Why individual actions matter

24 June 2021
Why individual actions matter to help reduce plastic and waste

Every few months an article or graphic appears debating the importance of individual actions in response to reducing waste and plastics compared to the steps business and government can take. It's a worthy debate, especially as many of us are realising most environmental destruction and social injustice has been steered for centuries by business and governments.

For a long time these businesses and governments have distracted us, helping craft the message that it's the individuals responsibility to make changes, do the right thing, litter less, turn off the lights, recycle right etc.

I want to see businesses and government step up and make changes, take responsibility themselves. It's absolutely necessary if we want to make changes quickly. I have lobbied and repeated this cry beyond count.

What can be forgotten about these BIG businesses like the top plastic polluters Procter & Gamble, Coco Cola, Nestle, Unilever, Pepsico to name a few is that they didn't come together and take over immediately. Each businesses started with an individual and attracted others that had similar goals and beliefs. It's sad and alarming so many for so long propped up and propelled these ideas of over production and mass consumption at the risk of people and planet. 

I was one of these people, and you probably were too until you were inspired by another individual to make a change. We learn, choose to reform our individual habits, and naturally end up gravitating towards others with similar goals and beliefs; less plastic, less waste in this case. If it wasn't for individuals realising something needs to change we probably wouldn't know who the biggest polluters were and what companies are doing the most harm.

When the debate of individual vs business/government rise to the surface they are looking at individual change through the lens of activism. Why not? Activism can work. It's where a movements visibility becomes seen. I'm incorporating the modern day definition of activism beyond the rally; this is consumer changes alongside petitions, social media discussions next to in person town hall talks.

I've always viewed our individual actions to be critical, if not necessary to moving the needle. It's the individuals coming together collectively that steers the business and government to our causes or at least enough to make us think they are doing us a service. But then they have to because both need the individual to stay engaged. So that's why we see governments are getting plastic bans across Australia, businesses of different levels are making changes or developing new solutions.

The individual actions prompt conversation and education in our close circles and wider communities that can run all the way to boardrooms. According to Gerald Mackie, Ph.D., people cannot be forced to change their ways by outlawing or preaching. Empowerment through community action and integrating new policies into existing culture is the fastest way to enact change.

Coles Bay in Tasmania was the first Australian town to ban plastic bags. The ban inspired Modbury, Devon to do the same. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised Modbury's action. From one side of the world, to the other, the actions of some individuals inspired change. It did not stop there.

The Coles Bay bag ban lead to the whole state of Tasmania enacting legislation for a 10c levy. The Modbury bag ban lead to England's widely popular 5p levy, resulting in an 85% drop in plastic bag use. Governments and businesses get the shiny media article and pat on the back for making big changes, but these changes were driven by individuals. 

There is one important point I have yet to see brought up as to why individual change is critical and that is recognising how changing our mindset, habits, and our hearts will hopefully stop our destruction from happening again in the future.

Because when we change within our hearts rather than through force and recognise the undeniable need to see ourselves as nature, can we only learn to protect long term.

When I change not only my habits but also mindset, I will pass these lessons down to my children and hopefully these teachings will continue, so we are not here in 100 years time taking advantage of new resources and exploiting people again. Perhaps I am sounding a bit too idealistic but that's where I see one of the powers of individual change. Well, so long as they change is not being driven by desire to fit a trend...

There is also the missed recognition of individuals power in building the local futures movement and recognising not all solutions have to come from business and government. We can problem solve by turning inward to our communities and building localised systems to meet peoples needs as appropriate to the area. Coles Bay didn't wait, they acted themselves.

We've seen a rise in Buy Nothing New and Good Karma groups promoting the sharing of stuff for free, mutual aid, repair groups, community gardens, community solar, food sharing projects, community co-ops, and the list is growing - each of these are a responses to waste, plastic, over-consumption, food miles and the many other issues driving climate change. When you sit down with a group of individuals in your community, pooling resources and skills to address issues, you'll be quick to find solutions exist right here in our neighbourhoods. For so long we have relied on the big end of town to lead the way out of situations when in reality we can rely on ourselves for some of it. System change is important to changing so much of what is creating harm, but who should we trust to build these systems? The ones who created it or working alongside our neighbours? 

Maybe it's business and government starting the debates over individual vs them, trying to derail us from the idea that we the individual have solutions that can lead to meaningful heartfelt change. 

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