Just before our 9th annual EcoChallenge began last month, we came across a study released by our friends at World Wildlife Federation entitled Simple and Painless? The Limitations of Spillover in Environmental Campaigning. One of the key assertions of the report posits that focusing on smaller individual actions will only lead to small results. “Don’t be distracted by the myth that ‘every little helps.’ If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little,” share the authors.
At a recent Northwest Earth Institute staff meeting we discussed the report and what it means for our work effecting change through our discussion courses and EcoChallenge programs. Indeed, a focus on individual actions may serve to deflect pressure from government to “adopt ambitious and potentially unpopular policies and regulations,” as the report suggests. Perhaps a focus on individual actions helps to relieve an element of responsibility from other sectors, but we at the Earth Institute have always seen the potential for individual actions leading the way towards broader change – not only in our personal lives, but in how our actions affect our communities, our organizations, our workplaces and our schools. We’ve always stood by the truth that individuals are the seeds of change – even within larger entities with more power to effect the ambitious changes we do so desperately need.
At NWEI, we believe in an “all hands on deck approach.” Individuals taking action shouldn’t replace organizational or goverment responsibility. Individuals taking action on any level can only serve to enhance broader efforts and initiatives. Every person has a potential role to play in catalyzing larger shifts. And, we do know that individual actions DO add up, contributing to shifts in culture and practice and new values taking root. That said, we continue to work on promoting more difficult and impactful actions – and you’ll be seeing more of an emphasis on leadership and systemic changemaking in the months to come.
We’re heartened by a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center which reports that most Americans say yes when posed with the question: “Should the country do whatever it takes to protect the environment?” According to the Pew Center, most Americans report concern for the environment, and one in five try to act on that concern all the time. What would our collective impact be if a larger percentage of individuals was not only taking individual action, but also applying pressure on larger systems, government and organizations?
As our Executive Director David Macek says, “We definitely respect and see the value of the great movements working on policy changes, however we don’t think it’s wise to put all our eggs in that one basket. Research shows that there is a huge gap in people’s behavior, and with any new policies advocating far-reaching effects, people would need tools to change their behavior. Indeed, many people want change at the paradigm level but this is extremely difficult and unpredictable. Behaviors are a critical point of intervention and if you’re changing the behaviors of thousands of people, it does add up.”
So yes, “every little” action does add up. But it also does not stop there. That’s what we love about working with the Northwest Earth Institute community of changemakers. We know you know this – and we love following all the ways you are changing your communitites – and changing the world.