Ever get a sinking feeling like your sustainable actions just don’t matter? What’s one stainless steel straw when the world is awash in plastic? Why grow your own garden when there are tomatoes at the grocery store?
It’s easy to become fatigued. All that beeswax wrap making and biking places and worry over whether or not your takeout comes in styrofoam takes a lot of energy.
Pictures of plastic waste wastelands don’t help. Neither do all the pundits with their “It’s not up to individuals, it’s up to companies.” and “The oil companies want you to think it’s about personal change so they don’t have to be responsible.”
This is not new. The pissing match between individual versus systemic advocates has been going on for decades.
I’m here to say ignore that noise. Your individual actions do matter. They matter deeply and truly, in ways small and large, now more than ever.
Yes, systemic change needs to happen, now. Yes, companies need to take responsibility for their products. Yes, governments must govern for the common good. Who makes decisions in companies and governments? People. Individual people working together.
Your personal sustainable actions support the systemic change that has to happen. Your actions benefit the world intrinsically, even when it’s hard to see the impact. Here are a bunch of reasons why, plus actionable ways to keep your motivation burning bright.
It’s a false choice: Personal and systemic change depend on each other
I’ve been in this environmental world for my whole life. For most people, this fight about what’s more important is a dangerous distraction.
Here’s the truth: It’s a linked system. There is no systemic change without individual change. Systemic change enables individual change. It’s both/and not either/or.
Want a municipal composting program? That happens when people want to compost and for whatever reason can’t do it at home. Non-responsive local government in your city? Your composting program is a business waiting to happen, but only if individuals want it.
Want a plastic bags ban? That happens after citizens have done their own best work to kick single use plastic out of their own lives. People never go from happy ignorance straight to calling on city council to annihilate plastic bags.
Want real action on climate change? People calling for change are doing their own personal lower-carbon living work.
For decades, the environmental movement has suffered from internal fights over what’s most important. Those who would rather we didn’t change are happy to use that discord for their own gain.
Motivated obfuscation is nothing new. I was at a climate education meeting at a big scientific conference a long time ago. Climate change science was just starting to be politicized and denied. A political issues expert stood up and said “Here’s what’s going to happen. First they’re going to say it’s not happening. Then they’re going to say it’s not humans. Then they’re going to say it’s not important. Then they’re going to say it’s too hard to fix. Then it’s going to be too late.”
If you’re a big company producing most of the world’s pollution, it’s a happy argument that every person should individually move heaven and earth to use less of your product—that means you don’t have to change your business model. Or, why not say it’s the government’s job? Or that technology will save us?
All of those arguments disconnect the levers. It’s going to take all sectors and a whole lot of concerned people to make the changes that need to be made. Your actions are part of that. Even when it starts with a straw.
Society is a complex system, like the Earth system that it’s linked to. What that means is that small forces can have big effects. Change can come on a dime. Little pushes that push together over a threshold can shift the system into an entirely different mode. Your actions matter.
Want some other reasons your sustainable living practices matter? Here they are
Your sustainable actions change you in a good way
Sustainable behavior research shows that if you take one small action because of the environment it makes you more likely to take another. If you install energy efficient light bulbs because of climate change (rather than to save money), you’re more likely to take other energy-saving measures. People like to be in integrity with themselves and the more they do the more internal coherence they enjoy.
Your sustainable actions change those around you
It’s hard to be the first or only person who asks to use your reusable containers at the grocery store. Know that it matters; when someone sees you ask to use your own jar they’re more likely to do it themselves, because apparently it’s a thing and OK to do. You’re the example.
Seeing other people do something makes it permissible for the people around you to do it too.
Your sustainable actions change your family
My friend’s kids fought her every day on recycling. They bitched and moaned and threw stuff in the wrong bin. Then, when they moved out, they called her and complained that their roommates didn’t recycle properly.
How do our kids learn what’s important? By watching us. They’re learning about your values despite themselves.
Your sustainable living practice makes it possible for you to have a bigger impact
Why would anyone listen to someone who hadn’t made change in their own life? My city council asked every candidate for the Citizens’ Sustainability Advisory Board what they were doing in their own life to be more sustainable. It wasn’t enough to have a fancy environmental title or to work in the field. In order to be on the board, we had to have demonstrated commitment personally. You don’t have to be perfect—there is no such thing. You just need to demonstrate commitment one way or another.
Your sustainable living practices fight eco-anxiety
Climate change worries are affecting our affect. The American Psychological Association reports that extreme weather and slower environmental changes like drought and ecosystem loss lead to depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges. All these challenges impact vulnerable populations more, exacerbating social inequities. How do you handle scary things? The APA recommends taking individual action and building resilience in communities (which means people taking action). When you do what you can within your sphere of control and influence it’s a lot easier to sleep at night.
Your sustainable actions save you money and health
Most eco-friendly actions hit the triple bottom line: People, profit and planet. It’s healthier to eat more plants. It’s cheaper to ride your bike. It’s better for your mental health to connect with your neighbors to share tools and zucchini. You and your family realize multiple benefits all along the way.
The actions you need to keep your motivation high
In the end, what else would you do? If you care, the personal harm from doing nothing is intolerable. Doing nothing is a prescription for despair. So what do you actually do when sustainable living feels hard or like it doesn’t matter? I’ve been in this for a long time and here’s what I’ve learned.
It mattered to that one
Keep your wins close. Remember the trite story about the man walking a beach littered with starfish. He was throwing them back to the water even though there were thousands. When someone asked “why are you wasting your time? It can’t matter, you’ll never save all of them” he answered “it mattered to that one” as he threw another back. It might be trite but it’s true.
None of us can change it all by ourselves. Our actions do matter on whatever scale they happen. If you know you helped someone live sustainably, if you’ve helped even just your backyard regenerate to build soil and welcome wildlife, keep that knowledge close. Write it down. It mattered to that one.
Focus on the action, not the feeling
Actions are sustainable for the long term, feelings aren’t. A lot of people become environmentalists because they had an emotional “aha” moment. They watched The Story of Stuff or the 13th Hour or saw sea animals stuffed with plastic refuse. That feeling of “I’ve got to do something” is important. But the feeling doesn’t last for decades.
Actions are a choice. Actions last. Environmentalists who persist just do the actions day in and day out and get their satisfaction from the actions themselves, not the outcome or the emotions. They still care. But that first burst of passion isn’t why; they do it because that’s who they are now.
Take care of yourself
The world does not need a burned out environmentalist. There’s more work than one person can do. You cannot spearhead your city’s sustainability movement, grow all your food, bike everywhere, take care of your family, and be up on all the latest depressing news. Not for long.
Instead, pick and choose your battles, do what you can, pick actions that make you happy, while making sure you sleep, eat healthy food, exercise, take media breaks and take time with your family.
Process the feelings
A few years ago I saw new research about the rate of permafrost melt in the Arctic and the implications. I was upset. It took a whole series of drawings to process those feelings and get to a place of hope again. What practice can you have in place to process? Art, journaling, talking with others, what will work for you to acknowledge and work through the challenges?
Focus on the fun
I’m not saying that it’s not work. But it’s also fun. Marvel at your first ripe tomato that tastes better than anything you can buy. Be proud of the thing you sewed or canned or baked or built. You made that! Cuddle that chicken. Smell the basil. Post the heck out of it on Instagram. Enjoy yourself and revel in all of it.
Find your people
It’s helpful to know you’re not alone. Part of taking care of yourself and finding fuel for your journey is to connect with other people who care. Join a sustainable living group in real life or virtually, go to a food systems festival, take a workshop to learn a sustainable skill. That’s the joy, when you’re not the only crazy chicken lady you know. When you’re in a group where everyone cares, you can learn from each other, it’s a breath of fresh air. Find your people.
Be in nature
It’s easy to be so focused on all the things that you forget to be grateful for the thing you’re fighting for. Spend some time enjoying all the creatures great and small, go for a walk outside, sit in the garden and watch the birds. While you’re there, practice some appreciation for the people and other living things all around us. These connections with all those who share this Earth are the ultimate reason for sustainable living. This is where the joy lives.
Your sustainable living practices matter. You matter.
It’s easy to wonder if it’s all worth it. Sustainable living takes more energy to make decisions and research brands or to make and grow things. Sometimes it’s a drag to say no to things that other people are fine with.
Especially if your family and friends aren’t on board, or if you see people dismissing personal contributions, it’s easy to get downhearted or discouraged and to not know how to keep going.
Don’t believe those who would steal your motivation or tell you it doesn’t matter or try to make you change back. Your witness, your skills and your passion change the world.
If you put just some of these ideas into action and hold tight to the knowledge that the person/society/Earth systems are linked, it helps.
Imagine that you’ve fully internalized how your actions fit into the big scheme of things. Imagine that you have found your people, that you’ve focused on the fun, that you’re doing your best to take care of yourself and that you know your family is being changed even if you can’t always see it.
Every one of us is an example to others to show what’s possible. Every one of us is a part of the invisible forces that change society. We can be so close to a threshold of wide-scale change, and it can feel so hard, until it isn’t. Until we’ve passed the virtuous threshold and sustainable living is easier for everyone. Until it’s what everyone does. Your actions ripple into your friends and family, into your town and your community groups.
Those you influence will make their own ripples. You won’t be able to see the full positive impact of your actions. But they’re there.
Then, when someone tells you it doesn’t matter, you’ll know the truth. You aren’t alone. You aren’t the only one doing the work. People are watching. Your actions matter. You matter.
I would love to know what practices you use to keep your motivation going.
Want some more actionable ways to live your sustainable living values?
Get your free Zero Food Waste Formula action plan and mini-email course.
The Simple Living Guide for Beginners
Help! My Simple Living Life Doesn’t Feel Simple!