A recent New York Times opinion feature discussed whether individual environmentally-conscious actions, like carrying a reusable water bottle, or bringing your own bags to the grocery store, was enough to make a difference. The Story of Stuff’s author Annie Leonard said no, in a segment titled “Individual Actions Just Don’t Add Up”:
“I bring my own bag to the store, carry a refillable water bottle and shun unnecessary packaging on everything I buy. Sure, it reduces the waste from my household. But even if we could get everyone to do the same, the impact would still be negligible, because household garbage is only 3 percent of the waste produced in the United States.”
I agree with Ms. Leonard that being an active citizen environmentalist — pushing for more clean energy, challenging current regulations on emissions, calling on polluters to change — makes a much larger impact than just voting with your dollars. We’re never going to achieve the change we need through small alterations in our spending habits. But what Ms. Leonard is ignoring is the fact that little actions, when they become everyday practices for most Americans, can also make a sizable difference. And it’s how we all get started.
So I would retort to Annie Leonard: yes, buying green isn’t the best way to change our wasteful habits or prevent global warming. But it is a start. What we need is to change our habits: buy less, waste less, conserve more. And we need to change systems and structures around us to get there. But what we don’t need is a major environmental leader telling us that our efforts, no matter how small, don’t matter. Every journey starts with a single step — and we’ve got to honor those steps, even the tiny ones.
[Ed. note – We admire Annie Leonard for being willing to come out and say something strongly worded. We hope it will move people toward taking bigger actions, looking to change big industries and polluters. For those readers who are ready to move beyond personal green actions: Please check out our Action Ideas section!]