Monday, January 07, 2008

Just One Thing

Anyone who considers themselves an environmentalist has seen the “Gee-Whiz” factoids of how many small things can make a big difference. “If every household in the U.S. replaced just one package of 20 count drawstring tall kitchen bags made from virgin plastic with 65% recycled ones, we could save: 45,100 barrels of oil, enough to heat and cool 2,500 U.S. homes for a year; 824,800 cubic feet of landfill space, equal to 1,200 full garbage trucks; and avoid 16,800 tons of pollution!” “If every American home replaced just one light bulb with an ENERGY STAR, we would save enough energy to light more than 2.5 million homes for a year and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of nearly 800,000 cars.” These small changes add up in big ways. What if every household in America really did these steps? With today’s “Us vs. Them” mentality, that seems almost impossible.

“Doing my part” for the environment has always come easily to me. I was one of the “granolas” in high school, and wore my earthy t-shirts with pride. As an adult, I’ve been passionate about making our household an environmentally responsible one. We eat local, organic, and vegetarian. We shop with a mind to reduce packaging, we use all natural household cleaners, compost, drive a hybrid. Yes, I admit, I often go through the garbage at work to rescue paper and cans for the recycling bin. I am “That Crazy Environmentalist”. The many other folks out there, who like me are passionate about the environment, continue to inspire me to do even more. Sometimes it’s overwhelming for me. How must it look to someone who is just thinking about taking the first steps to being a bit more Green?

I’ve been thinking about how some extremes keep people from taking that first step. Someone who is thinking about reducing the amount of meat in their diet might walk away from the whole idea if they are given a vegan meal plan. It was when I was watching “Who Killed the Electric Car?” that I realized that this applies to environmentalism. One of the gentlemen in the movie said that there are people out there who think that to make a difference they have to keep their house frigid, drive a tiny car—basically make big lifestyle changes that they’re just not willing to make. I wondered, how many people out there might do just one or two small things, but don’t want to be an “Environmentalist”? How many of those people would be willing to make a change if a different approach were taken?

For us guerilla recycling, do-it-all Environmentalist types, we so often can’t stop with just recommending the compact fluorescent, the natural cleaner, the one step that if “every household in America” would do would create those Gee-Whiz impacts. We feel compelled to tell them about the 20 other “small changes” they could make. I’ve caught myself doing it so many times. “Just start with organic milk, you can find it anywhere these days. You’ll hardly notice the difference in cost, and it makes a big difference for the environment.” That should be enough, but I don’t stop there. “Next you can switch to organic yogurt and cheese, then switch all your veggies and fruits, then go to pantry products. Before you know it, you’ll be 100% organic!” At this point my listener is picturing their grocery bill skyrocketing and having to shop at one of those “weird” stores, and I’ve lost my audience. If Green Explorers feel they have to sell their car, reject new clothes, overhaul their diet, and more, they may choose to turn away completely.

I believe that many people want to do “the right thing”, but the fact is that Americans are a busy lot and we all have our own priorities. So let’s start with just one thing a month. No scary facts about our current energy supplies running out, rising sea levels, or even pollution. We could have a catchy tagline, like “Today, you made a difference.” Pair that with a simple fact, like “You changed just one light bulb in your house to a compact fluorescent, which means that this year you’ll use 2/3 less energy on that bulb, and keep more carbon dioxide out of the environment. Thank you.” That’s it-stop! Don’t tell them anything else; don’t ask even one thing more! It’s hard I know, but I really think that slow, steady, and reasonable approach will give us a far better chance of inspiring people to “be the change”. What’s more, this approach might change the mind of those who think that their small actions don’t really make a difference. Next month the “One Thing” might be dropping the thermostat one degree. The next could be using one recycled paper product. They’re all simple, easy to do things, without asking anything more.

I’m not the first to propose this. I’ve seen the simple ads in magazines that just ask the reader to drop the ‘zine in the recycling bin. Energy companies ask their customers to consider using more compact fluorescents. My fear is that we passionate environmentalists often scorn these small efforts as “slacktivism”, and snub these little steps as not making enough of a difference. The truth is these small steps are our chance to reach out to “Unlikely Environmentalists”. “Just One Thing” might seem doable where our 20-step plans are unthinkable. It may be that when people see that their small steps make a difference, they’ll take more steps. “I changed one light bulb; that was easy enough, why not do them all?” Maybe they’ll even be inspired to find out what else they can do. The point is that even if they only do that “Just One Thing”, it really does matter. That one thing is one step closer to getting those “every household in America” statistics into play. We can all take this approach with our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers, and see a real difference. I’ll be starting the monthly “Just One Thing” on my blog, and I invite you to do the same. For now, let’s start small. Reach out to one person, and ask them to do just one small thing. Tell them they make a difference.

January Just One Thing: Switch one incandescent bulb to a Compact Fluorescent. That's it. You'll keep 300 pounds of carbon dioxide our of the environment! Just one thing--thanks!
A shout out to David Roberts, who inspired this idea for me last year with this article, which I adore.


Emily said...

Great thoughts! I think experts of any sort often forget what it's like to be a newbie. Perhaps that would be a way to look at folks new to environmentalism - as neophytes, not as slackers. You can't build expertise overnight.

I especially like your point about helping people decided where to start (organic milk) and then stopping. Perhaps you'll get more info out through repeat inquiries than one big info dump.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! Perfectionism in any area of life can be crippling. (I'm inclined to say that as a reminder for *all* of us moms with long lists of 2008 goals.) Balance. Incremental change.

Over the holidays, I was home in NC where the prolonged drought has been waking people up to climate change, and I was encouraged when my right-wing, SUV-driving uncle shared that he's started shutting off the water while he soaps up.

Melicious said...

Yes! We've starting taking this small bite approach in different areas recently. It started with "just 15 minutes a day of decluttering" instead of "ohmygosh i'm never going to be able to spend 3 days straight just to get ready for company because my house is such a disaster."

It just makes the idea manageable and stops the paralysis. And once the paralysis breaks, there is momentum to do more that you originally planned. You set yourself up for success instead of failure.

My "new year's resolution" was to drive less . . . starting with taking the lightrail to work instead of driving. The idea of doing this every day seemed like too much so I thought I'd do it once a week. Well . . . I ended up parking near my job on Monday and taking the lightrail home. So now my car isn't even near my house and I've just been managing without it for the week.

Thanks for posting these ideas. They translate to all different areas of life.

Mia said...

Thanks, all.

Speedyima, it is great to hear that even the most deaf are starting to hear.

Mel, what a great idea to leave your car at work! I hope it continues to work out for you.

Juneau Eco Mommie said...

Is nice to hear of people who like me semi-obsess with their environmental footprints. Good to see you blogging regularly again :)

Mia said...

Thank you, j.e.m.!