It surprises me how many people believe that their individual actions make no difference to the world.
In a recent poll on this site, 45% felt that their personal actions “make no difference” with respect to Global Warming. (Of course, many of those responses were from Digg readers, who don’t represent the average reader on this site.)
I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I believe exactly the opposite to be true: Individuals can change the world, and for us to change the course that society is on it will be individuals that will have to lead the changes.
Corporations and Governments are going to change the world — that’s something that us individuals are going to have to do. Governments follow the lead of the people who fund elections, and corporations are focussed on making sure they continue to have short term profits. It’s only individual people who have the ability to change the world when it comes to environmental issues.
I also believe that young people have a dramatically outsized ability to change the world. Here are some examples:
1. Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King was only 24 years old when he became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Two years later when the black woman Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus, King became spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. During the boycott he was arrested and his house was bombed, but he refused to quit — even though he had a young wife and child who, along with him, received constant death threats.
King was the youngest man to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize when he received it in 1964. His “I have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., is widely recognized as one of greatest American speeches of the 20th Century.
2. Bill Gates
Bill Gates was only 19 years old when he read in Popular Electronics about a new ‘personal’ computer that had been designed. He decided, along with his friend Paul Allen, to write software for it. They contacted the maker of the new machine and, within a year, he had taken a leave of absence from Harvard Colege and ‘Micro-soft’ had been founded.
The company they founded changed personal computing and the way people used computers forever. Today, Microsoft products are used worldwide and Bill Gates has become one of the richest people in the history of the world.
3. Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein was 26 years old in 1905 when, while working in the patent office as an ‘Assistant Examiner’ when he wrote and got published 4 papers on Physics. Among these papers were groundbreaking ideas on “The Photoelectric Effect”, a important discovery in Physics at that time.
In 1921, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work — with special mention of his early work on the photoelectric effect. In 1999 Einstein was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Century“. A poll of prominent physicists named him the greatest physicist of all time.
Einstein also made important contributions in other areas. His early warnings to US President Franklin Roosevelt regarding the potential for Germany to develop a Nuclear Bomb helped to spur the Manhattan Project. He was an ardent supporter of peace and spoke out for it throughout his life — he once was quoted as saying, “I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist. I am willing to fight for peace. Nothing will end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war.”
4. Rebecca Hoskings
Rebecca Hoskings was 31 years old when she traveled to Hawaii to film a documentary on its people and wildlife. But when she witnessed thousands of albatross chicks dying as a direct result of discarded plastics, she was both hurt and mad — and made a decision to make a difference.
Plastic grocery bags were a major culprit — the adult albatrosses saw plastic bags in the water and thought they were squid, so they scooped them up and fed them to the chicks. The chicks stomachs would then be filled with undigestible plastic which would eventually kill them.
So she organized a drive to ban plastic grocery bags in her home town of Modbury in the UK. Her efforts were successful and as of May 1, 2007 non-biodegradable plastic grocery bags are officially banned in her town. Moreover, publicity from this effort has made its way around the world and now many other cities are considering similar bans.
5. Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi
Mohandas Gandhi was just 24 years old when he moved to South Africa for a 1 year job in South Africa. While there, he witnessed first-hand the discrimination and violence against Indians that was occurring in South Africa at that time. At the end of his 1 year job, he decided to stay on and help organize the fight against a law that was being passed to deprive Indians the right to vote.
A year later he founded the Natal Indian Congress to help organize Indians in South Africa as a political force. He continued to work for the rights of Indians in South Africa for 10 more years, during which time he developed his approach for non-violent demonstration. Eventually, Gandhi’s movement was successful and forced authorities to recognize the rights of Indians in that country.
The organizing skills and approaches developed by Gandhi during this time in his life helped him later when he used the same approaches to work for Independence in India itself. Today he is known as Father of the Nation in India and is recognized around the world as one of the great leaders of the 20th century.
6. Marie Curie
Marie Curie was in her late 20s when she and her husband Pierre began their groundbreaking research into radioactivity. When she was 30, they published a paper announcing the existence of Polonium, a new element. Later that year, they announced their discovery of Radium, another new element. In 1903, at the age of 35 she received the Nobel Prize in Physics for the work she had done in her late 20′s and early 30′s on radioactivity.
Marie also had to overcome discrimination against her for being a woman. Despite graduating first in her high school class, she was initially denied entrance to college because she was female. Despite this, she eventually found her way into the University of Paris where she again graduated first in her class (and later became the first female professor at that university). In 1902 she became the first woman in France to earn a Doctorate degree.
Marie Curie later earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, making her the only person to have ever won a Nobel Prize in more than one scientific discipline.