07 December 2010

Personal Change is Like a Gateway Drug

“Why bother?” is a question that continues to plague my thoughts. However, after our fifth and final unit I think I’ve finally figured it out. Bother because it matters. Bother because you matter. Bother because the future of humankind matters.

To be quite frank, personal changes are only a small drop in a huge bucket, only a grain of sand on an entire coastline. It’s scary to think about, but it’s true. By taking shorter showers, recycling your garbage, or eating less meat, you will not see your personal changes creating social change. But promise me, they will. If we are constantly looking for validation, as in- “what proof is there that I make a difference?”- then we will remain powerless. The statement “It matters to me,” is simple but powerful. To have power, one must take power.

We are consumers, and because we consume, we have power. We can choose to buy a product and we can choose not to buy a product at all. When enough people choose to use their power as a consumer, the marketplace listens. Then corporations have to listen, because if they do not, they will die.

The people who are taking shorter showers, recycling their garbage, and eating less meat are also the people protesting, lobbying, and proposing effective solutions. Personal change is like a gateway drug. You start with the easy stuff, like recycling your garbage, then you are looking for harder drugs to ease your addiction: “Now, how can I make Davidson College go green? San Diego? Or the United States?”

I made my first environmentally related decision when I became a vegetarian. It was a major lifestyle change, and I did not do it because I thought it would change the meat industry or the world. I did it because I felt it mattered, because I felt as if it were the right thing to do. However, often, ironically over meals where I am eating a salad and my friend is eating a fat juicy steak, they pop the question, “Why are you a vegetarian?” I dread the question. I feel as if I can never effectively justify my reasons. I can spit out all the facts and statistics about fossil fuel, water, and soil conservation, but I always get the same response, “You being a vegetarian won’t make a difference.” I always knew this statement was wrong, but I never knew how to respond. Now I do. I agree that real wide-scale changes will require organization and policy change, but those big changes start with individuals making a choice to live differently. Like me, not eating meat.

Na Nong Bong is a beautiful community. It boasts gorgeous mountains, picturesque sunsets, and hospitable people. However, one thing it doesn’t show off is its gold mine. A scar on the environment that’s impossible to miss. The villagers claim the gold mine has horribly effected the Na Nong Bong community, and five other surrounding villages. Water is contaminated. Food can’t grow. Villagers can’t make money. Dark rashes have covered portions of their skin. Cyanide levels in their blood are far higher than normal. And while their livelihood deteriorates, they are kept on the slide lines to watch. Who can bridge the gap between them and their opponents? Who can help them fight for their cause? I can, and so can you.

As we drove away from the Na Nong Bong community, I reached around to the back of my neck, unhooked the clasp of my favorite gold necklace, took it off, and put it away. I often get compliments about my necklace. “I love that necklace. Where did you get it? I want one!” And there they go, off to buy a gold necklace without even knowing the repercussions their purchase has on the environment and other human beings. I strongly believe that by not wearing my gold necklace, I am helping communities affected my mines around the world fight.

Throughout the past four months, the “Why Bother” conversation has been never ending. It would be easy to say, “There’s nothing left to say.” But because I strongly believe in the power of personal change, I believe my voice matters. So here I am, adding my individual voice to all of the others. Your changes matter. Our changes together will one day make a better world. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does.”

Madeleine Dick-Godfrey
Davidson College