Most of us aren’t going to be able to put ‘saved the world from climate change’ or ‘cured cancer’ on our resume. When it boils down to it – we’re just not that smart – and even if we were, unless we were employed in such a field, the time we spend making a living leaves little spare time for such amazing extra-curricular activities.
I find it wonderful, however, when ordinary people try to do little things that make a difference. Sure, in isolation these things aren’t going to ‘save the planet’ but to me, what these things are about is cultural change. They’re about sending the message about trying to do the right thing, about striving for a better community, and showing that it is possible to change the way we live for the better (and that making changes often isn’t as hard as you think!).
Some of my favourite examples of relatively localised changes for the better come from San Francisco. I’m not a fan of advertising targeted at kids. So it would come as no surprise that I loathe the ‘Happy Meal’. The pester power generated towards parents by kids hankering after a meal that comes with a toy (even if said toy is seriously crappy) is probably responsible for half of all McDonald’s Happy Meal sales.
In San Francisco, they realised that Happy Meals were enticing kids to eat meals that have high levels of calories, sugar and fat. So they banned restaurants offering a free toy with meals that contain more than set levels of calories, sugar and fat. John Stewart on the Daily Show said it well when he reported the news that “San Francisco bans toys from Happy Meals despite research that it’s the healthiest thing in the meal”.
San Francisco is continually positioning itself as a leader in creating small changes that make a difference. In May this year, they announced a ban on unwanted Yellow Pages. In the age of the internet – there is not much call for the great yellow bricks of paper advertising all the businesses in a city. It’s not a straight out ban, but an ‘opt in’ approach. They’re limiting delivery of yellow pages only to customers who are at home when they are delivered and physically accept them, or who give prior approval by phone, mail, or a note of acceptance on the door.
San Francisco’s ‘opt in’ policy is itself innovative. Seattle had previously allowed an ‘opt out’ policy for Yellow Pages, allowing people to call up and go on a list if they did not want to receive the Yellow Pages – similar to Australia’s ‘do not call register’ to opt out of telemarketing. By allowing people to ‘opt in’ rather than ‘opt out’ for Yellow Pages San Francisco is setting a higher bar as the default option for people who do nothing is that they will not receive the Yellow Pages.
So what are some home-grown examples of towns making a difference by leading the way with small changes? Coles Bay in Tasmania was one of the early movers and shakers. In 2003 Coles Bay became the first Australian town to ban plastic bags. In 2009 Bundanoon in the NSW Southern Highlands became possibly Australia’s first (and possibly the world’s first) town to neither sell nor give away bottled water within the town precinct. Other examples are innovative ideas that operate beyond town boundaries like Oz Harvest food rescue, a charity that rescues excess food to pass on to those in need. Not only does Oz Harvest reduce waste, and landfill needs, they are using this ‘waste’ (perfectly good food that would have been tossed) to help make a difference to the vulnerable.
Small ideas, and small actions can make great differences. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this phenomenon in his book The Tipping Point. Gladwell gives some amazing examples of looking at the simple factors that contribute to major social change. For example, he claims, fairly convincingly, that a crackdown on graffiti in New York in the mid 1990s helped the murder rate to plummet. But even if small actions don’t have an enormous impact, they contribute to gradual social change, and community awareness. Small actions can empower individuals and communities to know that through our day-to-day actions and choices we can make a difference.
Have you seen any small actions in progress in your community lately?
What are the small social changes that are making a difference in your area?