Saturday, April 23, 2005

Small change

Once in a while I get e-mails from well-meaning friends about how to avoid dark parking lots and suspicious vans and the various tricks and traps that evil serial killers presumably use to lure their victims to an ugly death. I appreciate these, and I think people should indeed use common sense to protect themselves in dark parking lots. But I can’t help thinking, come on, people, if instead of worrying about the serial killers you all simply used your turn signals and quit talking on your cell phones while you drive, you would make the world a measurably safer place. I’m a lot more likely to be killed by an inattentive driver than I am by a serial killer. It’s the small things that matter.

I feel the same way about Earth Day and our approach to the environment. Jo(e)’s wonderful post about her student protesters, and particularly the discussion in the comments about veganism, got me thinking about this as well. Culturally we tend to favor dramatic action when we make changes in our lives. Instead of making small changes in our eating habits, we go on Atkins or South Beach or some other extreme change that promises total transformation. Instead of lobbying for the more humane treatment of animals, we swear off all meat and leather and animal products. Or at least a few of us do, but that’s the only model for change we ever see. For the vast majority of us (and mad props to jo(e) and her students for being exceptions to this rule!), that sort of dramatic action is too difficult, so we think, Boy, in principle I think it’d be a good idea to be vegan, but I just can’t give up eggs and cheese, not completely and forever! I admire that woman who went to live in a treehouse in California to protest our abuse of the environment, and I love those totally environmentally responsible New Mexico desert house designs I saw on the TreeHugger Channel, but that’s just way beyond what I can realistically do with my life.

So instead, we make no changes at all.

But what if we tried a few small things that didn’t involve major sacrifice or transformation? Like using our turn signals when we drive? (I have a major obsession with people who don’t signal their turns. Are you saving yourselves some enormous effort and inconvenience in not having to move that little lever up and down? Really, it’s not that hard.) Do the same thing for the planet. What if we thought, I don’t have to give up all meat products, but maybe I could eat a little less meat, or buy free-range eggs instead of caged-chicken eggs. (That’s maybe thirty cents more you’d pay, to avoid a lot of animal suffering.) I could leave the windows open a few days longer before I turn on the air conditioning. I could water my lawn a little less frequently over the summer. I could recycle a little more. And so on. These actions probably won’t bring the rewarding sense of self-sacrifice and transformation that moving into a treehouse would, but face it, you’re just not likely to do the treehouse thing. So do what you can do, and see the powerful effect of small changes.

Happy Earth Day.

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