We Cannot Underestimate the Power of Individual Action
An old man had a habit of early morning walks on the beach. One day, after a storm, he saw a figure in the distance moving, seemingly dancing. As he came closer he saw that it was a child and they weren’t dancing, but were reaching down to the sand, picking up a starfish, and very gently throwing them into the ocean.
“Child,” he asked, “Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?”
“The sun is up, and the tide is going out, and if I do not throw them in they will die.”
“But do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.”
The child listened politely, paused, and then bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying, “It made a difference for that one.”
The old man looked at the child inquisitively and thought about what they had done. Inspired, he joined them in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved[i].
This story, originally published in 1969 by Loren Eiseley, was retold to me several years ago in my environmental history class. We were discussing the role of the individual in the fight against climate change and my professor shared this story as an optimistic perspective on the power one person can have. I don’t remember very much from that lecture, but the story has stuck with me over the years because it spoke to my personal optimism. I genuinely believe that the small decisions we make each day cause ripples in our communities and beyond.
When it comes to sustainability, I know I’m nowhere close to stamping out my carbon footprint, but I’ve definitely reduced my consumption in recent years. I’ve made lots of little changes that work for me and my lifestyle, like buying used as often as I can or investing in reusable items over disposable ones. These changes help me feel that I’m not only talking about living in a more sustainable world, but I’m taking action every day to live more sustainability. I can also see the impact that my approach has made beyond enhancing my sense of purpose. Not everyone I’ve come across has understood my desire for individual changes, but at the same time, many people have responded positively. By me sharing the changes I’ve made, I’ve heard people talk about stopping buying plastic water bottles and purchasing a filter, grabbing a reusable container instead of a disposable zip bag, or ditching disposable blades and investing in a safety razor. I know that may sound like small changes, but to me, they demonstrate that people are starting to pause and ask “do I need this, or is there a better alternative?”, and in my experience, the motivation to seek those better alternatives continues to grow.
At the same time, I certainly hear the doubts about how much of an impact one person can make. One of the most common responses I hear in my daily life and online in the comment sections of articles or videos about reducing your own footprint is “100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world’s emissions, we should be focusing on them!”[ii] People also point out that individual responsibility is a concept peddled by oil companies to shove the blame onto consumers. In 2019 BP even tweeted a link to a carbon calculator that they created, encouraging people to share how they plan to reduce their footprint[iii]. Essentially, the argument against taking these individual actions is that they are too small and divert our attention from the truly responsible parties.
I think that my sentiment towards this response to individual action has been summed up by Jonathan Van Ness in an episode of his podcast Getting Curious: “I think that it’s a ‘both-and’. I don’t think that it can be ‘either-or’ and I think that being so black-and-white about it is really detrimental because we do ultimately live in a capitalist economy and if you can’t show that there’s a demand for something, then they’re never going to supply it.”[iv] Van Ness argues that we as a society concerned with climate change don’t have to and shouldn’t choose between taking individual action and creating widespread, systemic change. Realistically, given our current global economic systems, a very effective way to create short-term change is with our consumerism because companies will respond to our spending. We’re already seeing this approach in action with Generation Z.
Generation Z (people born between 1997-2012) is gaining more attention as it enters adulthood and is emerging as a key market for companies. It is known to be more conscious and savvy in consumer habits than previous generations and more likely to prioritize sustainability over brand names[v][vi]. Notably, it is also quick to call out greenwashing, a practice to make products and brands appear more sustainable than they actually are. There are numerous instances of companies being criticized on public platforms for their greenwashing, for instance, a Tik Tok from 2021 focused on so-called “refills” in Kim Kardashian’s SKKN line gaining over 1.5 million views[vii]. Companies are well aware that they need to make environmental changes in order to remain competitive for this target audience and we can see through pledges to reduce plastic, carbon emissions, and more that steps are being taken.
Again, we do not have to choose between bottom-up and top-down approaches to fighting climate change. In fact, we need to approach it from all angles, including our lifestyles. By being the change we want to see in the world, by making choices each day for ourselves and for the planet, and even by picking up a few starfish, we can shift the culture around us to enable society-wide change.
[i] Adapted from Eiseley, Loren C. The unexpected universe. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1969.
[ii] "Just 100 Companies Responsible For 71% Of Global Emissions, Study Says". The Guardian, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change.
[iii] @bp_plc. “The first step to reducing your emissions is to know where you stand. Find out your #carbonfootprint with our new calculator & share your pledge today!” Twitter. Oct 22, 2019, 7:08 AM. https://twitter.com/bp_plc/status/1186645440621531136
[iv] Van Ness, Jonathan, host. “If Faith Moves Mountains, Can It Also Move Climate Action? With Dekila Chungyalpa. Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness, Earwolf. 20 Jul 2022. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/getting-curious-with-jonathan-van-ness/id1068563276?i=1000570564347
[v] "The State Of Consumer Spending: Gen Z Shoppers Demand Sustainable Retail". First Insight. 2021, https://www.firstinsight.com/white-papers-posts/gen-z-shoppers-demand-sustainability.
[vi] Wood, Johnny. “Gen Z Cares about Sustainability More than Anyone Else – and Is Starting to Make Others Feel the Same Way.” World Economic Forum, 18 Mar. 2022, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/03/generation-z-sustainability-lifestyle-buying-decisions/.
[vii] asocialantics, 17 Jun 2021. https://www.tiktok.com/@asocialantics/video/7110294466249886981?q=greenwashing&t=1675895197325
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