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The 1% rule can save the planet: Why small changes make a big difference

The 1% rule – also known as the rule of marginal gains – is the idea that big goals can be achieved through small steps. It eliminates the demand for making huge change overnight, and suggests that we strive for a daily improvement of just 1% instead.

The 1% rule was pioneered by self-help authors like James Altucher and James Clear as a highly-effective approach to personal development. These days, however, its popularity has surpassed the realm of self-help and the rule enjoys recognition across the board.

Most famously, the British cycling team performance director, Sir Dave Brailsford, credits the rule for his success. In 2007, the British cycling team hadn’t won Tour de France in over a century. Brailsford took it upon himself to mend this by improving all aspects of the team’s performance by just 1%.

At the time his approach seemed a little unorthodox, as all the problems he tackled were seemingly minor – Brailsford did things like tweaking the team’s warm-up routine, teaching them proper hand-washing techniques and making the bike seats more aerodynamic.

The results of this atypical approach were shocking. Collectively, the tiny adjustments brought about greater change than what anyone could have anticipated – in the decade after 2007, the British cycling team won Tour de France five times!

The 1% rule and environmentalism

So, how does the 1% rule relate to the environment? If we apply the idea of marginal improvements to ecology, then we should be trying to save our planet through a multitude of small, individual actions rather than (only) through huge campaigns.

In other words, it’s no longer about looking for a grand solution – rather, it’s about targeting our daily habits, and finding all the small ways in which we can contribute.

Why it matters

When faced with the enormous scale of the ecological crisis, it’s easy to believe that individual actions are too small and insufficient. What we are forgetting, however, is the rule of compound effect. One plastic bottle less might seem insignificant, but if you switch to a reusable tumbler for the years to come, you will save hundreds of kilos of plastic over time.

The same applies to diet. When I first became vegetarian my friends would often tell me things like “Do you really think that you becoming vegetarian will make a difference? There are billions of people out there still eating meat!”. These people failed to account for two crucial factors – the compound effect of change over time, and across a multitude of individuals. Me eating one steak less today is insignificant, but if you add up all of the meat I would’ve eaten over my eight years of being vegetarian – all of the burgers, chicken, and fish – you end up with an extortionate amount. You end up with what equates to the lives of hundreds of animals. According to statistics, the average British carnivore eats 7, 000 animals in their lifetime, so a single vegetarian makes no small difference.

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