World leaders at the COP26 summit offered up all the appropriate sentiments of alarm and concern about climate change—and failed to take unpalatable actions now in order to forestall a far more painful future. Our governments dally and spin, and we as individuals feel powerless. But does that mean our small actions don’t matter?
Do I really have to shred all this stuff? I asked myself as I considered the papers I’d found in an old file cabinet in the attic: 12 years of tax returns from when my late husband was married to his first wife. Shredding would take hours. Still, it seemed unwise to relegate sensitive information to the recycling center. Just this once, I thought, I’ll dump it all in a garbage bag and put it out for trash pickup. Who would know?
Every circumstance forces us to make a decision, and how we decide defines our existence. We are free, as Sartre insisted, to decide anything except not decide. An essential tool for not only surviving ecological crises and our personal challenges, but actually thriving in the midst of them, is to do the things that must be done, simply because we are the ones to do them. This means not only being mindful of how we handle waste and what kinds of food we eat, it also means we make decisions we want to live with.
Choosing our actions also invites us—and in the future will increasingly demand of us—to be generous toward immigrants fleeing unlivable places, to join with diverse neighbors to share stories and create beauty in our challenged communities, to cultivate gratitude and compassion when systems don’t work. Of course it’s sometimes difficult to live by the standards we proclaim, especially when we’re under duress. It’s so much easier to ignore our own best counsel.
Leaders at COP26 got a lot of attention and did little. To thrive through our planet’s future sorrows, we need to do the opposite. We need to take the actions we know are right, even if no one notices. Our actions define who we are. If we deny responsibility or make excuses, we chip away at our integrity and impair our own ability to be courageous, creative, and fiercely alive. We pass up opportunities to connect with others in surprising ways. When we do what we know must be done, we shape the future. What we do matters, whether anyone notices or not.
(Note: I ended up shredding the old tax returns.)