Every Small Step Counts

The use of the word ‘sustainable’ in literature has increased by over 800% since the 1980s, and is still on the rise (according to Google Books Ngram Viewer). It seems ironic that this increase coincides with what is probably the most unsustainable period in human history. In fact some people might take it as proof that, in the face of the sustainability crisis, we are just all talk and no action. However, there is a saying (attributed to everyone from Gandhi to Margaret Thatcher’s father) which goes:

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions.”

This gives us cause for hope I think as it suggests that the dramatic increase in the use of the word sustainable is due to people thinking about sustainability. And, if the above saying holds true, we should rapidly be heading for the next phase: action. Additionally, I believe it highlights the importance of education, which stimulates thought, ultimately leading to action. Pope Francis expresses this idea in Laudato Si’ saying:

“It is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle. Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us.”

This has certainly been true for me. In 2018 I read an article in The Guardian by author Siddharth Kara which had a profound impact on me. It was a harrowing account of the social and environmental impacts of cobalt mining which, prior to reading the article I had been completely oblivious to. Kara explains that cobalt is a key component of lithium-ion rechargeable batteries which are used in products such as smart phones, laptops and electric vehicles. Cobalt is predominantly sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo which holds about 60% of the world’s supply. Mining of cobalt in this area is often facilitated by labourers who are grossly underpaid and work in life threatening conditions. To make matters worse it is estimated that around 35,000 of these workers are children, some of them just six years old. Labourers may spend as much as 24 hours working underground in cramped conditions where the air is noxious and there is the ever-present fear of tunnel collapse. Above ground toxic fumes fill the air and the surrounding water and soil are severely contaminated with poisonous discharge from the mines.

Confronted with this grim reality I never wanted to buy a laptop or smart phone again but I still needed to use these devices on a daily basis. I was determined to look after them much more carefully and since then I always attempt to repair rather than discard and to buy second hand refurbished devices when repair is no longer possible. I also try to use my phone and laptop less to reduce wear and tear on them – this has the added benefit that devices require charging less frequently, saving on electricity use and reducing carbon emissions.

As I continued to research sustainability, I began to feel completely overwhelmed and depressed; it seemed that living sustainably was impossible, as items that I had taken for granted – everything from plastic bags and bottles to make-up and furniture - was shown again and again to have a high social and environmental cost attached. Small changes, like swapping a single use carrier bag for a reusable one, or spending less time on my phone, just didn’t seem like they were doing anything to help. In the face of such major global environmental and social injustices it is easy to fall into this way of thinking. However, it is important to consider that, even if it feels like it, we are not alone. All round the world millions of people are making small steps towards living more sustainable lives, thus each action we make for the good is being magnified on a global scale to be something far more impactful. When writing his article about the impacts of cobalt, Kara may have felt that it wouldn’t really have any impact on the world. But if that article had never been written I could never have read it, and if I hadn’t read it I wouldn’t have decided to make changes to my consumer behaviour. As Pope Francis says in Laudato Si’:

“There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions […]. We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread.”

We must never forget that we have power as individuals to create change; our everyday actions, reactions and interactions, no matter how small, create ripples through society that have real and tangible consequences.

By Lucy McCulloch

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