Do small actions amount to much?

A tour learns the ecological value of a pond at Randwick Sustainability Hub. Making ponds in their gardens is one of those little things people do to improve habitat for wildlife. Yet, a pond here and there will not improve the overall ecology of a region, so it is worth the bother?

Do those small actions we take in our lives really matter? Do they improve the bigger picture? Should we bother with them at all?

I’m talking about the little, daily actions many of us take and that permaculture courses encourage us to take… you know… buying organic food, reuse and recycling, walking or cycling instead of taking the car, reducing our household electricity use, growing some of the food we eat or buying it from someone who has grown it ethically, such as the farmers supplying Brisbane Food Connect.

I’ve had this discussion with my partner who, in her job as a local government sustainability educator, offers free Introduction to Permaculture and Living Smart courses to the public. The student mix she attracts is broad, however what they all have in common is the desire to adopt what we might call ‘sustainable living’ practices in their lives. Those sustainable living practices are those “little, daily actions” I mentioned earlier.

The question again arose at the New Economy Network Australia Conference in Melbourne during the November of 2018. There, the director of the US food agency, Food First, Eric Holt-Giminez, told the audience that although those little things are good, reversing the big trends such as climate change, food security, poverty and social equity requires a better economic system than we have. Changing the economic system is a big job and it can discourage people from making the small changes that make our lives and those of our neighbours better. They seem so trivial and ineffectual in comparison.

Eric Holt-Giminez with his new book at the New Economy Network Australia 2018 converence in Melbourne. At right is fair food advocate, Eva Perroni.

Those little things won’t change the big picture challenges such as climate change, poverty, access to fresh water and energy for all, air and water pollution, waste reduction and the like, will they? Unless enough of us do them, enough to create a groundswell of change. There is a groundswell but the numbers are not there to force substantial change. Not yet anyway. So, should we just skip those little things because they are not creating the desired change fast enough?

Around 2000 years ago, Marcus Aurelius thought about whether making small efforts were worthwhile. His decision: “You must build up your life action by action, and be content if each one achieves its goal as far as possible.”

Marcus is associated with the development of the branch of philosophy known as Stoicism. It is applied philosophy grounded in everyday life. Stoicism is not academic philosophy studied in universities where students and academics read the philosophers but, with some exceptions like Alain de Botton, do not become philosophers or tell us in simple language how we can apply philosophy in our lives. The Stoics, according to The Daily Stoic email post, “… are explicit that the philosopher is obligated to contribute to the polis, and to participate in politics”. University philosophy departments please take note.

Do we bother… or leave it to others?

Back to the question about whether it is worth the bother of doing those everyday things, those little ‘right’ things that are done by those of those of us who have adopted sustainable living practices. I think The Daily Stoic has the answer: “… the idea that one should only do something if their preferred outcome is guaranteed violates just about everything we talk about here.”

The Daily Stoic was addressing Americans about the recent elections. Developing their argument about whether a person’s vote counts and whether it is worth making the effort to vote, the author writes that an individual’s vote might not change how the vote will turn out and who gets elected, however voting is valid because “… a better world is built action by action, vote by vote, even if the vast majority of those votes and actions are thwarted.” That is, take the responsibility of voting because it is within your zone of control, your zone of choice, although who is elected is within your zone of concern and beyond your control.

Think about how dangerous the logic of non-voting would be if extrapolated out”, writes The Daily Stoic.

Almost no difference is made by the individual who decides to do the right thing, to do an act of kindness, to insist on the truth when a falsehood is easier, to be a good parent, to care about the quality of their work. Is that a reason to be a liar, a cheat, an asshole, a bad parent, or a poor craftsman? Of course not. And imagine what the world would look like if everyone insisted it was?”.

It’s up to us

So, how do we apply this example of practical Stoic philosophy to our permaculture lives? Do we skip those little things, those right things, because they do not suddenly create the changes in society we would like to see? Do we focus only on the big picture and adopt business-as-usual for the small picture?

No. We don’t. We do those small things because we have a choice, because they are the right things and, sometimes (to paraphrase President John Kennedy announcing NASA’s moon mission program in the 1960s), we do them they because they are difficult.

Those little things are in our zone of control, giving us the choice about whether we do them. When we do them and make our doing visible, they enter our zone of influence where our example can encourage friends, colleagues, even strangers to adopt them too. This, you probably know, is called the ‘ripple effect’ because our example spreads out like ripples in a pond to become visible to more and more people.

Yes, we do those little things and at the same time we work towards those big things that will influence the challenges of our time. We do both although they occupy different ends of the scale. We do them because they are the right thing to do.