Tender Sapling

the blog

Can Individuals Make a Difference?


We believe, and we teach our kids, that every individual is important and that our individual choices make a difference in the world, whether talking about saving the planet or any other social justice issue. But some would argue, at least in terms of the success of the green movement, that that’s debatable.

Boy in Monticello garden

For example, in a nice New York Times Op-Ed piece from 2011, Going Green but Getting Nowhere, Gernot Wagner makes a compelling argument that the “changes necessary are so large and profound that they are beyond the reach of individual action.”

He’s got a good point, though he makes it in such a stark, bleak way that it can lead us individuals to feel powerless to make change. Many readers wrote in with thoughtful arguments: Do Individual Acts Help Save the Planet?

Of course, there are really good reasons Wagner and other writers like Bill McKibben (author, most recently, of Eaarth “a guide to living on a fundamentally altered planet”) state things in such stark, rather inflammatory ways. For one thing, it’s pretty true that until something drastically different happens, we’re simply not doing enough as a global civilization to fend off the worst case scenarios. But it’s also these kinds of books and articles that get people to think differently and incite action.

I firmly believe in the power of individuals to make a difference in the world, but generally it’s through behaving differently, through real action and service, that we become agents of change, recruiting others to the cause. When that happens, we suddenly have collective action, and that’s where the real power is that Wagner’s talking about. It’s collective action that’s needed to make a real difference in policy at the national and international governmental level. Until then, the material advantages and entrenched interests of the 1% (and to some extent all of us in the developed world, the US particularly) will keep the status quo firmly in place.

Girls in meadow

We like to get our kids involved in these discussions. It’s important for them, from early on, to begin forming an appreciation of not just how the world is and how it operates currently, but also how we got here. Only by appreciating that can we envision how to create real change for the future. And certainly most everyone but the most die-hard climate change doubters can agree that we need real change.

What do you think? Can individual actions make a difference? Have you given any thought or taken any action to support collective change? Do you discuss these ideas with your kids? If so, how?


Author: tendersaplingdada

Scott Mohajeri Norris is the co-founder of Tender Sapling and father to three wonderful boys. He blogs about sustainability, world citizenship, and virtues development at the Tender Sapling Blog.

3 thoughts on “Can Individuals Make a Difference?

  1. I absolutely believe individual action can make a difference. Moreover, in some cases, if I waited for other people, I would never do anything. It has to begin with individuals, and then it branches on from there.

    “Any thought to collective change?”

    Good question. This is a direction I’m moving toward, but it can be slow going. I’m taking an interest in local community organizations, but it can hard finding kindred spirits. The blogging has helped for me, but it really feels like dipping my toe in the water. I’ve taken to writing emails to some activists, and in some cases, I’ve found people to be encouraging.

    Do I discuss these ideas with kids.

    Not as much as I’d probably like to. We’ve made a number of changes in our family, and we do a little explaining to our girls. I’ve been trying to encourage more of an interest in the outdoors. Thinking that if they love the trees and appreciate nature more than maybe it will make them more likely to appreciate the choices we make as a family. Not sure if we’re making any progress on that front.

    Thank you for the discussion!

    • Dear Darren,

      Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. Yes, making change is slow going. I find it can be frustrating, too, because demonstrating commitment to causes and ideas through action takes a lot of time, time which is in short supply in this chapter of our lives as parents of young children. But hopefully We are laying the groundwork not only for what we as parents will accomplish later in life, but also (and arguably more importantly) for what our tender saplings can accomplish as they become fruitful trees.

      I really enjoyed your series on Sustainability and Faith. So glad you found us, and I look forward to reading more of Momentary Delight!

      • Thanks Scott for the look. I enjoy the spirit of your blog and the topics you’re trying to address. As a parent, it’s always good to read how others are dealing with these kinds of challenges. It will be good to follow along and take part in the conversation.

        Stay Cool. Goodness knows, I’m trying. 🙂

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