Making a Tangible Difference

If there is one question I am sure to get any time I speak on our personal responsibility to seek justice, it’s what difference does any of this really make. “Why bother changing my light bulbs to CFLs?” “Can buying fair trade really help farmers?” “Do my consumer choices really matter?” In other words, how big of an impact can one person really have?

Many environmental and advocacy groups are quick to point out that the largest eco-offenders and oppressors in this world are generally large corporations. For instance, the waste and pollution produced by these corporations combined with their extravagant energy consumption makes my choice to recycle that plastic bottle or install a CFL light bulb seemingly insignificant. So often these advocacy groups encourage me to focus my energies on making the big changes—pressuring corporations to clean up their act or lobbying the government to pass stricter trade laws. I’ve even been told that encouraging people to change their light bulbs is pointless because then they will assume they’ve done their environmental good deed and not push for any larger changes.

In the name of building a better world, it seems counterproductive to discourage those willing to help. By only promoting actions that can affect large-scale change, these groups can unintentionally turn things like environmental stewardship into a “more eco-conscious than thou” sort of competition. It’s like scoffing at a kindergartner’s attempts at reading just because she isn’t yet reading Shakespeare. We all have to start somewhere, even when it comes to saving the planet. So I still encourage people to do whatever they can whenever they can. It has to be doable for it to become a sustainable practice in their lives. A person has to first be willing to make the small changes in his or her life before they will commit to advocating for the bigger issues. If someone doesn’t care enough to even change a light bulb, why do we suppose they would care about clean energy legislation? Big changes start with small changes. That’s why I am for any attempt (large or small) that help people start where they are at.

But the truth of the matter is that even the small changes and personal commitments do make a difference. On one hand, it is a matter of scale. Get enough individuals doing the same thing, and their impact will be significant. When shipping giant UPS decided to get all 95,000 of their trucks to eliminate as many left turns as possible from their routes (since idling while waiting to turn wastes gas) they collectively saved 3 million gallons of gas and cut CO2 emissions by 31,000 metric tons in just the first year. And if every American home replaced just one light with a CFL bulb, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, about $700 million in annual energy costs, and prevent 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equivalent to the emissions of about 800,000 cars ( There is something about the collective “we” that multiplies our impact and affects great change. When one person starts living differently, and then gets a friend on board, and then perhaps a Bible study group or an entire church, she is making a difference that extends far beyond herself.

Mass movements aside, our individual commitments make a difference on even the small scale. A decision to purchase a fairly traded item, for instance, is a choice to make a difference in at least one other person’s life. The coffee farmer in Rwanda who can now feed his family because he can sell his small crop directly to a fair trade co-op is benefitted because of one person’s choice to buy his coffee. Choosing to buy the T-shirt sewn by the woman rescued from the sex trade and rehabilitated with a fairly paying job allows her an opportunity to heal. Like Mother Teresa said, “If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” That one person doesn’t mind that your actions didn’t magically solve all the world’s problems in an instant—she is just grateful for the impact you made in her life. There is a time and place for working to save the masses, but that in no way diminishes the importance of making a difference in one person’s life.

The actions of one person can have a significant impact in this world, but at the same time I have to wonder if such a question should even be our main concern. I am uneasy basing a decision to love and serve others on whether or not it will have a measurable impact. Jesus said that if we love Him we will obey his commands. Loving our neighbor, setting the oppressed free, bringing good news to the poor, spending ourselves on behalf of the hungry and seeking justice for all are not just suggested paths for how to have the greatest impact according to some utilitarian calculus; they are simply part of what it means to be faithful Christ-followers. We don’t weigh a decision of whether or not to be righteous on the global impact it will have, so why should our decision to love and serve be any different? Knowing we are helping others and changing the world is fantastic and encouraging, but we aren’t in it for the reward. We love others because as Christians we have no other choice.

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Do my actions make a difference? Certainly. But even if I never knew what impact I had in this world I would still act the same way.

Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice. You can read more of her writing at


Mark Baker-Wright (not verified)

A fair comment. The mercury in CFLs DOES need disposing of properly, and not enough people are aware of that fact.

That just means that work needs to be done to increase awareness. It doesn't mean people should stop using CFLs.

sdewittofm (not verified)

An excellent article, one I agree with completely (leaving aside the questions of mercury in light bulbs). The first job of a Christian is to be faithful, not effective. We should seek both small and big changes for justice because they are the right thing to do, their ultimate effectiveness is up to God. This does not mean that we should not care about the effectiveness of our actions (of course we should always seek to do things that advance the cause of justice as much as possible and not harm it), but neither should we fall into the trap of thinking that our actions do not matter unless they produce tangible, measurable results.

jenfs (not verified)

Regarding the mercury content in CFLs, I asked this very question of Rusty Pritchard, who is a natural resource economist and president/co-founder of Flourish, a Christian nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing lives and landscapes and who also blogs for Evangelicals for Social Action's weekly newsletter, the ePistle.
This was his response:

"[T]here is still a tiny amount of mercury contained in fluorescent lamps, but it is not released when the lamp is being used. If you used a regular incandescent bulb instead of a fluorescent lamp, much more mercury would be released into the environment from a power plant burning coal for the extra required electricity production. That mercury from powerplants can end up in the fish we eat, posing a big risk especially for kids and babies in the womb. The fluorescent lamps can--indeed should--be recycled (at Lowe's, Home Depot, Ikea, maybe one day even Walmart will start accepting them), and when they are recycled the mercury is recaptured and reused. It's important not to throw them away, and also important to clean up the bits if one gets accidentally broken (although the mercury is about one hundredth the amount of mercury in a mercury thermometer)."

He also gave me the pdf of an EPA fact sheet which had some very helpful information on this topic but I do not have the original link so I will just attach the basic information from the FAQs sheet.

(not the entire fact sheet)

Do CFLs contain mercury?
CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing an average of 4 milligrams. By comparison, older thermometers contain about 500 milligrams of mercury an amount equal to the mercury in 125 CFLs. Mercury is an essential part of CFLs; it allows the bulb to be an efficient light source. No mercury is released when the bulbs are intact (not broken) or in use.
Most makers of light bulbs have reduced mercury in their fluorescent lighting products. Thanks to technology advances and a commitment from members of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, the average mercury content in CFLs has dropped at least 20 percent in the past year. Some manufacturers have even made further reductions, dropping mercury content to 1.4 2.5 milligrams per light bulb.

What are mercury emissions caused by humans?
EPA estimates the U.S. is responsible for the release of 104 metric tons of mercury emissions each year. Most of these emissions come from coal-fired electrical power. Mercury released into the air is the main way that mercury gets into water and bio-accumulates in fish. (Eating fish contaminated with mercury is the main way for humans to be exposed.)
Most mercury vapor inside fluorescent light bulbs becomes bound to the inside of the light bulb as it is used. EPA estimates that the rest of the mercury within a CFL about 14 percent is released into air or water when it is sent to a landfill, assuming the light bulb is broken. Therefore, if all 290 million CFLs sold in 2007 were sent to a landfill (versus recycled, as a worst case) they would add 0.16 metric tons, or 0.16 percent, to U.S. mercury emissions caused by humans.
How do CFLs result in less mercury in the environment compared to traditional light bulbs?
Electricity use is the main source of mercury emissions in the U.S. CFLs use less electricity than incandescent lights, meaning CFLs reduce the amount of mercury into the environment. As shown in the table below, a 13-watt, 8,000-rated-hour-life CFL (60-watt equivalent; a common light bulb type) will save 376 kWh over its lifetime, thus avoiding 4.5 mg of mercury. If the bulb goes to a landfill, overall emissions savings would drop a little, to 4.0 mg. EPA recommends that CFLs are recycled where possible, to maximize mercury savings.

For more information on all sources of mercury, visit
For more information about compact fluorescent bulbs, visit

On a related topic--coal mining and coal burning-- here is a really good article from The Tennessean.

Jenfs (not verified)

Oh, Julie, I forgot to say thank you very much for this post. You are absolutely correct. What one person does can have an impact but as you correctly point out, to focus on "our impact" misses the critical point of loving Jesus and following his example and teachings. You said it well--"Loving our neighbor, setting the oppressed free, bringing good news to the poor, spending ourselves on behalf of the hungry and seeking justice for all are not just suggested paths for how to have the greatest impact according to some utilitarian calculus; they are simply part of what it means to be faithful Christ-followers." We may not get kudos in this life or even see the results of our actions but that is not the point. (God in his grace, understanding our need for affirmation, does often reward us though.)

Thanks for this post!


DHSkj (not verified)

CFL bulbs... Fact or Fiction
The danger of broken CFLs in the home.
The EPA has provided detailed guidelines to avoid unsafe indoor mercury
levels when a CFL breaks yet the guidelines make it sound like a home
becomes a hazardous waste site in need of professional remedial action
until the clean-up is complete. The EPAs instructions include:
1. Have people and pets leave the room.
2. Air out the room for 5-10 minutes by opening a window or door to the
outdoor environment (In the winter in Fargo? In the summer in Dallas?
Yeah, right!). 3. Shut off the central forced air heating/air-conditioning system, if you have one. 4. Place cleanup materials in a sealable container.
5. Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials outdoors in a
trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of
properly. Avoid leaving any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.
6. If practical, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken
and leave the heating/air conditioning system shut off for several
More recently, CFL bulbs have exploded
spontaneously while in use, sometimes causing fires. In 2010, New York
fire investigators concluded that a CFL bulb that exploded caused a home
fire. In early 2011 Tennessee officials concluded that a malfunctioning
CFL started a fire that killed a man in a rehabilitation center.
a CFL bulb can cost six to 10 times as much as an incandescent they use
less electricity to produce the same amount of light. For example, a
13-watt CFL produces the same amount of light as a 60-watt incandescent
bulb. Under ideal conditions, a CFL bulb could save $40 in electricity
and replacement costs over its four-and-a-half year life, compared to an
incandescent bulb. However, because laboratory conditions rarely match
typical use, consumer rarely save that much. Consider:

1. CFLs must be left on for at least 15 minutes at a time and used
continuously for several hours a day to achieve their full energy
savings. 2. CFLs can take up to three minutes to reach full
brightness when turned on initially providing as little as 50 percent
of their rated output. 3. CFLs used for only a few minutes at a time, such as in closets and bathrooms, burn out as fast as incandescent bulbs.

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