The Power of Incremental Change

By Christa

Dramatic life changes make for compelling stories. We are suckers for narratives of throwing off addiction, turning from crook to saint overnight, quitting destructive habits cold-turkey. And there are certainly situations—when lives and livelihoods are threatened, when relationships are at the breaking point—that need that type of drama.

But we also like to see large-scale transformations presented as if they happened instantly. It’s inspiring to see photographs of physically fit women and men shown alongside their drastically different “before” pictures in blogs, in magazine spreads, and on television. Examples of housing renovations representing years of night and weekend work are satisfying juxtaposed with pictures of the houses in their original fixer-upper states. These photos skip over the frustration and discouragement of the in-between time.

Some life changes happen quickly, but many don’t. I’m trying to embrace incremental change when it comes to living more justly.

I tend to become overwhelmed when I consider the vast extent to which my actions, my personal choices, may negatively affect people I have never met. My clothing or food purchases may support exploitative industries. My consumption of unnecessary items prevents me from giving money as generously as I could to more vulnerable families. My patterns of wastefulness have environmental impacts with direct ramifications for low-income communities. Actions have consequences. Very little we do is neutral.

Sometimes I get stuck in overwhelmed-ness. But other times I do something small and find myself moving forward. I read something new. I try something new. And these tiny moves together add up to a bigger shift.

Here’s how the process usually works for me:

Awareness: Let’s take eating chocolate as an example. I learned about the insidious nature of the mainstream cocoa industry and the abuse of cocoa workers, particularly children. I hadn’t realized the situation was this horrifying.

Conviction: I try to feel the emotions of the children and adults suffering under forced labor, the pain their families experience, so far from my exquisitely comfortable life. I’m not usually particularly successful, but I try. I become frustrated at the lack of accountability for the corporations that dominate the chocolate industry, and at the fact that businesses often value profit over people. I want to communicate this frustration through my actions.

Set-up: I research alternatives to mainstream chocolate purchases. Fair trade chocolate is a viable option. Then I need to figure out where I can buy it within a reasonable distance from home or work. There are always tradeoffs. Whole Foods has lots of options, but it is expensive and far away. Stop and Shop doesn’t always carry the kinds of chocolate I want. With Amazon.com I have to contend with the time and environmental impacts of shipping, as well as questions about Amazon’s (and other large corporations’) practices. I make the best decision I can.

Action: The next time I want chocolate, I purchase a fair trade brand. That one action, as small as it is, supports a shift toward better labor practices in the cocoa sector. I do it again, and again. Then I find myself late for Halloween one year, needing small candy tokens to hand out, and I stop at CVS and buy peanut butter cups without even thinking. I wasn’t prepared, I hadn’t thought it out in advance. I messed up. But I recognize it, and think about how I could make different decisions next time. Before I became aware of the injustices associated with cocoa, I wouldn’t have noticed.

I try to go through this process over and over, as I learn more about the living and working conditions of marginalized people across the globe and the environmental challenges we face linked to our own consumption. At times I stay at the awareness stage for a while, unable to harness the energy needed to do something different. In other circumstances the conviction propels me forward and I make a change that is only somewhat lasting. But on occasion, the changes become part of me. My thinking shifts and I don’t go back to my former habits.

All of these points are incremental progress. Awareness changes thinking, thinking changes actions, and at each step I am closer to living more justly than I was the day before. It can seem like a huge, exhausting effort to live in a way that causes the least harm to other human beings, particularly when we are not always aware of the effects of our actions. But it doesn’t have to be grueling to take one step.

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