The terrifying, world-altering power of every tiny decision you make

As you’ll know from every movie, cartoon, TV show and book with a time travel plot, the seemingly small decisions we make on a daily basis can have a surprising amount of influence on the future. It’s the ripple/butterfly/domino effect – whatever you want to call it. With every choice, a tiny lever clicks into place and sets a whole series of events into motion.

I went for a run this morning. At the top of a long hill I threw myself to the ground, panting for oxygen (why do I never seem to get better at running?) and was immediately greeted in the face by a very friendly spaniel. Her owner called her back and apologised to me (she didn’t need to: friendly spaniels are the best). Then, as if on a whim, she turned around and asked:

“Which route shall I take?” Indicating to the fork in the path ahead.

My brain, already useless in that moment on account of my leg muscles obnoxiously demanding my entire blood supply, suddenly scrambled at the prospect of having to make a spontaneous decision for a complete stranger.

Panic-stricken, I pointed to the path on the left and said:

“Um I don’t know. That one has the best view.”

And without questioning my authority on the matter of good views, the woman set off, spaniel in tow, down the path I’d chosen for her.

As I watched her round the corner to her unknown destiny, I began to question if that route really did have the best view. Worse: what if the route I’d chosen for her triggered a series of life-altering events? Would she always look back at that first day of May in 2021 as the day she took a stranger’s stupid advice and ruined everything?

Such is the magnitude of cause and effect. Of course, it was her decision to ask for my advice, and her decision to follow it. And anyway, none of this matters if free will doesn’t exist. Perhaps you believe in a deterministic deity, in which case you would say it was god who told her to take that path, not me (phew!).

The point is: the little things we do DO matter. It’s important to remember this fact when we catch ourselves feeling small and insignificant. For instance, when I read about terrible things going on around the world, I often think ‘what can I do to stop this?’ and that’s when I feel stupidly tiny. How can one beach clean help when the tide always brings in more plasticy crap? How can one charity donation help when there are billions of animals and people suffering right now? Does my vote really count? Etc etc..

Recently my boyfriend and I were talking about plastic bags. He’s from the US, and I know from my own travels to America that at supermarkets in America you get given a plastic bag for pretty much every item you buy. To British people, this willy-nilly handing out of carrier bags is almost criminal. That’s because we’ve been conditioned to think of plastic bags as Satan’s spawn, thanks to traumatising documentaries about sea pollution and the government-enforced single-use carrier bag charge.

In Britain, we keep every plastic bag we’ve ever bought scrunched up in the drawers and cupboards of our kitchens, awaiting a vainglorious reuse that often never comes. That’s because most of the time we forget to bring our plastic bags with us to the shops and end up having to ask the cashier for a new one in a small, embarrassed voice full of remorse and self-loathing. The cashier will reach down beneath the counter and retrieve one (only one, mind, and you will squeeze an entire week’s shop into it). They will lay it down in the packing area like an animal corpse, with a stony silence that confirms your complete failure as a human being. The people in the queue behind you with their trolley full of bags-for-life will whisper ‘shame, shame, shame’ under their breath as you leave.

Anyway, my boyfriend and I were talking about this difference in our cultures and he said, even though he usually asks cashiers not to bag his purchases, he still feels like his effort is futile. He’s just one person out of millions in America who wouldn’t give single-use plastic pollution a second thought.

Today something interesting happened to him. As usual he stopped the cashier as she eagerly moved to put his single, easy-to-carry item into a plastic bag unecessarily. As he walked away, he heard the cashier actually ask the next customer if they wanted a bag and guess what? The next customer said no! Perhaps if my boyfriend hadn’t said anything, the cashier would have continued to hand out bags on autopilot and customers would continue to accept them on autopilot.

In conclusion: that small decision to say something resulted in 2 unused plastic bags in that store today. Maybe more, if the cashier continued to give customers a choice. Over time, the cashier could make a big difference. If fewer people used fewer bags, fewer bags would be stocked, fewer bags would be produced and fewer bags would make their way into the stomachs of whales and other marine animals.

I used way to many ‘fewers’ in that sentence.

But anyway. Little actions can have far-reaching consequences. If you believe in protecting the planet, protecting animals and stopping the world from becoming one giant plastic bag, then start making some small changes now, and feel good in the knowledge that they really will make a difference. You are an important cog in this colossal machine. If you start turning, we all will.