Man climbing stairs.Step it up! Small is the new big.The environmental movement is divided over the importance of small steps — are they a critical starting point or a distraction from needed policy and institutional changes? A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but will small changes add up to the kind of massive shift needed to bring us toward sustainability?

We say sweat the small stuff — but not because small decisions add independently to big change. Rather, because societal change isn’t just additive like stair-climbing, it’s transformative like metamorphosis, and small actions play a crucial role. Practiced consistently, small steps facilitate both gradual evolution and rapid revolution for positive lasting change.

Of course institutional and policy change is crucial, but it doesn’t happen on its own; it happens when people fight for it, motivated by their values. And if structural change happens without support from people’s values, then people resent it and resist or revolt. So it’s not a choice between small stuff or large, it’s a question of how we can integrate the two to get value change that also motivates broad action.

The abolitionist movement in England in the 1800s was bolstered by personal actions, such as hosts refusing to serve sugar. Not only did this small step give participants, primarily women, a feeling of virtue or self worth, but it became a way to demonstrate their values and instigate dialogue about slavery with those in their inner circles. These “small” actions empowered women and transformed them into activists who played a pivotal momentum-building role in the fight against slavery. 

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We propose a theory of change focused on small steps and rooted in the powers of virtue, rationalization, and participation.

We all have a deep-seated need to feel virtuous in our circle of friends and family. Not virtue à la chastity and sobriety, but deep confidence that we are worthy of respect from those who matter. What counts as virtuous varies hugely across groups, but all groups — even gangs — have their own notions of appropriate behavior and character.

Rationalization is a powerful force that helps people justify their past actions according to their values. People hate to feel that they’ve wasted effort, time, and money. Because of this, consistent repeated actions can reinforce values (as long as they’re voluntary and not coerced): people seek to rationalize their sunk costs as necessary for an important value. Once the two of us started recycling consistently, we both found ourselves unconsciously searching for additional reasons to continue, subsequently identifying ourselves as people who go to lengths to reduce waste and even compost — that is, committed environmentalists.

The circle closes with participation: daily conscientious actions can cement a gradual shift in our deepest values. Kai’s grandparents scrimped and saved as young parents during World War II. Every little bit helped, so their frugality was reinforced and became an entrenched value. “Waste not, want not,” was their mantra of daily action. Over the years they became outspoken against society’s excesses and imbued these values in their children. That’s the kind of tenacity and longevity the environmental movement needs!

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Rooted in this theory, three approaches might inspire others to take small steps toward transformative change.

First, let’s address people in a way that makes them feel recognized as virtuous, with new opportunities to practice their sustainable values. Environmental activists have long been criticized for characterizing people as villains, which often engenders recoil. A subset of anti-smoking advocates, in contrast, employed virtue brilliantly in the early ’80s with campaigns that featured cartoon heroes stamping out smoking. Not only did these characters entrench in kids the virtue of fighting smoking, it also armed them to pressure their parents. And what parent doesn’t want to be thought of as virtuous by their children?

Second, let’s focus not only on engaging the “public,” but also our closest friends and family on these issues of value. We both squirmed under scrutiny from friends about factory-farmed meat before we eliminated it from our diets. Our brave friends wielded their compelling arguments in a way that left us feeling not like bad people, but rather very good ones — too thoughtful to hold steadfastly to flawed arguments. After fidgeting for a while, we finally recognized that we had not been living by our core values and changed our diets.

Third, let’s embrace the notion of “cool” so that a person’s very sense of style can reinforce a commitment to sustainability. Gas-electric hybrid cars can appeal to technology fans and trend followers, but they can also inspire value change, giving drivers an opportunity to feel virtuous and think of themselves as conscious consumers. Revolution-promoting design can extend to T-shirts and shopping bags and furniture, with stylish items serving as Trojan Horses for sustainability. Of course, sustainability will also require that we model desirable lifestyles that don’t include driving and that limit consumption of new goods. The key is to make these items and lifestyle choices attractive, not to preach about them.

The challenge before us as environmentalists is immense. To succeed, we must realize that while small stuff can seem trivial, it’s actually critical. People need to feel invested in a movement on a personal level before they can embrace and advocate change on a societal level. Strung together with purpose, small steps can carry us great distance.