Little changes may not change the world, but they may build a better you.
Sometimes, I starved myself.
Bleary-eyed on a train to London, I would wait for the buffet cart. Between the long drive to the station and the need to leave quietly, I would leave the house without eating breakfast. As the buffet cart finally approached, I realised my dilemma.
There was no plastic-free option. At all.
I wanted to make a habit of refusing single-use plastic, but there was nothing available that didn’t come with plastic.
The first couple of times, I compromised on this new desire; I bought a plastic-wrapped muffin and a coffee in a takeaway cup. Another couple of times, I made it as far as the capital to discover that, even at the station, there was nothing plastic-free.
I took the tube to my destination, grumpy and hungry, and realised that to make this change permanent, I would need to change my approach. I’d thought the aspiration was simple, but circumstances often made it convenient to abandon it.
I recently read an article by @Kornelija Gruodyte saying that small actions to be more sustainable aren’t going to stop the climate crisis alone. We need actions that focus on those most responsible for the crisis: those who contribute the most to global emissions, and the politicians and governments who enable them.
As someone who writes every week promoting small actions, I took notice. I’ve always known that the Earth is not going to be saved by the number of single-use straws I decline, or the number I inspire you to decline.
So why do I bother to write about these small actions? I knew the answer, but it might not be that clear to others.
I aim big. By writing about small actions I hope to contribute to mindset changes. I’m not satisfied with reducing plastic bottles sold, food miles used, or energy wasted. I want to change you.
It’s probably best if I illustrate this.
Small habits lead to behavioural changes. Say I’ve read an article about why I should say no to single-use plastic straws. I’m inspired to try, and I decide to make it a new habit: When I buy a drink, I will decline the straw. I may even go so far as to buy a reusable straw.
This kind of change has a ripple effect. Once this habit is ingrained, I regularly decline other single-use plastics. I say no to water bottles, takeaway cups, non-essential packaging. Better yet, I actively look for single-use plastic to decline. Declining plastic is now behaviour.
That small change led to a slightly bigger change.
We don’t stop there. Behavioural changes lead to belief changes.
Once I’ve thought about plastics for long enough, I realise I need to be more conscious of my plastic consumption, which leads me to think about all kinds of resource consumption. I believe that we need to preserve resources of all kinds.
I read about my ecological footprint, about sustainability, about the circular economy. I share things, not because fad or peer pressure, but because I believe in them. Because my beliefs are important to me, I want others to know about them.
That slightly bigger change has led to an even bigger change.
We still don’t stop. Belief changes lead to mindset changes.
I realise I’m not the same person I was when I accepted the challenge to refuse plastic straws. I’m more aware of my ecological footprint, but also about my place in nature, my role in society, my interactions with others and the legacy I will leave. I’ve had a mindset shift.
I realise I can impact society — and I want to.
That small change has led to a change so vast that I would have scarcely imagined it when I first declined a plastic straw.
What I’ve illustrated above is an idealised view. It doesn’t allow for the influence of external factors or conflicting points of view. It doesn’t allow for compelling counter-arguments or society resisting our changes. It doesn’t allow for the feelings of hopelessness and futility that can and will assail us.
It is real. I have made this journey. No, I am on this journey. I realised — not at the beginning, but later — that I desired this change.
Which leads me to another question: why? Why did I, why might we want to change?
It largely depends on what needs to change, but there is usually a trigger, a seismic event, a realisation of something so profound that the only thing you can do is to change yourself.
It might be the realisation that the planet is on fire, and only significant actions will help extinguish the flames. It might be the realisation that injustice still hasn’t been addressed despite decades of good words. It might be the realisation that we don’t much care for the world we create for our children.
We may have realised there’s a path out of the darkness if only we are brave enough to take it.
I no longer starve myself.
I realised that if I planned, then I could make breakfast to take with me. I could research and discover where the plastic-free options were in my destination, whether that was London or Birmingham or somewhere else.
Declining single-use plastic became a habit to the point of seeking other ways to reduce my plastic intake, which led me to think about my relationship with other resources.
Have I had a mindset change yet? Hard to say, because I do still compromise. My beliefs have changed, and I’m on the journey. I could kid myself and say my mindset has already changed, but am I just excusing myself out of further development?
My partner challenged me to define why I write about sustainability, what I hoped to achieve. Writing this article has clarified my purpose in my mind, and I hope it’s clear to anyone reading this.
I will continue to write about small actions in the hope that it encourages others to change their habits. I will continue to write about my journey in the hope that it encourages others to come along with me.
However, thinking back to Kornelija’s article, I will write more about bigger actions. I will write about lobbying and communicating and influencing. Whilst small changes are fundamental to my plan, it won’t hurt me to drop a few bombs now and then.
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