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1363 N. Western Avenue
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Forest & Found is a nonprofit community thrift store located in Lake Forest, IL that features good quality, second hand goods and produces a cycle of benefits for donors, shoppers and the causes the community invests in

Blog

Can One Person Really, Truly Make a Difference?

Diana Durkes

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I started following Colin Beavan five years ago when an email from him popped up in my inbox about his book, No Impact Man.

Here was a man after my own heart, I remember thinking. Here was a person like me who worried about how our small daily habits behaved in their afterlife.

But while I worried about whether zip lock baggies were better or worse for the world, Beaven took action. He conducted a year-long experiment to come as close as possible to having zero impact on the environment.

Among his endeavors in no waste, Beaven used a personal Mason jar every morning at Starbucks. On the day he forgot it, the staff urged him to take a virgin paper cup as an exception just this once. Instead, he dug in the trash and washed out a used one. He stopped driving, then stopped using public transportation and only rode a bike. When he and his wife went off the grid completely by unplugging the fridge, with a new baby in their Manhattan apartment, he realized they'd gone too far.

Like Beaven, I often wonder if what level of change we can achieve on a personal scale. For example, if we all we brought in a personal cup to Starbucks for a day, would we see a measurable decrease in our trash? And what if we did the same experiment with soda cans and bottled water, how would that go?

Giving it a try is Northwestern University, which recently announced it would phase out the sale of bottled water on its Evanston campus. It's not that bottled water isn't a necessity in some global situations, but here on the north shore, the tap water is clean and good tasting, and the energy to recycle the bottles can be rerouted to something else. Another perk, tap water is free when you top off your personal bottle at a filling station, which Northwestern plans to install in more places. Go Cats.

Last week, I received a new email from Colin Beaven about being a small cog in the big wheel of change. He mentioned his readers sense of futility that their environmentally friendly habits were specks of sand to our giant issues. So Beaven offered the parable below, which is one of the reasons I follow him online. He's not preachy or finger pointing. He admits to being part of the problems and wants to find responsible solutions. And his book was really funny, I recommend it.

Here's the parable from Colin Beavan's email:

One day, a man went to the beach and saw that a storm had washed thousands of starfish onto the sand. They baked in the sun and began to die. The man wished he could help, but he became overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. How could he possibly save all these thousands of starfish?

Just then, a little girl arrived. She took in the devastating scene and walked toward the nearest dying starfish. She picked it up, carried it to the water, and dropped it in. Then she picked up the next nearest starfish, and the next, and the next. The man watched her for a moment, thinking about how trying to save all the starfish was futile.

Finally, he walked up to her. He said, “Little girl, there are thousands of starfish dying on this beach. You can’t possibly make a difference.”

She paused for a minute, looked confused, and then said, “Tell that to the one I just threw in the water.” She carried on with her work. After a moment, the man joined in. As the day progressed, more and more people arrived at the beach and, seeing what the little girl and the man were doing, they joined in, too. By the time the day was over, many hundreds of the starfish were saved.