11/04/2013 01:21 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Individual Acts


Several years ago, an editorial in Orion Magazine started me thinking: One of the greatest obstacles to positive action is the feeling of futility. What can I -- as one caring person -- do in the face of the catastrophic directions of our economy? Forget shorter showers, it said, arguing that municipal and individual water use amounted to only 10 percent of the total consumed. Industry and our political/economic structure are the problem, and by living a low consumption lifestyle, we are assuming the guilt. What's needed is aggressive political change.

The latter is certainly true; if we don't change our society, no individual actions will matter. But the first premise is entirely false for several reasons. Individual actions matter because people take the example of others that they respect as a model for their own life. "Industry" is making the things that we buy -- if we stop buying, they will stop making and try to ascertain what their consumers want to buy instead. Small things add up; if every household in the United States replaced just one roll of their selection of toilet paper from a brand made by deforesting old-growth forests (yes, many brands are still produced that way) and bought a brand made from "post consumer" materials (ie old newspapers; note that "recycled" has become a false label), over 400,000 trees are saved. This is a real difference. Now think about how many trees we'd save if every household in the U.S. replaced all of their toilet paper.

I am reminded of a parable: A little girl walks down the beach throwing sea stars back into the water. A man approaches and says, "Why are you wasting your time? This makes no difference." The little girl picks up another sea star and throws it in the water, responding, "it makes a difference to that one."

Political/economic change is vital; if we don't change the structure of our society, our children are in for a very bad time. Voting is important, protesting is important, changing the government is important. But we live in a very polarized country -- almost half of Americans don't accept the reality of climate change (or other impending environmental catastrophes). Unfortunately, the only thing that will change their minds are their peers (who watch Fox News).

Make no mistake, the drastic political overthrow hinted at in the editorial will be met with bullets, and not a few of them. The carbon barons are not going to just forgo their profits because we picket outside their offices, and, as was so shockingly proven during the BP Gulf Spill (by the Coast Guard and local police), the armed services work for them, not for our children. And let's remember that it's not the tree-huggers that have the large caches of arms, it's the reactionaries. So any revolution would probably not come down on the side of peace and conservation.

It is a sad thing that probably only a series of major disasters in which many lives are lost and much property damaged will drive the change that is needed, at which time it will be too late.

Meanwhile, those of us who realize what is happening, and don't ascribe the signs to "Acts of God" have a limited range of actions. Voting is not very effective (between the Electoral College, Citizens United and the very effective redistricting of the last 10 years), nor is protesting, but building an alternate economy will make a difference, and this is done by supporting it with our dollars. So buy your toilet paper made from post-consumer content, get your food as organic and local as you can (urge your local farmer to trade in that gas guzzling pick-up for something more climate friendly) and pray for a miracle.