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  • alyssaabarton

Changing the World

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ― Margaret Mead

I recently wrote a blog, “How "Green" Are You Really?,” where I talked about things you can do – and specific habits and practices I employ – to “go green," reducing your impact on the environment. But I think I forgot to include one major piece of information. In addition to the laundry list of day to day activities I do to reduce my footprint, I also gave up an entire life/culture/city in Miami, Florida, to relocate to Seattle, Washington, and to work as an environmentalist.

[Yes – there is work as an “environmentalist.” My particular job is in policy, but you can also find work in many other fields – law, science, education, administration, communications, marketing, fundraising, tech, and more - as an environmentalist.]

Like everyone else on the planet who’s employed, there are times when I lose sight of my purpose – of my WHY. I sometimes find myself caught up in the minutia of my job and forget the big picture: why did I decide to take this job in the first place? What’s the whole point? Maybe that’s why I forgot to mention that one, biggest commitment I’ve made to “going green”: my career.

Making such a major life change requires a really good reason. Writing to you about things you can do to “go green” also assumes that YOU have a reason to want to go green. But maybe you’re not convinced you need to, or should bother.

It can be overwhelming to start thinking about all the stuff that’s wrong with the world. War and genocide. Cultural genocide. Racism, sexism, homophobia, hate. Slavery. World hunger. Homelessness and poverty. Mass shootings. Oppressive governments and corporations. Global warming. The destruction of the world's resources. Incurable disease. The list goes on.

I feel like most people pick one or two issues they really care about and focus there, because to expand your scope and take in all the dire calamities at once can make you feel really, really awful. So we get tunnel vision. Our brains have lots of clever tricks to keep us calm, like telling us to automatically change the channel when there's bad news on, to look away from the homeless person asking for change on the street, or to ignore or shut down conversations about things that make us uncomfortable. Our brains try to protect us from feeling discomfort, sadness, and shame.

But you can make the world a better place without dwelling on the negative. It’s a matter of focusing on the world you want to live in – not spending your time fixating on the bad. How can we do this?

We can do this by being knowledgeable about the issues, and by only lending our support to people, activities and values that will contribute to making the world the place we want it to be.

What I mean, in short, is to use your VOTE, your ATTENTION, and your MONEY only for people, activities and values that are good, and that you believe in. Because voting, paying attention to something, and spending money are three major ways that everyone – you, me, and everybody – support people, activities and values whether you agree with them or not. Your vote, your attention, and your money are commodities, and they give power.

It is important that we direct our power towards the kind of world we want to live in.

I was reminded of our individual power to make change, and our prerogative to do so, when I recently listened to an audiobook, The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert. It was at times terrifying, depressing, and motivating.

As you may know, the earth is currently undergoing a mass extinction event – a mass die-off of a significant proportion of all species, from mammal to reptile to insect – caused by humans.

Kolbert traveled the world to examine major extinction events that have taken place throughout our planet’s history – we’re aware of 6, including today's – and to look at environmental changes currently taking place across the globe. She investigates and witnesses first hand how the extinction of individual species can (and is being) caused by:

  • Climate change

  • Ocean acidification

  • Disease

  • Habitat fragmentation

  • Poaching, and

  • Invasive species

She documents the rapid and increasing pace at which our planet’s species are dying, and warns of what we risk to lose if we continue to move forward on this trajectory.

The extent to which humans – you and I – have the ability to shape the planet and direct its future has lead some scientists to call the current geological age the Anthropocene, as human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

“Human activity has transformed between a 1/3 and a ½ of the land-surface of the planet. Most of the world’s major rivers have been dammed or diverted. Fertilizer plants produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems. Fisheries remove more than a 1/3 of the primary production of the oceans’ coastal waters. Humans use more than ½ of the worlds readily accessible freshwater runoff. Most significantly… people have altered the composition of the atmosphere. Owing to a combination of fossil fuel combustion and deforestation, the concentration carbon dioxide in the air has risen by 40% in the last 2 centuries, while the concentration of methane – an even more potent greenhouse gas - has more than doubled.” (Chapter 5, at 3:59:15).

The stats about species die-off are evening more frightening.

We cannot ignore the impacts we are having on the planet, though we don’t have to morbidly dwell on the negative day in and day out. “Wouldn’t it be better, practically and ethically, to focus on what can be done, and is being done to save species, rather than to speculate gloomily about a future in which the biosphere is reduced to little plastic vials [full of blood samples]? The Director of a conservation group in Alaska once put it to me this way," Kolbert says: “ 'people have to have hope. I have to have hope. It’s what keeps us going.' ” (Chapter 13, at 9:44:15).

This is why I do what I do: because I care, I hope, and I know that we can change the world through our actions.

This is why I write about problems that impact the world from time to time and ask you to act on them by simply being more intentional. It’s not because I want to be depressing or to dwell in the negative, but because I see the power of action. I see it translated into small wins every day.

“When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out. This is the case whether the agent drops from the sky in a fiery streak or drives to work in a Honda. To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong exactly. Still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.” (Chapter 13 at 9:50:56).

Since your vote, your attention, and your money all have the power to shape the future of our world, use these powers wisely. Inform yourself, and direct your powers with intention towards the world you want to live in. Together we can change the world.

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