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 (energystar.gov). 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.
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 JulieClawson.com.