I was having a conversation with one of my friends recently, as one does, when somehow the conversation turned to the topic of taking shorter showers in order to conserve energy, as conversations are occasionally prone to do. I expressed support for this idea, as I plan to live longer than 50 years and would like to live in a world that isn’t literally on fire all of the time due to climate change. I was therefore shocked when my friend told me that they didn’t think that actions such as taking shorter showers really did anything for the environment, and therefore weren’t worth our time. The argument that my so-called “friend” gave was that because the majority of pollution is caused by big businesses, it was silly to focus on little things like recycling, composting, and taking shorter showers. I wholeheartedly believe that that reasoning is straight-up wack. The little things are all that many people can do with the time and the resources that they have. To pretend that it’s okay if you don’t recycle just because it doesn’t have as big an effect as major policy change is to condone the gradual heat death of our planet and the utter annihilation of the human race.

While it would be amazing if every single person on Earth could realize that in the long run, all of our needs and desires are dwarfed by the shadow of the climate crisis, it’s almost impossible to convince someone to abandon their ordinary life and dedicate themselves to fighting climate change. We can’t all be Greta Thunberg and sail a solar-powered yacht across the Atlantic to speak at the United Nations. We’ve been taught our whole lives to focus on goals such as finding a job, a spouse, and a house. It’s difficult to totally alter our perceptions of the world to include fighting climate change as an equally important goal for our personal lives. However, just because you’re not traveling the world and yelling at people thrice your age in Congress for their reactionary and dumb policies doesn’t mean that you have even the slightest excuse for not fighting against climate change in whatever small ways are easily within your grasp. 

Now that we are living in the midst of a climate crisis, it is no longer acceptable to whine, “Oh, my little contribution won’t do anything, why does it matter if I [recycle/compost/take short showers/etc]?” Not only is this attitude incredibly unproductive, it’s also untrue. While yes, obviously one person’s contribution will have a much smaller impact than that of a huge corporation such as Amazon, your individual actions will still have a concrete effect. For example, by taking shorter showers you will be able to save at least two gallons of water per minute that you shorten your shower by. Over the course of your life, you will be taking many showers. Assuming that you shower roughly every day and that you live for 70 years (10 years below American life expectancy, just in case vaping really is destroying our youth), you will be taking 25,000 showers in your life. If you shorten your shower by two minutes and therefore save at least four gallons of water per shower, over the course of your lifetime you will save over 100,000 gallons of water. I’m no expert, but last time I checked, 100,000 gallons of anything is quite a large amount. If you can save that much water just by shortening your shower, imagine the impact that you can have if you attempt to live your whole life in such an eco-friendly manner.

In addition to the concrete difference that your individual actions can have, living in a more environmentally friendly way also helps increase the social clout of saving the planet. While I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea of collective action and its necessity, I would like to introduce another, collective-related idea: social shaming. The crux of this idea is that by striving to make recycling and being environmentally friendly the clear norm, those who are out there still throwing their Pi cups into the trash instead of the compost bin will feel ashamed of their irresponsible actions, as they should. Once you start to live your life in a more eco-friendly manner, those around you will feel guilty for not doing those same simple actions that are beneficial for our shared mother planet. Their shame will increase the likelihood that they recycle, at least out of fear of seeming uncool or not progressive enough.

Additionally, once someone has committed to such measures as shortening their showers, using less paper/plastic, or eating fewer animal products, they are consciously dedicating themselves to combatting climate change. Once you have committed to helping the environment, even in a small way, you are forced to reevaluate the environmental impact of other parts of your life. Once you start viewing the world through the lens of environmental change, issues that you were originally ambivalent about seem much more important. Think of shortening your shower as the gateway drug of environmental sustainability; once you begin to put an increased value on environmental friendliness, it becomes easier to rationalize contributing time and resources towards sustainability that you may not have contributed before.

While I am advocating that you do the little things you can to save the environment, I want to emphasize that I am not claiming that just doing the little things is okay. Of course bigger actions such as policy change will have a larger effect than small, individual contributions, but in order for people to focus on enacting those policy changes, there needs to be a global consensus on the importance of climate change. If you’re not being eco-friendly in your personal life, there’s probably very little chance that you’re going to contribute significant time and resources to larger sustainability efforts. If we can make doing the little things the norm, either through galvanizing or guilting people, then everybody will feel at least a little bit responsible for the environment. My friend was right, governmental and economic changes will have the biggest effects on climate change. But by creating a strong foundation of environmental responsibility and action, our efforts to enact those changes will be that much stronger.


Daniel Knopf can be reached dknopf@wesleyan.edu.