When I was 17, I went vegan to save the animals. Four years later, I gave it up. When I was 17, I also went zero-waste (or at least I tried) to save the environment. Four years later, I take my groceries home in plastic bags, I drink from plastic cups and occasionally, I get takeout food in plastic containers.
What happened in those four years? I moved from Europe to the United States. I fell in love and started a relationship. And I went through a few health problems that made me question my life choices.
I went through some pretty big changes. But can I blame them for giving up my aspirations to save the environment?
One of my first shopping trips in the US was to Walmart. Everything was five times bigger than in Europe – the carts, the package sizes, the whole building. We filled the cart up with household essentials and proceeded to check out. And there it was, the “evil” that was banned from European grocery stores: plastic bags. And I watched my friend put every item in a separate plastic bag, with unspoken words of disbelief on my lips.
Half a year later, when I met my current partner, I learned that having meat every day for several meals is normal for most people. Coming from a vegan/vegetarian/omnivore family, I was used to having mostly plant-based meals.
These are just two examples, but they made me stop believing in my power to make a difference. If most of the 330 million people living in the US shopped in plastic bags, contributing to a garbage patch in the Pacific that’s twice as large as Texas, does it matter if one person did not? If most people have meat and dairy every day, will going vegan bring the end of mass-manufactured meat? Probably not.
Besides, living an eco-friendly lifestyle isn’t always the most convenient either, because it requires planning ahead and sometimes extra cost. It seems like there are plenty of reasons not to get out of my comfort zone to save the environment.
And yet I can’t let go of the thought that there must be a way to make a difference. Maybe it’s the “You can make a change” quotes we see on 14-year-old girls’ Instagram pages, maybe it’s the memory of high school debating classes about environmental problems or maybe it’s the thought that despite all the hopelessness, there’s hope for change.
So, how can we make a change?
“We can change the world and make it a better place. It is in our hands to make a difference.” – Nelson Mandela
The Lorenz Effect
Sixty years ago, the meteorology professor Edward Lorenz discovered something that would change the field of meteorology. Lorenz worked with a 12-variable computer model that simulates weather patterns over time. One day, he was repeating a simulation he had completed earlier, but this time, he had rounded up one variable. And surprisingly, changing the variable from 0.506127 to 0.506 rendered a different weather pattern.
What today is known as “the butterfly effect” gave Lorenz insights on how a small numerical difference can change the whole pattern.
And if mathematics is the language of the universe, there’s a little bit of math in every one of us. Would that mean that by making a small change in our lives, we can change everything?
“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” – Mother Teresa
The Ripple Effect
If you picture yourself on the shore of a lake, casting a stone into the water, you can see it disappear under the water surface. What’s left behind are ripples that spread out in every direction. Just by tossing a stone into the water, you have changed the whole water surface.
Now imagine that the same thing happens when you talk to someone about how plastic bags end up in garbage patches in the oceans or how meat production causes water waste and land loss. You leave a lasting impression on the person, who might spread your information to other people and those will spread it to even more people.
Two years after my first ever shopping trip to Walmart, I went on a grocery trip with the same friend. And she carried a tote bag instead of plastic bags because she was inspired by my refusal to use plastic bags two years earlier.
“Even the smallest person can change the course of history." -J.R.R. Tolkien
The Sum of Effects
Taken together, the ripple effect and the Lorenz effect have a strong message: Even your smallest decision makes a difference. Your decisions do not only change you but also the people around you, your loved ones.
And the best part: It doesn’t matter how old you are, where you come from or how much money you have – you can change everything.
Sometimes I watch the news and wish I had never been born. There’s too much bad happening in the world and it feels like there’s nothing I can do for a better future. But I could lock myself into a room for the rest of my life and that as well would change everything – most likely to the worse. So really, it comes down to the choice between doing something and doing nothing – where doing something is definitely the better choice.
“In a gentle way, you can change the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi
The Magic of Change
While you change your diet or your shopping habits and inspire others to do the same, you make the ripple effect work in your favor. It only needs a critical mass of people to create change on a larger scale.
And then, the magic happens.
That’s when companies like Kroger announce that they will go plastic-bag-free by 2025 or fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s start offering plant-based meat.
And that’s why we need people like you and me to be aware of the environmental impact of our daily choices so we can inspire change.
P.S. I wrote this article for myself so that I would see that I can make a change. And it worked. I hope it does the same for you.