Thursday, January 15, 2009

In defense of baby steps

Note: Hi, Melissa again. I know, I know, two blogs in one week...but Jenn deserves the occasional break, right? And there's been more than usual inspiration for me of late, so I thought I'd run with it!

I mentioned in my last blog that I went to an event put on by Ayer Local, a new group in my town that's out to put the spotlight on sustainability and getting residents motivated to buy goods and services locally.

The group is getting its name out there to the town via a series of monthly movies, and the first was The Story of Stuff, an animated short about the impact that the lifecycle of the products we buy has on the environment, natural resources and communities.

Afterward, we split into groups of eight to 10 people to talk about the film. The evening's moderator (one of our town selectwomen, I'm thrilled to report!) gave us some questions to get the talk flowing.

So this one particular set of questions was, “What can you as an individual/your family/your community do to change things?” A few people volunteered some answers, mostly upbeat and positive.

Then one woman said, and I'm paraphrasing a bit, “I recycle my handful of seltzer water bottles and beer cans at home, but I work a few days a week at a restaurant in Concord, and they don't recycle at all. You know, it's like that statistic in the film, where for every can of trash we put out at the curb, there are 70 cans of waste upstream that were generated in making what we are now throwing away.

“I sometimes think," she continued, "that the emphasis on individual actions is a distraction, to keep us from thinking about the bigger picture, when what we should be doing is writing to our representatives and getting politically involved.”

She seemed somewhere between impatient and resigned. I'd only just met her, so it was hard to tell. She did mention having been concerned with many of these same issues since the 70s, so obviously she cared.

I saw her point, I really did. But I couldn't agree completely. Yes, people do need to hammer away at their elected officials and elect ones who will make sustainability and other environmental issues a priority.

But what this woman said seemed to imply that everyone doing their bit – whether it's recycling or reducing their carbon footprint or buying local – isn't really relevant, in the grand scheme of things. So if we don't all individually become legislators or climate-change scientists or globally-recognized environmental advocates, is there any point?

For my part, the answer is a resounding “yes!” It's perfectly true that just putting out the recycling or unplugging our appliances, individually, is not going to solve the climate change problems we're facing, but not doing it definitely just worsens the situation.

And it's more than that: Taking these steps, and letting others know we're taking them, and why, creates a ripple effect. Here is the key thing: even if having every person on the planet recycle, or unplug appliances (OK, these are just examples, I do know there are more critical actions we could take!) isn't enough to save the polar icecap, it seems to me that the more we begin to move in this direction, the further we want to take our efforts. We inspire ourselves and each other.

So if someone sees you take the initiative to, say, take some of your restaurant's bottles and cans home to recycle them yourself, maybe they'll help you. Or maybe they'll be fired up to find out how to institute a real, full-time recycling program for the restaurant. And when they do that, maybe they'll be so pumped up, they'll run for office and start working the system from the inside, and wind up writing or at least passing some piece of legislation that helps save the planet. Or maybe you'll do all that yourself!

Yes, that's probably a bit extreme. But it could happen. Of course, everyone's not going to become a legislator, or even write to their elected representatives. But the little steps matter because, without them, some people would never get moving at all. Baby steps move us all forward, however incrementally. And that is the direction we need to go.

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