Myth: One Person Can’t Make a Difference

Was your New Year’s resolution to make the world a better place? Probably not, if a) you’re one of the many people who think that one person can’t make a difference or b) you’re not 12 years old. Yes, sad to say, there are a lot of skeptical grownups out there. And for good reason—the world is pretty big, and the problems we’ve got are hard to keep track of for even the most voracious news junkie. It’s no wonder that so many of us feel helpless when it comes to protecting the environment.

But in Chicagoland, each and every one of us really can make a difference. The idea that one person cannot make a difference is one of the most damaging of the untrue EcoMyths—because it discourages people from exploring any of the others.

Does that mean we all have to swap out our cars for roller skates made out of recycled tires or quit our jobs to go live in trees with food buckets conveyed via pulley? That’d be a big no—with an expletive if we weren’t trying to watch our manners.

Making one small change in your routine can in fact make a world of difference (cheesy? Yes. But it’s still true.). We decided to chat with some of our partner experts about simple ways one person can make a difference in the effort—whether it’s at home, at work, or out and about. Take your pick: You can make a difference anywhere and everywhere.

Do Your “Home”-work

You don’t have to do too much studying to learn that going green at home adds up in big ways. We can’t fit an entire encyclopedia of green home tips here now, though, so we’re sticking with one prime example from Bob Kirschner, director of restoration ecology at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

His tip for doing your part to support the local ecosystem: Install a modest rain garden of native perennial plants, “something most homeowners can accomplish in a weekend’s time.” Why bother? Well, when it rains, stormwater rushes through driveways and gutters, picking up nasty pollutants along the way, from oil to pesticides to well, other really sketchy stuff. When you’ve got a rain garden, that stormwater is filtered by the plants, removing the harmful pollutants that would otherwise head straight to our sewers…which of course lead straight to Chicagoland waterways (shudder). Kirschner says that with rain gardens, “the reductions in stormwater flows are impressive.” Specifically, “rain gardens typically absorb 30 percent more water than the same size area of lawn,” according to the Mid-America Regional Council [PDF].

Another bonus? They’re pretty. Case in point: the scenic Rainwater Glen at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Take Office

Of course we also spend a majority of our lives (sorry for the reminder) in the workplace. Forty-plus hours a week times 50 weeks a year times 40 plus years of work equal…way too many water cooler conversations to contemplate. But this is one of the best places you can make a difference.

Rob Whittier, director of sustainability for Northwestern University’s Sustainability Office, suggests organizing “a Green Team in your office, local school, or church/organization to document (and implement) opportunities to conserve energy, water, and supplies and to eliminate waste. By involving everyone, you build awareness and start to encourage a culture of sustainability.”

Even if all you ever do in this role is make one tiny adjustment to your officemates’ behavior, you’ve done good work. Rob’s colleague, Julie Cahillane, the manager of recycling and refuse, gives a classic example: Turning off the lights. It seems so simple…and yet, so many people just don’t do it. In fact, it’s number one on the EPA’s list of things small businesses can do to save energy.

Join the Club

Participating in a community clean-up event can make a meaningful impact in a massive project. Take Chicago River Day for example. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Friends of the Chicago River’s annual event, which includes 20 days’ worth of related activities, from a theme dinner at the Palmer House to a literal Night at the (Bridgehouse) Museum.

Wondering what kind of measurable impact you can have by participating in just one small part of the 20-day eco-extravaganza? Meshawn Ayala, constituency relations developer for Friends, asks you to consider this: The average person picks up 15 pounds of trash from Chicago River banks when they participate in Chicago River Day 20/20. Seriously. That’s a lot of trash. Multiply that by the 4,000 expected volunteers, and that’s a whopping 60,000 pounds…an astonishing 30 tons…the weight of 1,363 river beavers, which your actions are also helping support! Not too shabby for a couple of hours, right?

Get Inspired

One of the keys to making your own impact is finding the right inspiration. (Cue cheesy ’80s anthem—feel free to sing along). Around Chicagoland, we’ve got plenty to inspire us, whether it’s at an eco-conscious cultural institution or in the region’s largest protected natural area.

Johanna Thompson, digital learning specialist at The Field Museum, says she’s inspired by colleagues who are die-hard Christmas Bird Count participants (Read: people who go out in the freezing cold, early morning to count birds species in the area). “They’ve been doing it for years—they have a ball together. And now they’ve got a really amazing record of bird populations in the count area. It informs all kinds of things about ecosystems and connects to climate information and larger environmental questions. But at the heart of it, they are just a few friends, who take a day out of their time once a year to have a good time together while doing a good thing.”

That’s the same spirit that informs the new exhibition at The Field Museum, Abbott Hall of Conservation: Restoring Earth. Though Thompson’s story about the bird count isn’t part of the exhibit, “The new hall is full of similar stories of singular people doing amazing things—from counting species in Peru to raising chickens in their backyard to hand pollinating endangered prairie orchids. They are all people who just decided they could make a difference…and so they are.”

More inspiration comes in the form of thousands of acres of protected open space around the area. Jill Kostel, a project manager for The Wetlands Initiative, suggests visiting Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie—then telling your friends and family about it. She and her colleagues are starting a new Midewin restoration project, Lobelia Meadows, and are proposing an engagement campaign to make more Chicagoans aware of and connected with this beautiful area.

Why Midewin in particular? The amount of community work done to restore this rich and diverse habitat is inspiring in and of itself—and the fact that it’s breathtaking doesn’t hurt either. Translation: If you haven’t been yet, just go already!

EcoMyth Outcome: Small Actions Add Up

One person can make a difference. And that difference increases exponentially when you spread the word. Think about the profound ripple effect you can have within the Chicago area alone. One simple eco lesson you teach your child can spread throughout his or her school. Talking with your neighbor about why you bother recycling can spread beyond your neighborhood. Making a difference is often just a conversation away. In other words, we are the world…Or we would be, if we were living circa 1985.

One Green Thing You Can Do

Explore the links on our partners page to find out all about the great work our fellow nonprofiteers are doing for the local environment. Whether you engage with them by volunteering or simply clicking around to find out more, learning and spreading the word is a simple step that yields powerful results.