“If everybody doesn’t do it, it doesn’t matter,” said the cashier at Target. She was referring to our refusal to put our purchases in plastic bags. Granted, we had forgotten our cloth bags and looked a bit silly as we juggled several items among the two of us, but we knew we were up to the task.

Her comment, however, gave me pause. What are we supposed to do, wait until somebody says, “Okay, GO!” and then we all stop using plastic bags at the same time?

We live in tough times, and it’s easy to feel hopeless about our prospects. As the reality horror show known as the BP oil spill plays itself out 24/7, our individual efforts at caring for our planet seem insignificant. “What’s the point?” we ask. Indeed, the latest spin on the spill is that those wicked “extreme environmentalists” are the cause of all this. Shame on them for restricting oil exploration on land! Shame on them for driving these poor, poor Big Oil companies deep offshore to drill in unsafe conditions.

I worked for a natural gas pipeline company for several years. We would connect to the oil companies’ platforms in the Gulf and transport the natural gas onshore. My job entailed working with contracts, which meant sitting in many meetings with our customers. As I recall, they were proud and excited about the new drilling technologies. No one at the time said, “We hate being out there, but those environmentalist wackos drove us to it.”

Of course, I digress. I was talking about the sense of hopelessness that many have felt and expressed as a result of this tragedy, which first began with the loss of eleven lives. Maybe the cure for hopelessness is action, however small. Action gives us power and reminds us that when enough individuals, one by one, rise up and make changes, we can make a difference. The power of Big Oil to get regulators to turn their heads comes from our dependence on them. We have to look deeper in the Gulf for oil because of our insatiable need for it. The only solution is to take our power back.

Twenty years ago I went camping on a mountaintop in New Mexico. Our hosts lived in a property run by solar power. I will never forget what they said about solar: “It has worked out so much better than anyone told us it would.” Here we are, twenty years later, and solar is still cost prohibitive for most. Still, we have discovered less expensive ways to reduce energy consumption. These methods not only reduce consumption but actually make life easier.

For example, take those nasty plastic bags. We started taking cloth bags to the store. Not only did we eliminate the piling up of bags that made a mess of a closet, but we discovered that it’s easier to bring the groceries in! We require fewer trips, the bags don’t break, and we’re not digging around in the trunk for the cantaloupes that rolled out.

The city doesn’t pick up recycles where we live, but we have a recycling center nearby that is on our way to the grocery store–so we don’t have to make a special trip. Want to feel better? Go to one of these recycling centers and notice all the other people who are doing the same thing. Sometimes we have trouble finding a parking spot on the weekend.

Between recycling and composting, we have reduced the amount of garbage we actually throw in the trash to one-two kitchen-sized bags per week. Composting is easy, too, and you’d be amazed at how quickly the fruit and vegetable peels disappear–even cantaloupe rinds (you may notice that we like our cantaloupe).

When we moved into this house, I decided to learn how to garden, and my little plot of land, despite my many mistakes, despite unpredictable weather, despite pests, is producing well. We’re about to be inundated, in fact, with peppers and–yes–cantaloupes. I picked my first one today, and at least ten more are in various stages of growth and ripening. Whenever possible, we purchase what we can’t grow ourselves at the local Farmer’s Market, one of which we can walk to. The food is much tastier this way. Last week, when my stepdaughter tasted a home-grown green pepper, she said, “I’ve never tasted a pepper this good before.” There’s a lot more incentive to eat well, with emphasis on fruits and vegetables, when they are fresh and delicious.

Lately I’ve taken steps that have caused family and friends to wonder if I’ve gone off the deep end. First, I bought a clothesline, and now I hang clothes to dry outside instead of putting them in the dryer. I knew I would be saving energy. I did not realize that my clothes would smell like sunshine–better than any artificially scented fabric softener that I could by. My latest purchase is a solar oven. So far I’ve boiled eggs and cooked turkey barbeque in it. There’s a definite learning curve involved, but I already know that it works…that it’s almost impossible to burn foods in it…and that my kitchen no longer heats up in the midst of a Houston heat wave.

Yes, there are moments when I think, “So what? That big spill out in the Gulf dwarfs all my little efforts?” Still, I feel like I’m doing SOMETHING. We have to keep our spirits up. So much is happening lately, from unemployment to politicians exaggerating their resumes to oil companies trying to pretend that things aren’t so bad when, indeed, they are. However, I know this: we are better at solving problems when we feel empowered, so we must empower ourselves in any way that we can. When we lose hope, we risk being swallowed up in despair, which helps no one. We must take a stand for ourselves, our families, our country, and our world, even if we make one small change.

Today I will walk in my garden. There, I will find my hope.

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