Beth Terry, the woman behind Fake Plastic Fish, has gone to amazing lengths to cut plastic out of her life. Last year, she produced something like 4 pounds of plastic trash. It’s her cause, and she’s clear that she’s a little crazy about it.
This is not a cause I’m taking up. I simply do not have the energy to go after one environmental battle with that single-minded a focus. But I’m incredibly impressed with what Beth has done, and even more with how she’s done it.
She’s passionate about personal change. So am I.
Small, personal changes in our lives matter not because of the impact we have as individuals through those changes, but because they prepare us for the moments when individual action can effect large change. Rosa Parks is a great example of this. The popular story about Ms. Parks is that she was a tired old lady who one day got fed up with the injustice of a segregated public transit system and refused to cede her seat to a white person on the bus.
It’s true that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and that she didn’t plan that act of protest that day before she got on the bus. She had genuinely come to the end of her rope. But she was also a lifelong labor rights activist who had spent many years learning how to stand her ground for something she believed in. When that moment arrived, she was ready and able to do what she had to do.
This, to me, is the real value of carrying a reusable water bottle, or biking to work, or being a vegetarian or whatever you do. When you change your life in the direction of something you want, you get stronger. You become better able to defend what you love, and to push back against forces that might previously have overwhelmed you. You get used to feeling powerful and free, and that makes you mighty.
This is especially true when you do something that scares you. As Starhawk, one of my early spiritual teachers, likes to say, “Where there’s fear there is power.” If you’re afraid of something, probably you have some energy tied up in it. Doing the thing you fear can free up that energy and in turn make you more powerful.
Yes, the changes we make in our personal lives have power because of their collective impact. If we all give up plastic water bottles or factory-farmed meat, we can create powerful change as a group. The Quakers did this when they spearheaded a grassroots boycott of sugar in Britain to protest slavery – and it worked.
But even more powerful for me is the way these small, daily shifts in habits are an exercise of will, strengthening our willpower like a muscle. So that we’re ready to use it when we need it.