07/01/2013 10:53 am ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

Big Problems, Tiny Steps

Last week, President Obama made strides to combat global warming by checking pollution from power plants, cracking down on inefficient appliances, and expanding renewable, energy production on public lands. These are big moves. So big they seem only rhetorical. Regulating, expanding, cracking down seem as overwhelming as global warming itself. Public lands. All this space and all these people. The vastness and diversity of America is the problem itself. It's too big, even for our brains.

No one wants to believe in global warming, as if by not believing, it is not happening. As if Climate Science is a religion whose church you can choose to attend or not. The idea is such huge--planet-sized, in fact, that it cuts off hope. The day after a story broke about a polar bear who was swimming with her cub from ice floe to ice floe until the next ice floe became nine miles away--the mom made it, the baby did not, NPR's Marketplace hosted a segment on about the way people tune out when they hear about global warming. There's too much to think about there. The ear, let alone the mind, isn't big enough to contain all the horror. But what if there were tiny solutions to the horror? Kai Ryssdal, the soothing voice of NPR's Marketplace, wondered. What if, every day, people heard one good-news story about how the bad environmental issues were being tackled in miniscule ways?

What is it about the small that is so powerful? As a creative writing teacher, I steer my students to write toward the small, idiosyncratic detail. I tell them they can't describe a whole love affair in one poem but they can tell me what's so beautiful and idiosyncratic about the divots in the lover's teeth. Over-the-couch landscape paintings where the painter tries to capture the whole of a mountain setting with a lake in the foreground and snow in the back on a three-by-four foot canvas leave everyone cold. There's no way a painter can get all the detail in that space to make that picture good. Hence, my love of paintings of the small--the detail of a hand, the focus on a quill, an individual snow flake. Science culture, even when it seeks to understand the immense, examines the small. The quantum particle explains as much about the expanding universe as the distance of stars can. Quark qualities get surprising, even cute, names for particles like up, down, strange and charm. Nano-physicists discover ways of making nano-robots perform surprising processes like repairing skin and making materials stronger than metal. Doctors have developed micro-tools to operate on very prematurely born babies. Our eye squint. We lean into our work. We want to understand what we can barely see.

It is a bit of a replacement religion. Believing in the small, the law of attention, the hope of adaptability, the long reach of technology--there are reaches. We have our rituals. Every Thursday, we take the recycling can to the curb. We send our tithe to Greenpeace and our children to school where they learn 50 Simple Things to Do to Save the Planet. We put our faith in the idea that the microbiologist can correct the polluted water. That the engineer can make a solar battery last forever. That the vintner can figure out how to make wine when the temperatures rise ten degrees. That the babies who are born too soon to an alien Newborn Intensive Care Unit can teach us to survive.

Maybe the small isn't just a distraction or a feel-good measure that does nothing. Maybe the small is key. Maybe the small provides an answer this way: if you look closely enough, there are solutions in those distractions. Or, rather, if the small is a way to make us think in new ways to learn how to make small adaptations to survive the big change. In a quotation attributed to Vincent Van Gogh, "Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together."

If you open your mind wide enough, maybe you can imagine that small things can help undo some of the damage to the whole, big planet. If I could stop and look at that lip, or maybe it's more of a tongue, of pinecone? What if that square of bark explained something about the cellular structure of trees? A grain of sand is geologic. You can tell a lot from a tiny piece of sand. It's a sign of how what kind of minerals can be found underground or a sign of the way the water might flow. The one polar bear did survive. Tenacity.

And although I'm not a scientist, I can look at tiny things. My brain is big enough to wrap around the idea of a grain of sand, the seductive charms of pinecones, the back-scratching potential of a square of bark. Perhaps, if you look at other creatures, you can learn something not only how they adapt and behave in different environments. Maybe by paying attention to the small things, you can become more like them--adaptive, responsive, embracing. A power plant at a time. A inefficient refrigerator at a time. A solar panel here and a wind farm there and possibly I just unplugged my computer for a bit. Although President Obama's moves seem gargantuan, and therefore, impossible, perhaps, tiny step by tiny step, we can move forward to stop climate change.

Nicole Walker is the author of Quench Your Thirst with Salt and This Noisy Egg. She co-edited with Margot Singer, Bending Genre--Toward a Theory of Creative Nonfiction and with Rebecca Campbell, 7 Artists, 7 Rings--An Artist's Game of Telephone.