What does it matter if I don’t use a plastic straw but the person next to me does? Does it really make a difference if I refuse to buy disposable bottles? All my friends buy them, so I might as well do it, too. Right? Sound familiar? Have you ever asked yourself those kinds of questions?
Ever since I have started making more conscious choices, I started wondering. Do my actions change anything in this whole messy situation? One single person refusing to buy disposable bottles. Does that really help to reduce the equivalent of 500 jumbo jets full of plastic floating halfway between Hawaii and California? Considering that the average person in Western Europe and America uses more than their own body weight in plastic every year, it might1.
Or think about this. We are close to 8 billion people on this planet. What if everybody else thought that way? All of a sudden, it’s not only one piece of plastic more, but 8 billion! What if Greta Thunberg thought that it didn’t make a difference what she is doing? Would she have started the first school strike by herself? Would the world be that aware of our climate crisis, if one single person hadn’t decided this was a fight worth fighting? Maybe yes. But then again, maybe no.
Our Actions Matter More Than You Think
It is hard to measure the impact of one specific person. But why? Couldn’t we just add up the plastic used or carbon dioxide emitted by one’s actions? It’s not quite that simple. We are all social creatures. We interact with each other, share our opinions, watch others for approval.
Some time ago, I watched a documentary about the impact of eating animals on our planet. About halfway through the documentary, I decided that I needed to change something in my life. Two days later, I became vegan for a month. Why only a month? Going from 0 to 100%, I found it hard to commit to something for forever that I hadn’t even tried once. Yet, contrary to most people’s beliefs, I found the switch quite easy. I knew that I could have real cheese again after that month, so I just chose something else that I liked. To my surprise, I didn’t even have cravings for my favorite non-vegan food.
Unexpectedly, the hardest part of eating vegan for a month were other people’s opinions on my diet. Even though I didn’t announce it widely or started lecturing people about its benefits, my new diet attracted a lot of attention. Lots of people were telling me how they could never do it, or asked me why I am one of “them” now. And of course, I must have heard the joke “how can you tell someone is vegan?” (“They tell you!”) about a thousand times. Turns out, eating vegan is a touchy topic for many people.
Apart from learning what kind of ingredients are really in the food that I regularly consume, I also learned something else during that month. We actually have more influence than we think. My little project of going vegan inspired at least two other people to also try it themselves. What if they also talked to other people and in turn inspired two more people?
Humans are social creatures with family, friends, communities and workplaces. Luckily, we don’t live in an isolated world. Your actions, change or message can have far-reaching effects. Especially if you are good at communicating why you are doing it.
Change Starts with One Action
So if my actions matter and I can help other people become better, how do I start changing my own behavior? Of course, saving one plastic bottle from ending up in the ocean is great. But wouldn’t it be even better if we saved 365 plastic bottles from the ocean? In order for our change to be sustainable, try making them a habit. According to research, forming a habit takes only 66 days. Habits also make you more productive by saving that brain power for more important decisions than whether to take a water bottle with you or not.
So where can you start? As Emily De Sousa mentions in her Tedx Talk, just make one small change every day. If you do it long enough, you’ll form a habit and won’t even think about it anymore. Get a reusable water bottle and fill it up every time before you leave the house. Once you’ve done that for two months, get a reusable coffee cup and take it with you when you get your daily dose of caffeine. Once you’ve established that habit, bring a reusable bag every time you go grocery shopping. There are so many habits to start making a positive impact on the planet. And you never know, your action might even inspire someone else to do it, too!