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Can We Change the World Just by Changing Our Own Actions?

Too many of today’s “green living” advocates are missing the broader political strategies that would enable the small acts to be more than just symbolic, feel-good activities.

Photo Credit: Sergej Khakimullin/ Shutterstock


The following is excerpted from The State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Possible by the Worldwatch Institute. Copyright 2013 by the Worldwatch Institute. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington DC.

In one of the most iconic ads of the twentieth century, a Native American (actually, it was an Italian dressed up as a Native American) canoes through a river strewn with trash. He disembarks and walks along the shore as the passenger in a car driving past throws a bag of litter out the window. As the camera zooms in to a single tear rolling down his cheek, the narrator announces, “People start pollution. People can stop it.”

This 1971 ad, just a year after the first national Earth Day celebration, had a huge impact on a generation awakening to environmental concerns. Children and young adults watched it over and over, shared the faux-Indian’s grief, and vowed to make changes in their individual lives to stop pollution. That response was exactly what the ad’s creators hoped for: individual action. For the ad was produced not by a campaign to protect the environment but by a campaign to protect the garbage- makers themselves.

In 1953, a number of companies involved in making and selling disposable beverage containers created a front group that they maintain to this day, called Keep America Beautiful (KAB). Since the beginning, KAB has worked diligently to ensure that waste was seen as a problem solved by improved individual responsibility, not stricter regulations or bottle bills. It even coined the term “litterbug” to identify the culprit—individuals. By spreading slogans like “people start pollution, people can stop it,” KAB effectively shifted attention away from those who design, produce, market, and profit from all those single-use disposable bottles and cans that were ending up in rivers and on roadsides. As part of this effort, KAB created the infamous “crying Indian” ad against litter.

It worked. Over the last few decades, the theme of the individual’s role in wrecking the environment, and the individual’s responsibility in fixing it, has only grown stronger—driven not just by KAB but by hundreds of businesses, by the government, even by well-meaning individuals and organizations. Today, lists of “10 simple things you can do to save the environment” abound. The Lazy Environmentalist website will send you regular emails with tips on greening your shopping and household maintenance, implying that we really can save the environment without even breaking a sweat. Recycle bank, which is sponsored by Coca-Cola, rewards individuals for increasing their use and recycling of single-use beverage containers and other packaging. Participants who throw more single-use containers into the recycling bin are rewarded with more points—points that can be used to go shopping.

Picking up litter, carrying reusable bags to the store, biking instead of driving—all these are good things to do and there are many reasons to do them. They demonstrate our concern to those around us, hopefully providing inspiration and social proof for friends and neighbors to follow our lead. Greening our small daily acts brings into alignment our values and our actions, which feels good. As political science professor Michael Maniates says, “Small, everyday acts of green consumption are important moments of ‘mindful living’: they serve as daily reminders of our values, and of the larger struggles before us. But these individual actions are puny when compared to the challenges before us, and can’t achieve the kind of change we desperately need today.” As explained in The Story of Change, the latest Internet film by The Story of Stuff Project, these small actions are a fine place to start. But they are a terrible place to stop.

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