"What I do won't make a difference"...Oh yes, it will
"Those famous people zooming around in private jets,", "The massive over-consumption of Christmas," or, "COP28 is a joke." If we look, there are reasons to feel downhearted about the environment. Which can lead to us feeling, why should I bother going out of my way to be sustainable, when no-one else cares?
This happens to me, too.
Here's are some reasons 1 person can make a difference - the ones I remind myself of, to get out of feeling helpless and back into active hope.
1. Our children are watching: they think what we do is normal (at least until they hit tween/teen years as mine has just done, but I sense they'll come back to our way of doing things thereafter!)
For example, my daughter has grown-up with getting what we need pre-loved, and re-homing what we are done with, via Adverts.ie or our local Freecycle group. And she thinks reusables - from cleaning cloths to Christmas crackers - are normal, because that's all she's ever known at home.
So we have the opportunity, in our actions, to set a new, better "normal" for the next generation. That's a big difference!
2. Our friends, neighbours and families are watching. In a survey by Cardiff University, half of the people who knew someone who had quit flying for climate said they now fly less because of their example.
A friend visited at the weekend and we admired her Christmas jumper; she looked embarrassed and said it was Shein (the world's most unsustainable brand) but she'd gotten it as a gift from her friend. I wouldn't have asked her where she'd gotten it from. And I definitely wouldn't have commented on the sustainability of the brand she was wearing. I don't believe in shaming people: although we can all help fix it, the brokenness of our world isn't our fault. But rather, it just that she knew how active I am for our environment, so she put a kind of peer pressure on herself to do likewise around me.
3. "...said 8 billion people." If everyone decides their own actions had no impact, we are in big trouble. What each of that 8 billion does adds-up.
4. Actually it's not 8 billion people. It's the richest 800 million - and if we earn minimum wage or above in Ireland, this includes us. This 10% of the world's population generates half the lifestyle carbon emissions (source: Oxfam); or put another way, every small improvement we make has a disproportionate positive impact.
5. Good actions are mutually-reinforcing. I can only get things I need pre-loved because someone else went to the effort to Freecycle or sell rather than dump them. And an eco toystore only exists because enough people choose to shop there.
6. Someone has to be the pioneer, before regulation or social norms make that behaviour the new normal. I've mentioned the Irish plastic bag levy before, I find it instructive:
- Pre-levy, bringing your own bag to the supermarket was I reckon 0.1% of people...the Zero Waste community...the hippie weirdos (a term I use lovingly, and that includes myself!) They pioneered the solution to plastic bag litter.
- In 2022, the consumer levy on plastic bags took us from 328 plastic bags per person per year, to just 14! It made "bringing your own bag" something most people did, most of the time. SUCCESS! The solution went mainstream.
7. The tipping point - from minority to majority - is surprisingly low. A 2018 study published in Science tested what percentage of the population is needed to reverse a majority viewpoint...the answer was just 25%. At and slightly above that level, contrarians were able to “convert” anywhere from 72 to 100 percent of the population to their (previously minority) viewpoint.
For protests, the percentage is even lower - known as the "3.5% rule." A political scientist at Harvard University found that nonviolent change protests are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns, and it takes around 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious political change.
8. It's not about perfection. Sustainability needs most people doing most things right most of the time. Not everyone doing everything every time. So let's all do what we can, and then try and do a bit more - but also give ourselves a free pass when it just doesn't work-out. We also need to live, and we also need joy in our lives.