Small Acts of Green Living Won't Save the Planet, But It Can Open Dialogue About Systemic Climate Problems

You can pick your trash and hold the producer accountable too.

Volunteer man collecting trash on the beach. Ecology concept
Inside Creative House / Getty Images

Earlier this week, I wrote about the importance of sustainable investing, arguing that rather than sweating the small stuff, we should focus our efforts primarily on the things that really move the needle in terms of emissions. I stand by that assertion 100%.

I also, however, spent a good chunk of last weekend ignoring that advice and actually sweating the small stuff. Specifically, I found myself walking on the beach at Topsail Island, North Carolina, picking up tiny bits of Styrofoam, fishing line, and other beach detritus as my children splashed in the waves. It was all part of a transparently futile effort to "leave the place better than I found it," and do my small part to clean up the ocean of microplastics. 

That’s the thing about sweating the small stuff: It can sometimes be an energy- and attention-sucking distraction from the big picture. Yet it can also be an opportunity to consciously and mindfully engage on topics that feel too big to wrap our minds around otherwise. 

The distinction, I suspect, lies in how (and how much) we talk about such efforts. That’s especially true when we move from the entirely personal (nobody was watching me pick up trash), and instead delve instead into collective efforts. When 20,000 people come together to clean beaches, for example, it can be a powerful opportunity to welcome new people into the fold and to introduce them to the systemic drivers of the ocean plastics crisis. (Including Big Oil’s duplicity in pushing single-use plastic.) What we cannot allow it to be, however, is a feel-good alternative to producer responsibility

The same is true of almost every aspect of "greener" living. Whether it’s skipping a plastic straw, growing your own herbs, or crawling around on your hands and knees to caulk your baseboards and seal out drafts—there are many things we mildly obsessive Treehugger types do that are helping to reduce emissions somewhat. And if we find meaning or joy in those efforts, then I personally believe that it’s a good idea to keep doing them. 

One of the most challenging and perhaps regrettable parts of the systems change versus behavior change debates that keep kicking off on Twitter is that they can feel like dismissing people’s sincere, good-faith efforts to "do their part"—sometimes at great effort and expense. 

Equally regrettable, however, is the fact that our unrelentingly individualistic culture will inevitably take these small, personal efforts and present them as solutions to complex, structural problems that are 100% systemic in their nature. And as we’ve seen, we actually have very little control as individuals over how our actions are perceived by others. That means it can be hard to talk about our beach cleans or our energy-saving efforts without contributing to the impression that we are, in fact, presenting them as the answer. 

I have yet to crack the code on how to solve this problem. What I have learned, however, is to be mindful and intentional, both with myself and others, about how I frame my efforts. When I talk to my kids about trash on the beach, for example, I am very careful not to suggest that we can solve this problem on our own. While I am happy to share my "leave it better than I found it" ethos, I am quick to direct their attention to how that trash was produced and distributed in the first place. 

So if your children present you with a Bojangles drinks cup or an old Coca-Cola bottle from the beach, be sure to show them how to dispose of it responsibly. Before you do, however, be sure to point out the logos…