This piece is adapted excerpt from "One Green Thing: Discover Your Hidden Power to Help Save the Planet" by Heather White. It is published here with permission from the author.
If 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, only 8 percent of plastics are recycled and the concept of an individual carbon footprint originated in a major oil company’s public relations playbook, why does what you buy or how you use your time even matter when we talk about climate action? The answer is simple and important.
We need substantial global policy and market solutions to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, but that only happens with individual action. By focusing on the need for these big policy wins, we’ve forgotten an essential principle for change. Individual action leads to culture change so these comprehensive strategies work.
The exciting thing is that if we all join in, the math does count. For example, Bret Jenks, president of the international conservation nonprofit RARE, recently told the Atlantic, "If 5 percent of Americans bought carbon offsets or changed other [carbon-intensive] behaviors, that would add up to a reduction of 600 million tons of carbon dioxide a year," and that shift would be "one of the top changes in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in human history." A recent study by Project Drawdown and RARE concludes that household and individual actions have the potential to contribute 25 to 30 percent of the carbon reductions we need.
If you intentionally live a more sustainable life and connect with your community about your daily practice of sustainability, what I call a "One Green Thing," you can build momentum for culture change to shift policy. The laws of change work together to create the culture shift we need. Here’s how.
First, there’s the law of simplicity and consistency. Simple, consistent, and tiny changes create momentum. You can find a ton of research on this phenomenon in leadership books, but my favorite resource is James Clear’s "Atomic Habits." He reminds us that "we often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter very much in the moment." But if we create systems that allow for small changes, their impact compounds over time. If we focus on tiny, consistent actions, we can make time itself a powerful agent for transformation of our individual and collective experiences.
In addition to simplicity and consistency, we must embrace what I call the law of identity to make habits — such as a daily ritual of sustainability — stick. If you view the ritual as part of who you are, you’re more likely to sustain it. Everyone has a different skill set and personality to help lead the necessary culture change for big, positive action. Through the Service Superpower assessment I created (think Enneagram or Myers-Briggs for Service), you’ll tap into what you likely already know about yourself and how you show up in service. Ask yourself who you want to be: How do you care for the important people in your life? Are you a fixer? A listener? The person who plans meals for someone who is sick? The person who sends a friend a good book or a poignant song when they are grieving? Aligning your daily practice of sustainability activities with your identity means you’re more likely to make it stick.
If we create systems that allow for small changes, their impact compounds over time.
Finally, there is the law of amplification, which means that positive actions lead to more positive actions, and that sharing joy inspires others. Peer-reviewed psychological studies show that joy is contagious. A 2008 study by Harvard and the University of California showed that happy people amplify their happiness to spouses, neighbors and friends. Someone who experiences happiness and shares it can increase a spouse’s happiness by 8 percent and a next-door neighbor’s by 34 percent.
The law of amplification is important to movement building. Sharing makes a difference, and when you share your joyful experiences, the impact of the repeated daily action amplifies. Recruiting friends and family to try out One Green Thing creates an opportunity to fight the overwhelm and anxiety about the future and to hope for a greener world.
Together, as we apply the laws of change — simplicity and consistency, identity and amplification — and as more join and our actions multiply, we can shift the culture toward the climate solutions we need. Your daily practice of sustainability matters in the climate and so do you. We need you in this movement. The latest International Panel on Climate Change report made clear that we have all the technology we need to solve the climate crisis, but what’s missing is the political will. That will starts with all of us, using our voice, taking action each day and working toward a more sustainable future.