I, like most people around the globe, suddenly have a lot of time on my hands. This routine-wrecking and self-reflection-inducing isolation has presented me (and probably you) with a seemingly open-ended existence… so I decided to use this time to ask myself some hard questions. It started while on perhaps my third casual stroll of the day around my neighborhood; I was listening to the podcast The Allusionist with Helen Zatlzman, in which she takes short but deep dives into every aspect of language and communication. The episode I was listening to is titled “Alarm Bells” and focuses on the language we use to communicate about climate change, a topic that I deal with nearly every day as an environmental educator and yet still sometimes find myself struggling to address in my day to day life.
As I was listening to the episode, I realized that I deal with a lot of shame related to a feeling of inaction, of not being able to do enough even though I teach about the natural world and how to protect it. Why do I feel this way? You always hear those typical sentiments of “even One Small Thing makes a difference” and “even an individual can help”…but have I done my One Small Thing? Is anyone else? Then the conversation happening in my headphones really resonated when one of the interviewees, Alice Bell, Director of Communications at the climate charity Possible and author of the book, Can We Save The Planet? commented: “A piece of environmental psychology that a lot of us in climate change campaigns use, which is this idea that if you hear a fire alarm, or even if you smell smoke, you probably won't act until you see other people starting to act”.
Later in the conversation, another interviewee named Robin Webster spoke about the petrifying effect that The Climate Conversation has on so many people and the interesting perspective she has gained through her work with the climate communication organization, Climate Outreach:
“…And then conversely, we also found the people that were having the most conversations were often using their own experience of, ‘Well, I decided to cycle with the kids to school rather than take the car, or I've slightly changed my diet...’ And they didn't have to be massive changes, but they were changes that were sort of a part of somebody's identity… What you do by yourself, it feels insignificant. And I think as people, we're drawn into doing things by other people. And our sense of identity is built by how we see ourselves and also what we see other people doing. So don't feel like your own actions are insignificant, because actually they're often very significant to the people around you.”
It was at this moment on my walk that I passed a small woodlot that I had passed every day for weeks and only noticed because of the tremendous amount of litter strewn throughout it. I stopped in my tracks, paused the podcast, and stared in disgust at the sight before me. I then had a realization: I had ignored this woodlot and the sadness it made me feel because I was scared stiff by the weight of it…and I had never seen anyone else do anything about it, either. I may spend my professional life working hard to educate and engage people in understanding climate change and how they can make small changes to help out, but had I actually SEEN it happen? Who in my life was doing that One Small Thing?
Can I be that person?
So I decided I was going to clean up that woodlot and that was going to be my One Small Thing. It was easy and honestly rather meditative. I put on some gloves, popped another podcast in my ears, and spent two hours just quietly picking up trash. People walked past and watched me as they went on their way. I saw faces in the windows looking down at me. Did I inspire them or just provide some isolation entertainment? Either way, I did something. I inspired myself and MAYBE someone else caught a glimpse of it and it sparked a question inside them. Who can you inspire? What is your One Small Thing?