A recent opinion poll by BBC Wales showed that a rather large 52% of people think “whatever is done by individuals will make no difference to climate change whilst other countries are using fossil fuels.”
As it happens, these people are quite right. Individuals will not and cannot make any difference to climate change, regardless of whether or not other countries are using fossil fuels. Neither will individuals make any difference to the amount of waste sent to landfill. Each of the 5 million people in Scotland sends an average of 1.5 tonnes to landfill every year year, which results in a combined total of 7.37 million tonnes. Statistically, there is very little difference between “7.37 million tonnes” and “7.37 million tonnes minus 1.5 tonnes“. In fact you would need to use many more than two decimal places to even see a different number.
It’s perfectly natural to think that, because your actions make no noticeable difference to the national or global picture, nothing you do matters very much. Indeed, in some ways this is factually true. After all, it ultimately won’t make any meaningful difference to Scotland or the climate whether you, as an individual, throw all your waste in black bags. You are just a miniscule dot on the statistical landscape.
Clearly, our cumulative actions matter. Scotland as a whole has increased the percentage of waste we compost or recycle to almost 40%. How could we have achieved this without individual actions? Quite obviously we couldn’t. So it seems we have a problem with our perspective. We find it difficult to reconcile the fact that our actions by themselves are insignificant with the fact that they don’t exist in isolation. We consider our actions separately from other peoples’ but we cannot reasonably separate any part of ourselves from society any more than we can separate a fish from its bowl. We are society. The dichotomy between our private and public life causes us to act selfishly through innocent negligence. We forget the part we play because once we enter our own domain we cease to be actively involved in the world around us. We put black bags out for the bin man instead of separating our kerbside waste because we forget that our black bags are everyone’s black bags. We forget to recycle from every room in the house and put paper from our home office into the bin because we don’t think about all the other people doing exactly the same thing. Thousands or even millions of us (perhaps billions globally) recycle less than we could because of a simple human trait: insularity.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. As John Donne wrote in the 16th century.
- No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
- John Donne, Meditation XVII
- English clergyman & poet (1572 – 1631)
We are all individuals, yet we are none. I’ll leave you with this quote from the 14th Dalai Lama:
If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.