We were walking to the beach one day, following this winding little footpath that navigated from the parking lot down to the water. Along the way my friend started picking up bits and pieces of rubbish: bottle caps, straws, chips packets. Her boyfriend shrugged and simply said, “Yeah, she does this all the time. Whenever we’re walking somewhere she just picks up the trash she sees along the way.” I remember how moved I was by this simple act. And I realised that day that it’s in these simple, everyday actions that we can make the biggest impact.
I often get overwhelmed by the immense amount of work that needs to be done to make the world a better place. It’s a Pandora’s Box situation where, as soon as you start opening your eyes to the problem, you’re confronted with this impossible number of problems. And often I’ve chosen to just close my eyes again, cripled by the weight of the task.
Take plastic pollution, for instance. As soon as you start looking, you see plastic everywhere. Grocery store shelves show off perfectly portioned foods, each in their own little plastic tub. Most clothes have some form of polyester blended into it. Single-use debris is clogging our oceans, poisoning our water-supplies, killing eco-systems. Turn over that conveniently small packet of nuts you picked up on route to the pay-point and you’ll notice that the plastic can’t even recycle. Sigh. And as much as I want to be the eco-warrior that converts to cloth nappies, I just can’t add that level of admin to my life right now. Balancing my job and baby is already a very delicate act.
But you don’t have to be a full-on vegan, hemp-wearing eco-warrior travelling through Africa to save the starving children and fight rhino poachers (though bless everyone with this level of commitment). It’s also totally fine if you want to be an everyday human who likes a takeaway latte in the morning. Nobody can be perfect, and this unreachable ideal of perfection often stops us from doing anything. So instead, why don’t we start with the little things? Taking your keep-cup along to the coffee shop, or shopping with reusable grocery bags will make a massive difference. Choose the loose bananas instead of the ones in a plastic bag. Recycle.
At the same time I think we need to respect the fact that we each have a different way of giving back, and different passions that drive us. My mom runs an NGO that works with kids after school, tutoring them in various fields and helping to set them up for a successful life. I am in awe of her commitment, and inspired by the way her actions are helping to change lives. And yet, I’ve never had a burning desire to become involved in the work she does. For a long time I felt guilty about this but I’ve finally made peace with the fact that this route doesn’t have to be the one I take.
Giving back could mean offering your skills to help other people. It could mean volunteering to feed homeless people. It could also mean playing with dogs or cats at an animal rescue shelter. Reading books for kids. Organising a beach cleanup.
Or it could mean picking up trash as you’re going along your way.
It could mean offering a helping hand to that friend who you know is struggling.
Taking a pot of soup to a family who has just had a baby.
It could mean supporting local entrepreneurs who are doing their best to create a fair work environment.
It could mean spreading the word about awesome sustainability initiatives.
For a long time I did nothing because I was overwhelmed, and then I felt guilty for doing nothing, which only discouraged me from taking action. I get it.
Then I asked myself this: What gets me fired up? You know, those posts on Facebook that inspire you to repost with a “feeling angry” tag and furious emoji. The stuff that makes you shake your head. Swear internally. Swear out loud. That’s the feeling you should act on.
And then start small. With things you care about. Working with your skill set and your industry contacts and the space you have influence. And who knows, maybe the little things will lead to big things.
Afterall, if something as small as a straw can cause all this trouble, imagine the impact your everyday actions can have.