On Making a (Small) Difference

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Although I try to stay conscious of my role in the bigger picture of the world and the context my life is set in, sometimes I get really caught up in my own life. College becomes overwhelming, problems with friends or a rough break-up takes center stage, and dealing with the stress of those things envelops my time and energy until something jars me out of it. However, the things that jar me–a lecture in my conservation biology class about how severely we are overusing our resources, or an article online about the horrors of sex-trafficking–are often just as paralyzing and overwhelming as whatever personal problem I was focused on before. I will decide that I need to do something about the issue in question at once! My passion for justice is ignited and I prepare to change the world! But then I have school the next day, and 70 pages of reading due, and I still need to sort out that weird conversation I had with so-and-so because I am pretty sure they misunderstood what I was trying to say, and I have a big paper due over the weekend, and it’s Mothers’ Day and I haven’t even made my mom a card. So my big plans for world change get buried under the absolutely “essential” business of everyday life.

I am sure I am not the only person who has this problem; I would argue that it is exceedingly common. It’s not that we don’t want to do things that contribute to the greater good of humanity, it’s that life seems to constantly get in the way. So how do we resolve the gap (or sometimes canyon) between what we want to see done in the world and what we are actually doing? Most of us do not have the capability to quit our jobs or school and volunteer our time doing good deeds for the rest of our lives. I do want to take the time to learn while I am in college, I want to really engage with my studies and I want to have a degree because in our society that will give me more opportunities and options in how I spend the rest of my life. However, I often struggle to remember that my education and academic achievements are NOT the number one most important thing in my life right now.

I know many people who seek to do good by going on missions trips in the summer, or volunteering in their off-time, or by donating sums of money to charities that do good work. All of these are fantastic things to do, but not things that everyone is able to do. I would argue that there are things that everyone can do, but that most of these involve making small, intentional choices in your everyday life that may seem insignificant but do work to align what you want to see in the world and your personal actions. Some of the small practices I’ve adopted so far are as follows:

1. Buy as many of your clothes as possible secondhand.
The textile industry is not only a large source of human trafficking and unethical labor conditions, but also taxes the environment. By buying second-hand you are refusing to support the companies that engage in unethical labor and ecologically harmful practices. Additionally, it reduces clothing waste by recycling, only about 25% of our clothing gets recycled despite the fact that 95% of textiles are recyclable. This results in copious amounts of unnecessary waste.
I am really passionate about this one. If you can, buy your clothing secondhand, have a swap meet with friends, or, if you can afford it, buy fair trade. (I will most likely write an entire post convincing you why this is so important, but I will save it for another week.)

2. Cut back on meat.
If you are already vegetarian or vegan, you can skip this point! However, for us meat eaters it is important to keep in mind that meat, especially red meat, is a huge pull on our limited resources. Cattle takes copious amount of water to farm and plenty of fuel to transport. My bio teacher challenged us one week in class to cut red meat out of our diets for only two days out of that week. Just one person cutting out red meat for two days a week saves 953 gallons of water.

3. Take time to love the people who are in your life who are not always easy to love.
Even though this doesn’t always feel like the major world change we wish we were creating, it sometimes makes a far greater difference than we might realize. Making time to be a supportive, caring presence in the lives of those around you is, in my opinion, a largely underestimated form of love.

4. Engage politically and socially in issues you care about.
Vote, sign petitions, show your support and let your voice be heard. When making decisions, remember that there are many people whose voices aren’t given as much weight as yours and remember that you can use your voice to draw attention to theirs.

5. Either reduce or redirect your consumption of unethically produced foods.
Coffee, tea and chocolate are some big ones. If you can’t afford to purchase these things fair trade, then try to cut back on your consumption of them.

Obviously I am still working out how to live in a way that is most congruent with my values and I do so far from perfectly. Additionally, some of the steps I take require a certain amount of privilege for me to even consider them as an option, and I recognize that. But I do believe that there are certain things we can all do to improve the state of the world. Adopting small practices like these reminds me that even when I don’t have time to throw a fundraiser or volunteer for an organization, I can do little things that add up and make a difference. I would love to hear what small, everyday choices you make to try to live into your values in the comments if you’d like to share! 

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