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Why Your Drop in the Bucket Leads to a Powerful Splash

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Do individual actions still have the power to make a difference? You bet they do.

By Shannon Cowan Posted Jan 10, 2017

Beach sunset

You would never know that Gary Rosenberg’s home in Berkeley, California, was once an abandoned crack house without a stitch of greenery. Today the brightly painted house is surrounded by lush edibles—apricots, figs, limes, and berries—along with an impressive array of alternative energy and waste reduction projects. During a telephone call from this veritable oasis, Rosenberg exudes positive energy as he explains that people are waking up to the idea that complacency has a cost.

Son of a holocaust survivor, Rosenberg grew up with the adage that “the level of comfort and security we live with in this country could be taken away very quickly. Freedom is something that must be earned and re-earned every day.”

With the growing political divide in North America and Europe, along with the looming specter of global climate change, the year 2017 is a daunting one for many people. Yet Rosenberg sees individual actions as key to making the difference.

The self-employed singer and activist spent the last two decades transforming his corner lot into a “demonstration model for sustainable living in an urban environment.” He gleaned most of his supplies for free, from cast-offs that would otherwise end up in the waste stream—right down to the pits used to propagate his fruit trees. “Anything that enters the garbage is a failure of human ingenuity,” he says.

Gary Rosenberg and dog

A gravity-fed water catchment system pipes rainwater to the plants below, while above, a rooftop garden complete with greenhouse and solar electricity provides food and power (the latter for things like his electric bicycle).

What drives him to not only live this way, but to share his knowledge with anyone who wants to learn, is the firm belief that individual actions create positive change in the world. “If everybody lives a little bit better, a little more cooperatively, with a little bit higher degree of stewardship, we can improve things and get beyond the [current] reality,” he says.

His outlook is infectious, and you can’t talk to him for more than a few minutes without wanting to transform your own life with small acts of everyday resistance. Although Rosenberg is the first to admit that his good fortune (including owning his own house) has enabled him to live thoughtfully, he is perhaps too modest. Not everyone would buy a former drug house and turn it into a model of sustainability, no matter what the price. Not everyone would maintain his positive attitude in the face of setbacks. A growing number of people are feeling overwhelmed by the future, and many are put off entirely from making positive changes because they think individual actions are just a drop in the bucket. But are they?

Do Individual Actions Matter? A Look at 2016

Although most people will agree that small changes alone won’t lower global temperatures or usher in a new era of world sustainability, evidence shows that individual actions have a definite impact when thoughtfully targeted. Examples of resilience and renewal at the hands of everyday citizens are everywhere if you only care to look.

Last month, The Land Trust Alliance released a census revealing that Americans have conserved a staggering 56 million acres of private land. That’s double the amount of all the land protected by the US government in national parks across the lower 48 states. Protected through legal measures taken voluntarily by landowners, often at their own expense, those 56 million acres of wildlife habitat, farmland, and diverse ecosystems are now safeguarded in perpetuity. That means no matter who purchases or inherits the land, it will remain protected.

Trees
Land trusts are in a position to address many of society’s ills,” said the Alliance’s president, Andrew Bowman, adding that to secure local, healthy and sustainable food, and to mitigate climate change, “Land is the answer.” But landowners, working through land trusts, are the reason for this success story.

Over in New York City, community gardens are thriving thanks to 35 years of efforts by everyday citizens to reclaim and regenerate abandoned city lots. What began with guerilla tactics like lobbing “bombs” loaded with seeds, fertilizer, and water over municipal fences has grown into a city-sanctioned movement run by neighborhood residents. Today the city boasts more than 600 community gardens that provide green space, preserve biodiversity, and improve air quality and recreation for the people who frequent them.

Gardens like these may help account for the heartening statistics reported by last year’s National Gardening Survey, which found that about one in every three American households participated in food gardening last year. Consumers are also making their voices heard on the sustainable food front. According to a 2016 report from the US Department of Agriculture, organic farms increased by 12% between 2014 and 2015 thanks to consumer demand, resulting in “an exploding local and regional food system.” These connections to local food production by individuals help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and cultivate resiliency among rural and urban communities.

Citizens were also instrumental in last year’s banning of plastic microbeads, those tiny particles in personal care products that take hundreds of years to break down, thereby threatening wildlife and waterways. Public outcry led the federal government to act, instituting a ban that begins to take effect this July.

More recently, results from the divestment movement have rippled across the financial sector. Last week, Positive.News reported that the push to remove investments from fossil fuel companies continued to grow in 2016, with the value of divestments topping $5 trillion. Some 80 per cent of the funds involved are managed by commercial investment and pension funds, but the movement originally began with university students pressuring their administrations to act. Jeremy Leggett, chair of the financial think-tank, Carbon Tracker, writes, “This shows that the campaign is now mainstream in the capital markets. Capital is fleeing fossil fuels just as the fossil fuel industries maneuver their representatives into the White House.”

So What Stops More of Us From Acting?

If evidence proves that we have the power to make a difference, why don’t more of us get involved or change our behavior? According to modern psychology, the more primitive parts of our brain conspire against our thinking about the future. We are wired to react to immediate threats, and if none are present, to partake in immediate gratification. Anyone living in the West knows just how easy achieving immediate gratification has become. Bolstered by marketing dollars and invisible subsidies, satisfying our primal brains is as easy as reaching for our credit card.

Engaging the other part of our brain where we store our thoughtful decision-making capabilities and long-term thinking takes a little more work. But once we act, it’s contagious. In his book, What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Climate Change, psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes explains that doing things like driving electric cars or putting solar panels on our roof reinforces our belief in the importance of such actions. In contrast, when we do things that don’t reinforce this belief, we experience dissonance every time we hear about the effects of our actions from the latest climate change report. In other words, the more we act, the more we believe in the importance of acting, and the more change can occur.

Breaking ice
Some of us also suffer from what Stoknes calls “apocalypse fatigue.” This leads us to avoid or deny problems even though they may be staring us in the face. The good news is that understanding these barriers can help us bypass our personal roadblocks to action. And once we do, our positive example can have a ripple effect. Since humans are social creatures, we tend to act in accordance with those around us. That means your choice to adopt a more earth-friendly lifestyle has the potential to influence your neighbors and impact your community in ways you might not have considered. If small acts of change empower both our neighbors and us to even greater heights, what are we waiting for?

Pick Your Starting Place

Back at his home in Berkeley, California, Gary Rosenberg acknowledges that living more sustainably isn’t always easy. But everyone has a choice to make. “We need to shut off the television and Facebook…and engage face to face in our own communities. We can all do a little bit more to promote and secure our freedom.”

For Rosenberg, that freedom starts with looking at ways to reduce our dependency on hydrocarbon energy, and his model demonstration project offers proof that urban dwellers have a variety of options at their fingertips. If he can grow that much food on a city lot with no backyard, what can the average person do?

He has some ideas to share.

  • Replace every light bulb in your house with an LED light bulb.
  • Give gifts of LED light bulbs to people who can’t afford them.
  • Get yourself a bicycle and try to do trips in vehicles that are less energy intensive.
  • Lobby your public officials to embrace and invest in public transportation.
  • Say a prayer every time you turn on the tap and acknowledge that clean water is a miracle for a relatively small percentage of the world’s population.
  • Connect with an old person in your neighborhood, and every time you go to the store, call that person and ask that person if there’s anything you can get for them.
  • Try to have regularly scheduled community meals, even if it’s just with the people next door.
  • Teach every child as though he or she is your own.
  • If you have the opportunity, experiment with a small, off-the-grid solar system to experience the miracle of energy available to us.
  • Grow food.
  • Consider the overall ramifications of every purchase that you make and ask yourself, what is the total carbon footprint of this item? Do I need this?
  • Ask yourself if there is anything you can do to incorporate charity into your day. Can you give 25 cents a day to someone in need? What about one dollar? Ten dollars?
  • Constantly try to better yourself.
  • Try to figure out a way that you can be more beneficial to your community.

The most successful campaigns in history have incorporated changes in individual behavior with actions that engaged citizens working together. We can take the first step by identifying where we can make a difference and acting, then seeing how that pushes us to even greater heights. Rosenberg has shown us one way to proceed. It’s up to us to start with our own lives.

Sources

“56 Million Acres Voluntarily Conserved in America, National Land Trust Census Reveals,” Land Trust Alliance, Washington, D.C., December 1, 2016.

National Gardening Survey, A comprehensive Study of Consumer Gardening Practices, Trends, and Product Sales, 2016 Edition. Bruce Butterfield and Ian Baldwin.

“USDA Reports Record Growth In U.S. Organic Producers,” United States Department of Agriculture. April 4, 2016.

Per Espen Stoknes, What We Think About – When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: The New Psychology of Climate Action. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015.

Shannon Cowan
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Shannon Cowan is an author, editor, and teacher who lives on six acres of land with her husband, daughters, and backyard chicken flock.
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