Monday, 24 January 2011

Can you or I save the world?

We hear such a lot about the problems of our world, and especially the human-caused ones: environmental damage, exploitation, warfare, etc. These are huge issues and we can feel powerless to affect them. But if we allow that thinking to stop us, then we truly are doomed. We (the little people – that’s you and I) can affect these big, world-wide matters: for good or bad.

Here are a couple of small anecdotes to illustrate the fact (you may have heard them before).

1. Doing bad in a small way is still bad

You’re walking down the street, eating a chocolate bar. You’ve finished, and now there’s the empty wrapper. There’s no bin in sight, so you just drop it on the street, thinking “my one little wrapper can’t do any harm.” But you are one of a hundred, a thousand, a million: every time you do that selfish little act you’re adding to all the others and suddenly there’s a litter problem.

2. Doing good in a small way is still good

You’re walking along the beach and you notice the tide has washed in thousands of stranded starfish. They’re dying in the heat of the sun. Then you notice a man picking them up, one by one, and tossing them into the sea. “There are literally thousands of starfish here,” you say to him, “what difference can you possibly make to this problem?” He replies, “Well it made a difference to this one,” throwing another starfish back into the sea, “and this one, and this one...” Just as those small acts of selfishness can accumulate until there’s a real problem, so too can those small acts of goodness accumulate to a greater good.

3. The real world

I was listening, today, to a conversation between a couple of work colleagues. They were swapping stories about Land Rovers, and how each of them desired one. Both of these people live in a town and seldom, if ever, drive in places or circumstances that actually need a Land Rover. But they wanted one, and no doubt if they could afford one, would buy one – and never mind the environmental consequences. Neither of them (probably) stopped to think about whether they should own Land Rovers: this is the “my one little wrapper” thinking.

Another problem is that the media play to this selfish side of our nature. When I got home and watched some TV I noticed a new advert from Asda: shop with us, it said, and we’ll save you 10% on your average bill or refund the difference. Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? And what harm does that do? After all, competition between supermarkets is a “good thing”. Well, absolutely, it helps drive down the prices and one supermarket after another advertises the way that they are doing this more and better than the others. And yes, the prices do come down. If Tesco (and others) can sell two whole sets of school clothes for £10, what were the people in India or Pakistan (or wherever) paid to make them? It’s not that “fair trade” costs more, it’s that the competitive drive-down of prices creates horrendous working conditions for the producers. And it’s not always in a country far away: a farmer friend of mine recently commented to me “Does it make sense that a litre of milk costs less than the equivalent of bottled water?”

Wouldn’t it be great if a supermarket could mount a campaign that said “If you shop here you may pay more than others, but we can guarantee that it means that all our producers get paid fair wages for their produce.” Well it’s pretty unlikely that they’ll do this – unless you and I, and your friends and my friends – start to put pressure on them to change.

I can’t save the world all by myself, but I can save one starfish, and so can you.


  1. Excellent message Bruce, will mail it around folks!

  2. Hi Bruce, I don't know if you caught this programme or not on Channel 4, it aired shortly after this Blog post. If not I'd heartily recommend it as it resonates strongly with what you say. A word of warning though you've only got 8 days left to catch the episodes -