A common criticism of environmentalists by other environmentalists is the focus on  ‘small wins’ – things like energy efficient light bulbs, swapping to canvas shopping bags, saying no to plastic straws. The criticism is usually that this is a ‘rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic’ approach – something akin to “for god’s sake, sea levels are rising, the planet is warming, the oceans are acidifying, and your signature on an online petition, or using a reusable coffee cup isn’t going to fix this! We need huge, systematic change.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m under no illusion here, I know swapping to eco-friendly bathroom cleaner is not going to prevent the sixth mass extinction event that is currently underway. We cannot beach clean ourselves to a maximum 1.5C degree rise in global temperatures.

But it IS important. It’s important because of what it says about our collective mindset.

What started me thinking about this was watching a screening of Before the Flood, an environmental documentary presented by Leonardo Di Caprio. A particular quote in the film struck me:

Politicians are not elected leaders, they are elected followers. They will do what consensus wants.

Politicians represent their constituents. Extrapolating to wider society, businesses make or procure objects and services for consumers to buy. Politicians who don’t do what the electorate want get voted out, and companies that make products that no one buys go out of business.

So if you’re on the campaign trail or doing research & development, you look to public opinion. What is it that people really want? Do they want clean air, affordable renewable energy sources, and safe, sustainable products made by someone paid a fair wage? Or do they not care, in which case we can get away with something more polluting but cheaper, made by someone paid exploitative wages in terrible working conditions.

A big problem is that people tend to have a habit of saying they want something ‘good’, but not following it up with actual action. A recent report by RECOUP (RECycling Of Used Plastics Limited) noted that a 2014 consumer insight study found “Three quarters of respondents stated that they were ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ interested to find out more about what happens to their plastics.” Well that sounds great – it indicates that most people have at least a passing concern to what happens to, for example, the disposal of their empty plastic bottles.  So given that 98% of local authorities are now collecting plastic bottles at the kerbside (i.e. at your own home, so minimal effort required), why are only 52% of plastic bottles actually recycled (a stat in itself that is much higher than most other single use plastic products)? If it turns out people don’t care that much after all, why bother to go to the extra effort?

This is why we have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. By changing to energy-efficient light bulbs, refusing plastic straws, signing petitions (such as *hint* this excellent one to have a 5p charge on disposable coffee cups), switching to a green energy company, choosing the vegetarian option every once in a while, taking public transport, buying second-hand, not buying something you don’t need in the first place, sharing your lawnmower with a neighbour, emailing a company to ask about their supply chain, installing a water butt, leaving your excess packaging at the supermarket checkout, printing on both sides of the paper – we aren’t just making one small gesture that doesn’t make any difference, we’re sending out a message about our values, our expectations and the kind of society we want to live in. If we put our money where our mouth is and live by the values we say we want, we’re much more likely to be a. believed and b. taken seriously.

Of course our actions shouldn’t stop here – I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to carry on and lobby for change, join pressure groups, attend protests. But if we want our governments and our societies to take us seriously, it needs to start with the actions that govern our everyday lives.

7 thoughts on “Why small actions matter

  1. Well said, Pip. It all comes down to little actions at the individual level, so when it comes to change no win is small.

    It makes sense that the ‘noise’ these actions make in encouraging others has a greater impact than the choice of one straw, so again no win is small.

    Not so sure about “not buying someone you don’t need in the first place”, possibly a typo? 🙂


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