generating in the first place by choosing to buy quality items, avoiding over packaging, and using things until they wear out? What other changes will occur to us as a result of these small actions? Slowly, the feedback loops that spin towards extinction move more slowly—then stop—then slowly begin to spin the other way…
“such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere” —JRR Tolkien