The Worth of Individual Action

by Katy on September 21, 2009 · 9 comments


I just finished reading Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process. One of the main themes throughout the book is whether there is worth in individual action when so much of the environmental damage being done is at a Corporate level.

Do we make any difference when we hang dry our laundry, switch over to CFL light bulbs and buy organic?

Beavan’s year long project to try and make no impact was both highly praised and highly criticized. Isn’t shifting the onus of the environmental crisis onto the individual simply giving an easy out to industry? Isn’t the real change policy change?

Luckily, change comes both from the individual and the collective.

  • I choose to be part of The Compact, which means I buy nothing new.
  • Because I buy nothing new, almost everything that comes into my house is free of packaging.
  • Because I’m not buying crap, there is not new crap being manufactured to fill that void.
  • Because I recycle, compost and minimize what comes into my house, my family of four produces a very small amount of garbage.
  • Because I save so much money with this lifestyle, I only have to work (and commute) two days per week.

The list of my individual actions goes on and on. Although really, none of it is all that earth shattering.

On the collective/ big picture side of things, I write a blog about issues of frugality, sustainability and simple living which is read by thousands of people per day, who then also take action on an individual scale.

I believe that no one is going to try and make changes on a large scale without first making changes at an individual level. It is these personal changes that empower people to start seeing the bigger picture. Like the breathing mask that drops down in an airplane. You have to take care of yourself before helping those around you.

So was there worth to Colin Beavan’s year of no impact? Absolutely so. Not only did he change his life for the better, but he wrote about it and inspired others to make changes as well.

Beavan also founded No Impact Project which, “is an international, environmental, nonprofit project, founded by Colin Beavan in the spring of 2009. It was inspired by the No Impact Man book, film, and blog.”

See? First the personal, then the collective!

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it up, make it do or do without.”

P.S. I will be writing a more in-depth piece about Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man book after I attend his reading this Thursday, which I’m very much looking forward to.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Christy September 21, 2009 at 9:42 pm

I think Gandhi said it best, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”


Rachel September 21, 2009 at 10:19 pm

Katy, I heard him and his wife invervied on NPR last week. Very interesting. As I was listening I thought of emailing you to see if you’d read the book or seen the movie yet.


BarbS September 22, 2009 at 6:28 am

No Impact Man is coming to Boston in October, and I am really looking forward to seeing him.
(His event calendar is at
if you are interested.)

When are *you* coming on tour, Katy? We’d all love to hear the Non-Consumer Advocate!


WillamB September 22, 2009 at 8:09 am

Have you read Bittman’s “Food Matters”? It’s a short book/cookbook about how eating better, along the lines of Pollan’s “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” is tasty, improved his health and is better for the planet. It seems like a related subject.


Maniacal Mommy September 22, 2009 at 5:55 pm

A family the same size as mine lives down the road from us. Every week, they have three large trash cans (the kind the truck can pick up) at the end of their driveway.

We only need to haul our can out once a month, though we never miss our twice monthly recycling date. We have two bins, and need to buy extras in all honesty.

I think about that disparity alot. We recycle. We compost. We don’t make all that much garbage I suppose, for a family of five. I use cloth diapers, and we recently switched to cloth napkins.

I think of their 12 cans a month, and our one can a month.

Surely, it makes a difference somehow!


Diana September 22, 2009 at 11:40 pm

“Isn’t the real change policy change? ”

It is each single person making a difference that causes policy change. Without the voices of each person willing to change, there won’t be one.

30 years ago curbside recycling was unheard of (less than 20 in my area!), now it is pretty standard. That wasn’t a politician sitting down and wondering what he could think up next, it was individuals that wanted to make a difference.

As consumers, we both drive and are driven by the market. Are we influenced by marketing in our choices? Yes! Do we have an influence on business by our individual choices? Yes!

We can also influence others by the choices that we make. Making a frugal lifestyle look sane and enjoyable may influence others to reconsider their own lives in whole or part.


Karen September 23, 2009 at 12:07 am

Yes, the personal is the political, but first it must BE personal.

And it’s true that the majority of improvements in American society, including the abolition of slavery and civil rights laws, and environmentalism, have been initiated not by politicians but by small groups of people who have followed their conscience.

To paraphrase Thoreau, it is not laws which make us moral but we who must make the laws moral.


Sierra September 23, 2009 at 9:08 pm

I hit a wall about a year ago when I felt like I’d taken my personal shift toward sustainability about as far as I could. We’d moved to a smaller home in a very walkable neighborhood, sold one of our cars and started biking everywhere we needed to go, joined a series of food co-ops and CSAs to get most of our food from local farms, and begun volunteering with a local community garden. We’d always used CFL bulbs and cloth everything and composted and done as little shopping as possible. Where did we have left to go? For me the answer has mainly been into activism and writing.


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