It's the Environment, Stupid.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Power of the Individual

One of the major catch phrases in environmentalism today is “Think Global, Act Local.” The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil tried to make this happen with Agenda 21 – a voluntary commitment agreed to by cities throughout the world with the intent of making a difference on a local level.

Curitiba, Brazil was one place where this succeeded. To clean up communities, former mayor of Curitiba, Jaime Lerner, instituted a “garbage purchase” program where residents of low-income areas would trade in their garbage for bus tokens or food. To reduce traffic congestion he created a bus system as efficient and frequent as the best subway systems in the world, without digging a single tunnel. (I was lucky enough to hear Mr. Lerner speak last year at The New School. He’s great!)

(Un)fortunately Curitiba was one of the few cities to actually follow through on its end of the local Agenda 21 agreement. Many others had good intentions that simply weren’t accomplished for various reasons (many cited lack of funding as the main culprit).

In a New York Times article back in October, David Suzuki, Canadian scientist, turned environmentalist, said he’d had it wrong all these years when he supported the “think globally, act locally” campaign.

excerpt from the article: “These days, Dr. Suzuki worries most about how people have become estranged from nature, habituated to seeing the world ‘through a fragmented lens,’ as he puts it, and oblivious to the fact that the economic abundance of the modern world depends on the health of its air, soil and water….Dr. Suzuki said he used to urge people to think globally, act locally. ‘That was a mistake,’ he says today. ‘When people think globally, they feel helpless.’” So he suggested that people do small things, on an individual level, such as using nontoxic lawn care products, in order to make a difference.

We can’t underestimate the power of the individual because that power can have a great positive impact, but it can also have a very severe negative impact, especially when those larger connections aren’t grasped by the masses. Americans live in a very consumer oriented society, even when we’re a country under duress, we’re told by our fearless leader to shop. The products we buy are designed to be disposable. We don’t recycle because it’s easier just to throw things in the garbage. We think to ourselves, “so I threw the Diet Coke can in the trash. What’s one frickin’ aluminum can gonna do? I can’t be bothered, I’ve got more important things to do.”

Here’s what one aluminum can means:

Americans throw away enough aluminum every three months to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet.

Tossing away an aluminum can wastes as much energy as pouring out half of that can's volume of gasoline.

Making new aluminum cans from used cans takes 95 percent less energy and 20 recycled cans can be made with the energy needed to produce one can using virgin ore.

Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to keep a 100-watt bulb burning for almost four hours or run your television for three hours. (

I could stick these stats on my fridge so every time I reach in for a cold beverage encased in a can I’d be reminded about my impact… but I’d still probably throw away that can. Why? Because while being fun trivia facts, they aren’t going to get me to change my behavior, habit, routine etc. and I probably won’t change my ways until throwing away that can has an immediate effect on me personally. For instance, I might think twice about throwing the can away if, say, there was an electrical current that shocked me every time I neared the garbage can. Or if someone threatened to kill my dog if I were to throw the can away rather than recycle it, that might get me thinking. Changing consumer behavior is tricky, but is ultimately what will have to happen in order for change to occur on a large scale (obviously not to the extent of my exaggerated examples involving electro-shock therapy or dog intimidation).

Individual actions collectively add up to a gi-normous impact. (No, I really doubt that is a word, but in this context I’m using it to mean bigger than gigantic and enormous combined – that’s HUGE!). The difference an individual can make can be empowering. That’s what grassroots movements are all about. The big question is how? There are studies citing things such as peer pressure or social marketing campaigns that can work to induce individuals to change. In addition to those, we might be able to combine some of Joe Trippi’s observations of how the internet can empower individuals to make a difference (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised), with some of the factors Malcolm Gladwell says are necessary for social epidemics to flourish (The Tipping Point).

What would get you to change the way you do things?

(For the record, I don’t drink soda in aluminum cans or otherwise – the throwing away the can thing was an example. However, I do recycle as much as they allow me to here in NYC. It’s not as ingrained or appreciated as widely as it is in Seattle, but they’re trying. And the only frosty beverages in my fridge currently are the brita, week old milk, and a bottle of Brooklyn Lager.)

The article about David Suzuki I referred to: New York Times, 10/18/05, by Cornelia Dean. “Environmental Conscience Urges Canadians to Tread Softly” (I’d add a link, but the NY Times online now charges for their archived articles – if you really want to read it your local public library is probably subscribed to the ProQuest Database newspaper archives, you can find it through there.)

Oh and this blog posting was inspired in part by Joel Makower’s blog posting from 1/14/06.


  • The direct link to the post in question is

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:32  

  • Thanks - I corrected the link in my posting.

    By Blogger Amy Marpman, at 20:26  

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