Eartha Steward: Individual actions do make a difference |

Eartha Steward: Individual actions do make a difference

by Eartha Steward
High Country Conservation Center

There’s been a lot of talk about the impact of “voluntary” individual actions. How much does bringing your own bag, eating locally, insulating your home and carpooling really benefit the environment? Does it make a difference in a time when scientists and advocacy groups are calling for large-scale global change in order to save the planet?

NPR’s “All Things Considered” recently touched on the subject after an alarming article in the Washington Post titled “To really save the planet, stop going green.” The author of the article, Mike Tidwell, stated “Instead of continuing our faddish and counterproductive emphasis on small, voluntary actions, we should follow the example of Americans during past moral crises and work toward large-scale change.”

Individual action alone does seem like small beans when you emphasize individual – one person taking one small step for mankind. Here at the Conservation Center, we promote self-sufficiency and individual action but with the vision of a larger community effort – families, neighborhoods, businesses … coming together to join actions for a greater impact.

I have to agree with Annie Leonard, creator of “The Story of Stuff,” when she admitted “Even if we could convince every single person to always do the most environmentally responsible option – it isn’t enough. We simply must get involved with organizations engaging for broader systemic change.”

In my opinion, change may start at the individual level and from there, with enough like-minded individuals, bigger change occurs at the community level. We’re lucky to have several dedicated individuals working toward a more sustainable future here in Summit County. Change and environmental action happens every day – large-scale composting at the landfill, compost collection in our schools, energy rebates and energy audits, community gardens and local food initiatives … Summit County has come a long way with diverting waste from our landfills, reducing greenhouse gases and educating our children about beneficial actions and behaviors.

And the momentum continues with “green teams” driving small-scale policy in businesses, governments and schools. Individual interest has made the “green” movement very popular, fueling daily actions needed to meet community-wide sustainability goals. Maybe our community is small, but communities across Colorado (and across the United States) are experiencing similar “green” movements. Movements that can indeed influence and institute “broader systemic change.”

Back to NPR’s segment on individual actions, Professor Michael Vandenbergh, stated that “Household behavior in the U.S. makes up about 8 percent of the world share of greenhouse gas emissions … larger than any country other than China.” Change in individual action across the United States can have substantial impacts on the environment.

Tidwell’s argument is that we’re not going to get everyone to participate in the environmental actions needed to make major impacts. He suggests that community organizations, like HC3, should focus more on policy and advocacy. Well, Tidwell, why not both?

Here’s the problem: Every individual is different from the next. Many people are turned off by advocacy and will never pick up the phone and lobby a politician or sign a petition or publicly protest (or advocate) a particular issue. However, most people are personally connected to their environmental actions like composting, precycling and green cleaning. Some people thrive in advocacy and others thrive in voluntary action. I believe both are needed to ultimately save the planet.

Tidwell’s advice to stop “green” actions is outrageous. We’ve come a long way with beneficial behaviors and actions that only help the environment (if not our pocket book and health). I believe “systemic change” can also come from the people – the bottom-up. As more families and communities adopt new environmental action plans in 2010 like the 100 Mile Diet, the Break the Bottled Water Habit, the Low Carbon Diet, the COOL 2012 program (Colorado campaign to get compostable organics out of landfills by 2012)… to name a few, large-scale change will happen as it has happened in Summit County. I say, continue your hard work and “green” efforts in 2010!

Individual action, community action… it’s better than taking no action at all. And “no action” will never save the planet.

Eartha Steward is written by Carly Wier and Jennifer Santry at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation in our mountain community. Submit questions to Eartha at

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