I did what I could — and it made a difference

If you think that individual choices make no difference in the big picture, think again.

For the past several years I’ve been noticing how many lights are on during the day and thinking about the causes of climate change. I’ve written commentaries in this paper about the lights I’ve seen both on Vashon — especially at the park ‘n ride in town and around the Seattle area that are on all day long.

I’ve also written about the time I flew back east and saw so many 1,000-watt street lights along the highway — as well as dozens of 1,000-watt lights at O’Hare airport out on the tarmac — all turned on at noon on a bright sunny day.

I was baffled by this. How can we be aware of climate change and allow all of these lights to be on during the day? All day? And why doesn’t anyone say anything about it?

I’m one of those people who believes that each one of us can make a difference: our vote, our choices of what we eat and the products we buy, and how we use energy. I know that there are many people who don’t believe that their actions as individuals make any kind of difference at all and I would like to try to change their minds.

My friend Marcy Summers, a conservation biologist who works to protect endangered species in Indonesia but lives on Vashon, made a decision not to eat salmon that was caught here in Puget Sound. She believes that the salmon swimming in the sound belong to the orcas that live in the Northwest; they don’t really have another food source, whereas we humans have many.

Will this decision make any difference? Will our orcas have a greater food supply now that Marcy isn’t eating their salmon?

Here’s the thing: Marcy is not alone. I just joined her and I feel certain that there are hundreds, possibly thousands of citizens living the the Puget Sound area who practice this type of environmental “activism.”

Many people have chosen not to eat any meat because of its powerful effect on the earth’s climate. Others choose to drive less and even dedicate one or more days per week as “gas-free days,” while others have committed to simply buying less stuff.

If you think that these choices make no difference in the big picture, then think again.

Seeing all of these street lights on during the day really got to me, so much so that I called PSE and I called King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office. PSE told me that, though they have a program that encourages energy efficiency, there was nothing they could do about the 400-watt street lights that were on 24/7; the lights at the park ‘n ride lot are not in PSE jurisdiction but rather, in Seattle Metro’s.

I left a message on Dow’s phone.

Several months after my call to our King County Executive, I received a callback. Dow’s assistant Helen introduced herself and told me that she was returning my call and was sorry that took so long.

I was taken aback because I had filed away my original phone call and had moved on to other things — like not eating salmon caught in the sound.

My original call had concerned the park ‘n ride just north of Ober Park.

I noticed that the street lights in that parking lot were always on, all day, every day.

Helen and I talked for a while about what I’ve taken to calling “low hanging fruit” — that is, very easy-to-solve problems like daytime lighting. Helen agreed with me and said that she would look into it.

Well, earlier this week I got another phone call. Right, from Helen! (I had put her number in my phone, so I knew who it was before I answered.) “Hi, Helen!” “Hi, Scott.” Helen had called me to let me know that there were a couple of King County electricians on their way over to the island to install new photo sensors in the lights at the park ‘n ride lot.

Wow! I pointedly asked her if the electricians were coming over to Vashon because of my call several months ago and she said yes. Wow!

So I feel like this sort of proves that one person can in fact make a difference when it comes to trying to save the world — even if it’s just one light bulb at a time.

No one can save the world alone, but what we can do is this: whatever we can, regardless of how small or seemingly meaningless.

Does one single vote count? Out of hundreds of millions? Could it possibly count?


Scott Durkee is a freelance factotum, artist and winemaker. He lives on Maury Island.