(This blog is from the Summer of 2016.)
On the 5th of July, I traveled to Lincoln City, Oregon for a post-4th-of-July beach cleanup. As I walked down the beach, I came across a patch of sand that was completely choked with pieces of micro plastics (tiny bits of plastic that are created when larger plastic objects are broken up in the ocean). I sat in that patch for the better part of an hour, scooping sand with a colander to separate tiny plastic from tinier sand. Eventually, the cleanup was over and it was time to head back to Portland, and so I walked away, leaving still hundreds of plastic pieces to kill birds, pollute oceans, and cut the tiny feet of beach-going children.
This is just one concrete example of how I feel after doing a service project, and to some degree, how I’ve felt all summer: like I’m not doing enough. I picked up lots of the plastic, but there was still more left on the beach. I have served meals to those who are hungry, but I can’t give them food security. I have spent the summer helping SOLVE on many different projects to address litter, however, no matter how much trash we pick up, more trash is created every day. In addition, picking up that trash does nothing to solve the systemic problems of excess production and consumption all over the planet. Even if I pick up 10 plastic bottles during a litter cleanup, the US consumes 1,500 plastic water bottles every second, and it is more likely than not that those bottles will end up in a landfill or polluting some beach, river, forest, lake, or mountain.
I am in a constant state of feeling like I can never do enough to fix the environmental problems we have in the world today. Recognizing the reality of my small impact is discouraging, and reconciling it with the huge negative impacts that the planet faces every day is extremely frustrating. I seem to be walking up a mountain that gets 1,000 feet taller with every step I take.
From my cubicle every day, the future can begin to look bleak. One of my greatest fears is that I live my life and die and the world is no different because of it; I don’t want all of my efforts to come to nothing. I guess that could come across as a little selfish or egotistical, but I mean it in the most sincere and selfless way possible. I don’t want environmental movements to have made no progress in the 90ish years I will be alive. The thing that gets me out of bed every day is the idea that with my work and my life, I can help create a more sustainable future for our planet and its people, plants, and animals. That maybe, one day, pollution won’t pump from the pipes to choke river ecosystems; that solar panels will sparkle and shine on the landscape, replacing oil wells and pumps that bow to the earth only to destroy it for its resources; that stumps grow into forests and our oceans will be full of life instead of plastic and single-use plastics will be a thing of the past.
I re-read Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax this morning, as I do from time to time when the real-world environmental problems are too much to handle and fictional ones seem less stressful. The quote “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Sometimes I will think, why should I even do [insert environmental service/project/endeavor] if my impact will be so small it barely makes a difference? This Lorax quote reminds me that something is happening because I care and because of the work that I’m doing and because thousands and hundreds of thousands of people like me can take our small impacts and turn them into a large impact.
In those brief moments when I am discouraged and frustrated, I remind myself that we thousands do care a whole awful lot, and things are getting better, slowly but surely, from the grassroots up. I do believe that by the end of my life, progress will have been made, and that whatever work I do will not stand alone, small in size. It will be a part of something larger than I could ever do alone.