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The Risk of Small Steps

There were some interesting articles in yesterday's The New York Times Magazine (Aug. 10, 2008) . Although about completely different topics (one was about Obama and "the end of black politics," the other about recycling toilet water into the tap water system), there was a common thread between the two which really got me thinking. That thread was the notion that one must be careful when taking steps toward their goal, being sure that the step they're taking will not harm satisfying their goal completely.
Take for example the recycling of plastics. While most of us would agree that recycling is a great thing because it reduces the amount of energy we use (usually), reduces the amount of petroleum we use, and feels darn good, we can't deny that recycling is worse for the environment than not consuming at all. By letting the general public feel like they're doing what they can for the environment by recycling, we may be endangering the goal of reducing consumption to sustainable levels.
So how does one determine if a step forward is worth the risk? I'm not sure there is a good answer. But small steps often raise awareness, and if the general public is not aware of something, they are far less likely to support a big step, particularly if it will result in a short-term financial loss. After a series of small steps, that big step no longer seems so big. (Obama's presidential candidacy is a perfect example, considering blacks went to separate schools, etc. less than half a century ago.)
The hardest part may be knowing when a big step is necessary. Do we fix the rusty bridge, or rebuild it completely? Do we tax gasoline gradually to let the market adjust to renewable energy, or do we outlaw combustion engines? Only time will tell, and hindsight is 50/50.


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