“I’m only one person! What difference can
I possibly make?”
Tell that to the ants whose colony you’ve just
crushed in one careless, colossal step. Tell it to the raccoon whose
life you’ve just saved with a twitch of your steering wheel.
Tell it to the mutant organisms whose groping experiments in adaptation
over the ages eventually led to the evolution of homo sapiens.
Tell it to the mutant humans who first envisioned representative democracy,
women’s suffrage, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the movements
to end apartheid and save the spotted owl.
Tell it to the millions of African-Americans who cast their hard-won
votes for Barack Obama, the thousands of bright young people who worked
on his campaign. Tell it to the children whose future depends to a
frightening degree on Obama’s ability to resist corporate pressure
– which depends in turn on the pressure he receives from ordinary
individual voters like us.
Evolutionary time is vast, measured in millions of generations. But
look closely and you’ll see that it’s made up of trillions
of individual lifetimes, each a potential fork in the road where evolution
might have branched off in an unprecedented new direction.
In our own time, that new direction is known as “sustainability.”
Until now the influence of an individual organism was limited to the
evolution of its own species. Today, the fate of thousands of species
depends on homo sapiens branching out in a sustainable direction.
And like every previous evolutionary fork in the road, that potential
rests entirely in the hands of individuals.
I believe that deep down, we all realize this. Protesting that we
are “only one person” is an attempt to squirm out from
under the awesome responsibility we bear for our planet’s uncertain
The petroleum dependency, PCB pollution, and solid waste nightmare
spawned by the plastics industry have accumulated one disposable single-serving
container at a time. These problems will only be solved as one person
at a time wakes up to the need to refill, re-use and recycle.
Yes, the interlocking global crises we now face are the product of
interlocking global systems of finance and manufacturing and transportation.
But those systems are fueled not so much by oil and coal as by the
small, individual purchasing decisions we make every day: in the grocery
store, on the internet, at the gas pump.
Buying a corporation’s products is our personal endorsement
of its raw materials extraction, toxic discharges, disposable packaging,
the wages it pays in the Third World, its downsizing, corporate raiding,
stock price manipulation, lobbying by campaign contributions, etc.,
etc. All of it is there in our shopping bags whether we notice the
extra weight or not. In the global economic machine the corporations
have engineered, our nickels and dimes and dollars are the only endorsement
Yes, reversing the momentum of overpopulation, overdevelopment, pollution
and climate change will require massive political and economic shifts
at every level, from local to international. And where can the political
will to push them through our corporate-dominated democracy possibly
come from? From nowhere else but our individual voices and votes –
our emails and phone calls to reluctant representatives, our protest
signs, our signatures on petitions, our sacrifices of time and money.
Natural selection, according to Darwin, depends not on the similarities
between individuals but on their uniqueness. If we live our lives
as complacent members of society, following custom and fashion and
tradition, our species and many others may well go extinct. Only by
acting as unique individuals – as “only one person”
– can we set a new course for evolution on planet Earth.