WHY SMALL STEPS MATTER
WORDS & IMAGE: KATE WEINER
At a friend's suggestion, I recently read activist Joanna Macy's essay on "Working Through Environmental Despair." Macy talks about learning to use our grief about environmental degradation and systemic injustice to create change. She outlines strategies for channeling despair into meaningful doing. The last two paragraphs in particular captured my heart:
Where, then, does despair fit in? Why is our pain for the world so important? Because these responses manifest our interconnectedness. Our feelings of social and planetary distress serve as a doorway to systemic social consciousness. To use another metaphor, they are like a "shadow limb." Just as an amputee continues to feel twinges in the severed limb, so in a sense do we experience, in anguish for homeless people or hunted whales, pain that belongs to a separated part of our body—a larger body than we thought we had, unbounded by our skin.
Through the systemic currents of knowing that interweave our world, each of us can be the catalyst or "tipping point" by which new forms of behavior can spread. There are as many different ways of being responsive as there are different gifts we possess. For some of us it can be through study or conversation, for others theater or public office, for still others civil disobedience and imprisonment. But the diversities of our gifts interweave richly when we recognize the larger web within which we act. We begin in this web and, at the same time, journey toward it. We are making it conscious.
Macy's discussion of a catalyst or "tipping point" is vital. Several days ago, I was talking with my brother Sam about solar energy. He works for a big solar energy company. Solar, he shared, was reaching a tipping point. Sam was no longer seeing isolated acts of going solar. He was witnessing neighborhoods embracing panels, entire communities stretching toward the sun. More and more, people are considering solar energy to be a viable and secure option.
We are fed the narrative that individual actions don't have much of a resonance. In some sense, this is true: the radical environmental change we need requires a revolution. It's not enough to recycle or compost or live trash-light. We have to cultivate alternative economies, campaign for a compassionate government, fight for healthy soil and against species die-off. But that doesn't mean that taking small steps is meaningless. The idea of a "tipping point" is proof positive that our small steps do have meaning. Every person who decides to go solar is part of a much broader energy revolution. As solar energy gains momentum, so too does the power and potential embedded in a single switch.
In truth, we don't take small steps solely in service of a more sustainable future. We take small steps because right now, in this living moment, doing so feeds our soul. Regardless of what kind of impact our simple switches will have, making those switches enriches our present. I compost because I want to tap into a bigger movement to preserve our soil. But I also compost because it makes me more mindful about what and how I eat. I compost because I like carrying my little pail to the local co-op, even though it is by no means convenient. That three-mile walk is my time to breathe in, to listen to music, to make note of the succulents in bloom.
And I'm starting to realize that this tiny action isn't just for me. A friend of mine recently shared that she started to compost because she saw that I was doing it and thought okay, I can do this too. I started to live trash-light for the very same reason: I saw the joy and peace of mind it brought to my friend and thought okay, I can do this too. The fundamental interconnectedness of all living things means that nothing we do exists in a vacuum. By acknowledging this, we create opportunities to align our actions with the kind of tipping point change we want in this world. The more we say okay, I can do this too, the more we empower ourselves to reach for harder, heftier goals.
Macy asks us to be responsive to the different gifts we possess. Tune into what you can bring into this world and do it.