Power of one

Here’s an inspiring story: a Dutchman grows tired of walking past a polluted river on his way to work and decides to do something about it. Every day he fills a bagwith trash until the river is clean. He documents his progress on social media, and soon cleaning up playgrounds, streets, valleys, and forests, ultimately leading to a global campaign for local clean-ups.

Little by little, as these examples show, each of us can make a difference toward solving environmental problems, no matter how big. In individualistic age, that’s a reassuring message—affronts to our landscapes can be dealt with by a very few people. Surely then, extrapolating upward, might even more people solve even bigger problems: from dog poo and gutter trash, all the way to global warming and ocean acidification?

The problem is, this doesn’t tally with what we know about the most pressing environmental challenges. As a species, we are now responsible for planetary environmental change of the world’s oceans, atmosphere, and even life itself. Our awesome power over the globe can make the Dutchman cleaning his local riverbank seem pathetic in the face of the enormous problem of pollution affecting the world’s oceans. Fashionable as individualism is, in reality we’re in an age of a collective Humanity: our species is transforming the planet like never before, disempowering those of us who want to improve the global environment.

One solution is to focus on grander, more muscly ‘individuals’ by targeting the biggest corporations, cities, or nation states, whose actions can make a bigger difference. We already do this through environmental laws and regulations, by public shaming of certain practices and other market forces. It’s a slow and often intractable process with relatively few inspirational examples, even if the potential is great.

In the meantime, it’s encouraging to realize that we can make important changes locally—and our local environments matter. Improvements to individual environments can improve regional ones. By cleaning up local riverfronts one by one, we can clean the entire river. Even if that doesn’t clean the oceans, we’ll feel better for doing it and seeing it.

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