I've had a lyric rolling around in my head, off and on, for the last 45 years. And it continues to roll around in my head, like so...
I'd love to change the world
But I don't know what to do
So I'll leave it up to you
(Alvin Lee - Ten Years After)
I won’t speculate about what, exactly, Lee meant by it when he sang it. And I’ll admit that part of the appeal has been that it just sounded so cool. But what really intrigues me is that my sense of what it means, or I should say what it means to me, has evolved over the years.
I originally took it at face value, an early ‘70s counter-culture recognition that the world was in a state coupled with a ‘but what can I do about it’ attitude. The world’s problems are just too big, and my rainbow race is just too small. Despite leaving it “up to you,” the rest of the lyrics don’t really hold out much hope for a solution from “you.” Still, identifying the problem is an important first step, right?
The problems that needed change in the ‘70s seem almost quaint by today’s standards. Global warming, to pick one, was just finding its way into the popular press. AIDS had yet to burst upon the scene, bipartisan cooperation was a real thing and mass shootings were surprising. You’d think that the “I don’t know what to do” effect would have just gotten worse, but it hasn’t, at least not for me.
Working alone in the shop, as I often do, leaves a lot of time for reflection. And for mulling over 45 year old lyrics. So here’s my thought. I’d love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do – exactly. But I’ve got an idea. The state of the world isn’t the result of some bad actor – some Dr. Evil – intent on carrying out his evil plan for world domination by melting the polar ice to flood the world’s major cities. Leaving it up to some James Bond-like character isn’t going to cut it. So who melted the ice caps? You and me. Us. And don’t tell me that the Chinese put out more greenhouse gases that the US. Of course they do. We’ve exported our manufacturing to China but not our appetite for stuff. Now, don’t be so defensive, this is actually very good news.
It’s good news that we have all contributed a little bit to the problem because it means that we can all contribute a little bit to the solution. For example, the US consumes almost 50 billion plastic bottles each year, and recycles less than a quarter of them. Sure, a legislative solution could have a huge impact and is a worthy goal, I’m sure But in the mean time I can reduce the numbers in a minute way. I can choose to not use plastic bottles and make darn sure I recycle 100% of them if I do use them. And I don’t have to wait for legislation, or a new technology. I don’t – and at this point mustn’t - leave it up to you. I can change the world, just a little, all by myself, today. How empowering is that?
The plastic bottle is a metaphor. Swearing off the sin that I never adopted won’t really make a difference. We can all find our own ‘plastic bottles.’ For me, it’s making sure that the woods we use for the coffins are coming from responsibly managed forests, and that the glue isn’t toxic. It making sure that I’m doing what I can. It’s a small thing, but I’m starting to figure out what to do and I’m no longer leaving it up to you.