By:Trebbe Johnson

Kelly, 24, considers herself an environmental activist. She belongs to the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, works for an organization that runs therapeutic wilderness programs for teens, and spends her weekends hiking in the mountains near her home in western North Carolina. By her own admission, she is also “a little bit obsessive” about recycling. On nights when she goes out to the local bar with her friends, she saves her empty beer bottles and brings them back home to her own recycling bin. She’s seen the alley in back of the bar, where smelly, broken bottles are strewn all around the dumpster, and she’s sure they’re destined for the landfill. That upsets her. People should be recycling, not throwing things away. Sometimes she feels foolish for what her friends call her overzealous conscience. She doubts that her actions will make much difference in the long run. And then she wonders why she even bothers.

Like Kelly, many people believe that whatever small steps they take on behalf of the environment are probably futile. A survey published in 2012 by the Ocean Project asked, “In your opinion, how much of an impact can individual people have on solving our environmental problems?” Forty percent responded either “None” or “Not very much.” The problems infecting our planet are so immense that it seems as if, to get anything positive done, you need great organizing skills, lots of money, the patience to keep repeating your message over and over, and a coterie of like-minded others to join you in your crusade.

It may be that one reason so many people think this way is that we believe that an action, to be worthwhile, must result in a measurable outcome. In some fields, like medicine, that requirement makes sense; no pharmaceutical company would release a drug just because someone in the research department had a hunch that it might work. However, in the arts and important cultural trends, the insistence on measuring loses meaning. And when major shifts of consciousness capture whole populations, and people start behaving in significantly different ways, measuring is as futile as trying to identify individual droplets of water in a wave rushing to shore.

The good and positive acts we undertake may never succeed and may not matter a bit to anyone else. Amidst massive and ongoing assaults on the lands, homes, skies, waters, and future I care about, my small insistence on recycling a few bottles or riding my bike to work make no difference. To me, however, in the moment I take it, such an act makes all the difference. If I refuse to take that action that compels me, I permit not just a siege on my environment but on my own values as well. Whether I am alone or with others, my consciousness of how my actions might affect the world, could affect it, insists that I act in a way that is authentic, meaningful, and decisive.

Every day, life offers us crossroads large and small, where we must choose either to act with integrity and courage or to take the easy path others are taking. What we choose may have no meaning at all to the world at large and it means the world to our own unique being, which has its own inner compass we feel compelled to follow. So everything and nothing depends on Kelly taking her beer bottles home for recycling. By doing so she bestows on her life and her relationship with the world the greatest possible value. And when we make beauty for a wounded place, even if no one ever sees or knows what we have done, we are taking a bold, strong action that gives our individual lives integrity and import.

Trebbe Johnson is the founder and director of Radical Joy for Hard Times, a global network of people dedicated to creating new relationships with the broken places they love and live with. She is the author of The World Is a Waiting Lover, 101 Ways to Make Guerrilla Beauty, and Radical Joy for Hard Times (coming in Fall 2018).