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July 16, 2007
Two fine people came to see me separately yesterday, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. They don't know each other, and are unlikely ever to meet. As we talked, I heard from each of them what I hear from so many others: they are paralyzed at the enormity of the tasks before them. I have so much to do, one said. Too much. I look at it all and it's all important and I just don't know where to begin any of it -- I feel I'll never get to the end of it. And so I don't do anything. I don't even start.

I think my two visitors are not the only ones daunted by tasks not only unfinished but un-begun. We are paralyzed by them. We circle them, wringing our hands, and the longer we look at them, the larger they get.

There are enormous tasks ahead of us. Ahead of each of us, in our own little lives, and ahead of all of us as citizens of the world. Our approach to the environment is one: the issues are so large, the danger so immense, the numbers so great. The magnitude of it overwhelms us. And so we do nothing. We give up.

The key to engaging in an immense task is to remember that there really are no large tasks. There are only collections of small ones. The tallest, tower in the world is only an ordered collection of bricks. Every enormous challenge can be broken down into its constituent challenges. We don't do any large thing all at once. We do it bit by bit.

Let's look at the world that way for a while and see how it goes. Your own world of your own unfinished business, and our common world, endangered by human activity in so many undeniable ways. What would life begin to be like if we changed our way of looking at these enormities that discourage us so?

1. First, we would all be working on it. We'd each be carrying our brick, one at a time, but the work done would be enormous because there are so many of us. Nobody would be outside the work of saving the earth, nobody and no task. Everything we contemplated doing would have the same question asked of it: what will be the impact of this course of action on the world? Even if it is a small thing, will it make things better or worse?

2. Living this way would put us all on the same team, which is a modern way of saying that the quotient of the world's love would increase. Not squishy, soft love; lean, sinewy love that knows how to stand on its own two feet and give its all for something larger than itself. People who live in the center of their own universes are never happy people: we're only happy if we're in our proper place, which is on the team.

3. The small world which lightning communication has produced would become emotionally real to us. We wouldn't be able to sustain the out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude toward the suffering of others that fuels our bloated lifestyle. We would finally understand the ecology of the human spirit: none of us live here alone. None of our decisions are for us only. We are all linked, whether we have decided to be or not.

4. We would know, each of us, that we are part of the solution, not just part of the problem. The shame of doing nothing, of fiddling while Rome burns, would finally leave us.

Is it your terrible clutter? Your unfulfilling job and the daunting search for a new one you keep postponing, or your postponed education? Is it your unfinished book? The task before which you tremble is yours for the taking up of only a small piece of it, one piece. And then tomorrow another and another the next day, and the next.

And is it your awareness that powerful people make and hold onto lots of money by denying that there even is an environmental crisis? That you are not one of them, that you don't control enormous business interests, don't have a bully pulpit; indeed, that you don't have any pulpit at all? That may be, but the market always works, and ordinary people deciding to do things differently will produce changes in it. And ordinary people decide things one by one by one.

Go to your vestry meeting and ask for mugs at coffee hour instead of Styrofoam. Volunteer for the washing up this will entail. Ask for free trade coffee, while you're at it. What the heck: go for broke and ask for an environmental committee as a standing committee in the parish, and offer to serve on it. Have a contest with your children about who can reduce and re-use the most. Get used to asking yourself hard questions about the impact of everything you do, and to acting on the answers.

Living this way need not mean that you'll become some kind of environmental Nazi who never lets anyone else have any fun. It just means you'll broaden your idea of what fun is. For the most part, doing something you know is good is a joyful thing. Even if it's small. Lay enough of them end to end and stack them, and you've got a tower.

Majora Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx, a grass-roots organization bringing together of ordinary people, business and government in the South Bronx, dedicated to the economic and social rebirth of the community. If ever there was a daunting task, greening the South Bronx was it. Her organization has inspired similar teams in communities in other cities.

She and Barbara Crafton will be featured at "Soul of the Earth," a Trinity Institute retreat at beautiful Trinity Conference Center in Connecticut. If the practical and spiritual come together in your longing for the world to be better than it is, consider joining us the weekend of August 3-5. Scholarship help is available is some cases. To learn more or to register, visit
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