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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: No action is too small to make a great impact

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When I was in elementary school, the book “50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth” was published by Earthworks Group. I became absolutely fascinated with it. There were obvious suggestions: recycle, pick up litter, etc. Some were more challenging to implement, like putting a brick in the back of the toilet tank so less water would be used. This led to a lengthy discussion about historic plumbing and not putting bricks in toilet tanks for toilets more than 70 years old. (In retrospect, I am really surprised my parents didn’t use this as an opportunity to talk about restoring historic houses as a good example of recycling and countering urban sprawl. C’est la vie.) At the time, part of what I liked about “50 Simple Things” was the sense of taking action—doing something instead of sitting and talking. Part of the consciousness of environmental preservation discussed in the ‘80s and ‘90s was about rainforests and endangered species—concepts which can capture the imagination but still feel a world away.

LIVE YOUR CHANGE: Gwenyfar Rohler lives her life through conscientious action, much in line with Gandhi’s belief, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ Photo: public domain.

LIVE YOUR CHANGE: Gwenyfar Rohler lives her life through conscientious action, much in line with Gandhi’s belief, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ Photo: public domain.

To teach the idea that individual actions in a small town in North Carolina have a ripple effect to the Amazon rainforest is pretty radical. Few things seem as far away and hard to connect as someone standing 2,918 miles from the Amazon and impacting its lush beauty and exotic wildlife. At the time, relentless loss of rainforest for cattle production was much in the news—as was the pulping of trees for new paper. One solution was to recycle paper so not as many trees would get cut down. Another was to ask where beef came from and if it was produced domestically or not.

In retrospect, maybe this is where I got the idea of actions having impact and being connected worldwide—which, at its core, is what I’ve been trying to do with Live Local: make an impact with my own actions and choices. This is part of what boycotts seek to do: apply economic pressure until a company retreats from practices with which its opponents disagree.   

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” —Mahatma Gandhi

Well, last week I admitted I was lost; a lifetime of effort brought me to a crossroads of confusion. So, imagine my surprise  when I came into the bookstore this week, and propped open on one the chairs was a book titled “Change the World for Ten Bucks: Small Actions x Lots of People = Big Change.” It was open to “Idea Number Nine: Shop Locally.”  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. In a lot of ways, it is basically an adult version of “50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth,” but with more of a holistic look at making a lot of facets of life better—not just the air we breathe, water we drink and land on and from which we live. The book includes ideas like sending someone a letter about how they have inspired you, bathing together to reduce water consumption and donating no-longer-in-use eye glasses to the Lions Club. (Old Books has a drop box if anyone needs one!)

Unexpectedly, I got a reminder from childhood and an anonymous source about what this really is all about. Life is not passive. It is for the purpose of experiencing and interacting. Somewhere we become the choices we make.

Right now the idea of using Americans’ buying power as a threat (i.e., to boycott) is back in the news. Target has come under fire for a gender-inclusive bathroom policy, which has opponents calling for boycotts of Target during the holiday season. There was call for similar action against Target in 2011-12—but from progressives because of Target’s sizable donation to Tom Emmer’s gubernatorial campaign in Minnesota—home to Target’s headquarters. So, frustration comes at retailers from different sides, and both react with a choice we have as individuals every day: how we invest our money, time, energy, effort, remuneration…

If anyone doubts the power of investing with small, local business, I would ask them to look at the number of revolutions around the world that have included boycotts of imports. Kellogg’s has pulled their advertising from Breitbart News, and now Breitbart is calling for a boycott of their products. The choice is really in the hands of consumers, who flex muscles and power daily by consuming. Few things have gladdened my heart as much as the number of people who have told me they have personally, or with their families, made commitments to have “local holidays,” with all of their shopping done at local small businesses. It is incredible. Even if one-fourth of individual shopping is local, it can and will make a noticeable difference in the local economy.

I remember years ago I was headed to a protest in DC and a family friend asked, in a very patronizing voice, if I actually thought it was going to change anything? That one day? Immediately change national policy? Probably not. But would we even be discussing the topic if I weren’t going? Also, probably not. It wouldn’t be in the media or noticed much at all. So, yes, putting my body into action, and choosing to stand and be counted for something I believe in does have an impact—maybe not overnight but over the long term. More importantly, I can look myself in the mirror and know I acted upon my conscience.

I know I sound like a scold, especially to my extended family out of town, when I make my point about buying local—especially as a small business owner. But here’s the thing: I remember the first time I had dinner with someone who mentioned they were trying to plan and pay with cash to keep from giving big banks money on transaction fees. That short explanation about their personal actions started me thinking and asking questions about credit-card fees and banks, and why they were so actively pushing me to use a debit card. (What is the motivation for that? Are the rewards they offer actual rewards? What are they getting out of it?) All of this came about because of a simple explanation at the end of a shared meal almost a decade ago. Have my dinner partner’s actions personally brought down the banking industry or forced real regulatory change? No, but they haven’t contributed to a system they disagree with and they have slowly, through example, spread their message. They got me thinking—and once I was able to actually have cash in my life again (because finally I was rid of the cashless debt cycle which dominated my 20s), I adopted the same actions. So did it change anything? Yes, it changed me, my life and my sense of doom at the stack of credit card bills every month.

I guess all we can really do is  remember Gandhi’s observation: “Action expresses priorities.”

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