I was inspired to share this excerpt from my book Think like a Tree: The natural principles guide to life for the benefit of all those people out there who feel worried about the state of the world and feel somewhat powerless when it comes to taking action – be inspired by trees…
Natural principle: Know that your actions can change the world
“The ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world
are the ones who do.”
Whenever I think that my modest contribution in life can’t possibly make a difference, I remember the first bacterium that inhabited the Earth. That individual dot can be viewed as a tiny knot of atoms, or as the start of all life. The descendants of this miniscule creature are you, and me, and trees, and frogs, and lions, and carrots. Since that first bacterium, every single living thing has had an impact on its surroundings and has thereby helped to gradually build our whole world ecosystem.
Because none of the trillions of non-human organisms that have ever lived had the capability of thinking that they were insignificant, they have always acted as if each of them – whether beetle, cabbage, dinosaur or baobab – was the best thing ever! They have supreme confidence in their ability to survive, to grow and to effect change. I find it ironic, therefore, that as individual human beings we often think we are powerless. Yet a tiny mosquito has the power to unsettle a herd of elephants, to paraphrase an old saying.
Some people believe that everything is predestined, so nothing they do can make any difference. I don’t agree. Steven Hawking expressed this perfectly when he said:
“I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.”
To stretch this to a tree analogy, I would suggest that even the most ardent fatalist would step out of the way if a tree was falling towards them. Every single tree that has ever lived has altered the climate, the soil and its surroundings. Every single one! So you can harness, as a source of energy and strength, the knowledge that a bacterium, mosquito or tree can make a difference.
Many people have thought about the psychological factors surrounding our relationships with the natural world. In my view, many of humanity’s problems in this regard arise from an extreme lack of confidence, rather than an excess. Like the bully in the playground we, collectively, have deep-seated issues of insecurity that make us want to control, dominate, and express our superiority. Yet at the same time we feel shame that we have
been given a great gift, as beings with consciousness, but have abused that unique role. I’m hearing more and more people refer to humans as parasites, which I find incredibly sad. But each person who calls humans a parasite is by implication calling their child, their neighbour and their friend a parasite too. To cope with any feelings of self-loathing, guilt or anger towards others, we numb the pain, and with it we numb all the positive feelings that we could be experiencing, as part of a unique and wonderful living planet – it’s an emotional nightmare.
Psychology studies about human relationships may offer some insight, and some hope. They show that what differentiates people who have a sense of love and belonging from those who feel shame and the belief that they are not good enough, is that the first group feel that they are worthy of belonging.1 That is the separating factor. So the implication is that if we can cultivate that feeling that we are worthy of living on planet Earth, we will
reap the rewards in terms of mutual support, love, connection, and a confidence that we have a valuable role to play. Until we are compassionate with ourselves we cannot be compassionate with other beings, whether human or otherwise. To achieve this we must have the courage to embrace the vulnerability that giving up control brings, and we must be comfortable with our own imperfections as individuals and as a species. Fortunately, if
we open our eyes, we can see other species modelling this behaviour right across the spectrum – they are imperfect and vulnerable and yet we know that they belong here.
So, having put forward the argument that all of us belong
on this planet, and that every one of us plays a contributory role,
what next? Primatologist and anthropologist, Jane Goodall said:
“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
Often we look at changing the world in terms of what we are against. That may be racism, war, pollution, consumerism, environmental destruction or illness. But it is far more helpful to discover what you are for, rather than what you are against. That might be diversity, peace, a clean environment, and wellbeing for all. They may seem like two sides of the same coin, but creating a future rather than overturning a past is how nature approaches
things. If you feed what you are for with good compost, water and sunlight, then it has an excellent chance of bearing fruit, whereas if you spend all your time fighting what you are against (for example, weeds and pests) you might lose sight of the fact that your whole purpose was to grow fruit in the first place.
We must let go of the need to know what the results of our actions will be. The sandbox tree in Costa Rica explosively releases its seeds, and sends them spinning away at over 70 metres per second, to land some 45 metres away. The sandbox puts an enormous amount of effort into this event, but
has no idea which of the seeds will root, if any. Political activist Gloria Steinman’s quote seems particularly pertinent:
“The truth is that we can’t know which act in the present will make the
most difference in the future, but we can behave as if everything we do
An impact may come through a great individual sacrifice, as for Rosa Parks, who made a decision one day to stand up for her rights, having no idea that her action would change the course of history. Or more likely, your impact will fly under the radar, every day, unrecognised except by you. Don’t leave the action to someone else – ask yourself:
“If not me, then who? If not now, then when?”
Your actions do not need to be grandiose – passing on a smile, collective moments of joy in sport or music, sharing time with friends. If you have a musical talent, share it. If you can tell engaging stories, find a willing audience. When we watch the news we often see only bad things, but if we created the news according to the real balance of activities in our lives, it would be filled with everyday stories of people checking on the welfare of
their neighbours; parents reading their children bedtime stories; friends providing shoulders to cry on; groups restoring ecosystems; councils investing in mental health and homeless services; companies supporting new green technologies; communities planting trees; professionals dedicating their lives to the care of others; and strangers on the street helping those in need. We are social beings. We feel good when we do positive stuff. And we will go to great lengths, and make great sacrifices,
to help others with no other reward than the dopamine hit that makes us feel good about ourselves, and seeing the benefits for others.
In our society where crying is a taboo, we nevertheless sit watching online videos of a man rescuing kittens from a drain, or a child experiencing elation at being able to hear for the first time. This morning I cried while watching a video about a horse being taken into a hospital (yes, a horse), to make a connection with people with terminal illnesses. I cried for three reasons simultaneously – with empathy for the man in the hospital bed;
for the joy of the connection between the man and the horse; and at the courage of the hospital director who instigated such a programme. We are naturally emotional and empathetic, however hard we try (or are encouraged) to divorce ourselves from connection in the world.2
We are often told we are all selfish, but we donate money in our living rooms when we see a father reunited with his daughter after civil war (BBC Comic Relief 2014 – I dare you to watch without being moved to tears). We cry at Olympic opening ceremonies when we see the world unite with one
common purpose (yes, Dad, I’m talking about you), and we secretly glow with pride when our child helps a stranger or spends their evenings baking cakes for a charity sale. We forget that we are all feeling the same emotions of compassion, empathy and caring, shut in our own worlds. It’s sad that many of our most emotional ‘collective experiences’ occur when we are
alone watching TV or surfing the internet.
But might this all be a source of inspiration? If we can bring these emotions out into the open, we can see that we are not all destructive, selfish and greedy individuals, but ones who are united by the common feelings of compassion, belonging and empathy. I agree with psychologist Dr Brené Brown when she said that “Crying with strangers in person could save the world ”.3
The living world teaches us that millions of small changes add up to great big, long-lasting ones. When we make changes as an individual, we create new habits. Because humans are social animals we copy each other’s habits – so to live consciously, we need to become aware of who we are unconsciously copying. It may well be the neighbour up the road with the excessively large car, rather than the older person who spends their spare time volunteering at a food bank. Look at yourself as a role model too, and embrace the fact that you are an imperfect one. It is unlikely that anyone will ever give you credit for influencing or inspiring them (we are culturally terrible at giving compliments) but I promise you will be making a difference, even if you don’t know it.
When many people have similar habits we create cultures. Remember that ‘super-organisms’ like forests, beehives or ants nests are self-organising, so the individuals within them don’t wait to be told what to do. Each plays their role, brings their own talents, and together they build something they could never possibly achieve alone. Once we have created cultures it takes much less energy input to maintain them – just as a tree in a forest uses less energy to grow upright than an individual tree standing strong against the wind. The creation of new cultures accelerates when tipping points are reached, beyond which there is a critical mass of action or outcome. In the living world we see tipping points in soil stabilisation, or tree health, for example. Human cultural examples include the demonstrations against the Vietnam war leading to its inevitable end, or more recently when the BBC TV programme Blue Planet II led to massive action on plastic waste. Behind both there were people who had been plugging away for
We saw in the Slow and small solutions principle, that when you put in the groundwork, change can happen rapidly – an example of which is when trees burst into leaf. If an alien arrived from space, having never seen a tree, it would be startled to see it transform from bare twigs into a green canopy in a matter of weeks (sometimes days). The small actions that you build up over time can lead to a massive blossoming of new ideas and new ways of living, perhaps when you least expect it. The challenge for us, in our endeavours, is to be ahead of the curve, holding our nerve and trusting that the tipping point or runaway positive action will come. At this time when there is such an urgency to effect change, when our climate and our species-loss are hurtling towards devastating tipping points in the wrong direction, there has never been more need to take action to turn those accelerations around. Ask yourself, is creating a better living world on your bucket list? If the answer is ‘not yet’, what steps do you need to take, what skills do you need to gain, what confidence do you need to develop, what connections do you need to make, in order to have it as a core purpose in your life?
Environmentalist May East talks about how each day she gets up and spends some time making a conscious decision where to direct her attention that day, and therefore where she will spend her energy.3 Whether it be activism, growing food, volunteering, planting trees or petitioning your local politician, you have a conscious decision to make about how you spend your time, with the knowledge that with each person that opts in we are closer and closer to positive change. Remember those
early bacteria – if they can make a difference, you certainly can.
What steps can you take to gain the confidence to change the world? How can you become comfortable letting go of the need to know how things will turn out? How can you join with others to create new habits, cultures and tipping points?
Think like a Tree: The natural principles guide to life is available to purchase via Amazon or via www.thinklikeatree.co.uk