We are taught that little actions can cause a big reaction, but that isn't always the case. How do you maintain faith that your little actions make a difference? I recycle, I reuse, I move turtles off the road, plant native plants, put up birdhouses, turn off my lights and buy organic milk. I grow some of my own food, I drive reasonably so as not to waste gas, I use a clothesline to dry clothes, and turn the water off when I brush my teeth. So what?
It is easy to get disenchanted. It is easy to be cynical or not care. Caring about the state of the world is like caring for a foster child, sometimes you just want to throw your hands in the air and say "What freaking difference can I possibly make?! This is impossible! And it is too dang hard." That is where the faith part comes in. It is about trust, and believing, and hope. Intangible things that you never, ever see but can be felt deeply and viscerally.
The faith that your actions make a difference is not really different than believing in fairies or ghosts. There may be evidence to support the existence of those things, or it may all be hogwash. There is no evidence that says they don't exist. Some believe, some don't. Research shows that individual actions, when multiplied by many individuals, do make a difference. Therein lies the catch others must be acting in the same manner as you for your actions to matter.
A baby turtle in hand.
Compact fluorescent bulbs save energy
American Bald Eagle by Angus Watkins
One honeybee worker, doing her job, will never matter alone. She will never be able to clean the entire hive, take care of the babies, or gather pollen and nectar to feed everyone ... never. One will never make a difference. But with hundreds of workers, all doing the same thing, identical jobs, then the hive flourishes and all are better for each one's work.
I imagine honeybees don't have faith their brains seem designed for purpose and that alone. They don't think about what they do, they just do it. Humans have the luxury of purposeless thoughts; this luxury gives us many things, including faith and doubt, which seem to go hand and hand. We also begin to define and think about concepts such as self, altruism and egoism. We evaluate and ponder and question and challenge and doubt. A simple fact remains, however. With incredibly few exceptions, humans need other humans beyond their immediate family to survive and thrive.
Like honeybees serving their queen, humans acting on behalf of the planet are serving an idea. The idea is simple and ancient; if everyone does a little bit to take care of the home, family, land, water and air that support them (the commons), then everyone will be better off. I'm not going to delve into happiness or its definition, causes, or tragedy. But from a biological standpoint, humans are healthier if their support system is healthy. We are stronger if we work together.
Hard to see sometimes. Harder to accept at other times. For whatever reason, it seems increasingly difficult to trust other humans. I can't pinpoint why, and I'm sure everyone has a theory. But trust is waning. With that loss is a fading faith. And doubt follows closely on the heels of that decline. It then becomes easy to slip into mistrust it is easier, far easier, to point fingers, blame, get angry, give up, and disagree. "He doesn't recycle, why should I? It is just a groundhog, you don't need to screech to a halt. Other people eat meat from factory farms, they're fine. Organic milk is expensive, why should I bother?" And so on. It is easy to not care.
If you have no faith in others, you can't have faith in yourself. And if you don't trust your own actions, it makes it impossible to trust others. Taking care of the planet, acting on behalf of something you can't ever see in its entirety, hoping for results that you may never witness, creating a better world for living things you will never meet, imagine, or touch, is an act of faith. Believing is hard. Caring is hard. Really, really hard. You will fall on your knees and weep. Your heart will break and you will hurt in eternal places. You will throw silent and angry whys into the atmosphere. You will sit, broken and hopeless, and wonder if caring can possibly be worth it. There seems to be no purpose, no reason.
And then, a hatchling turtle pushes its way out of the soil and crosses your path. A phoebe nests and raises her chicks on a platform that you put out just for her. A child says "I never knew carrots were a root!" as you pull one from your carefully tended garden. A report comes across your desk that shows consumers are demanding more fuel efficient cars. The local trash collection agency accepts even more things that can be recycled. More things are being made from recycled materials. Legislation is passed to curb mountain-top removal. The Bald Eagle population recovers to a point where it is no longer endangered or threatened. The world, including you, benefits from the collective action of individuals.
Along my lifetime there have been moments of faith and moments of desperate prayer. Humans have such power in this world and over each other. It is hard to trust that we all pull our weight. But when we do, and when we trust that others are doing the little things we are, the results exceed expectations. Each little worker bee does a little job, and the world gets better for it. And that alone is what keeps me believing.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon.
For an opportunity to be surrounded by planet-loving people, attend the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage! It is happening May 31 and June 1-2. More information can be found at www.alleganynaturepilgrimage.com or by calling (716) 569-2345. Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Rd. between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and the center is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m.Visit jamestownaudubon.org for more information.