By Nora Schulte-Zweckel
When it comes to taking action, most people excuse themselves by saying that they would not make a difference on their own. Their claim is that one person alone is not able to bring change to this world. But I believe in the power of the individual and there are several famous examples proving my point. The individual who takes action can set off a chain reaction.
To start with an older example of a powerful individual, there was Martin Luther. He lived in the 16thCentury under the Roman Catholic church. Luther was not content with the church’s government and actions. Instead of allowing the situation to continue and waiting for somebody else to change the rules, he took action himself by stating his prepositions in the 95 theses, also called Disputation on the Power of Indulgences. The 95 theses were intended to begin a debate among academics but he actually set off a historically important chain reaction. Eventually he not only translated the Bible so that every-day people could read it, but also with his theses, initiated the Reformation and created the basis for the Lutheran-Protestant Christianity.
Like Luther, Greta Thunberg effected significant change in society today. As a 14-year-old pupil, she decided to strike during school hours and protest in front of her country’s parliament in August 2018.She could not know how big the impact of her actions would be. She started the protest against climate change because nobody else had done so. But soon after, she was joined by other pupils and students. The school strike, now called Fridays-For-Future, started to expand to other countries. Until now, thousands of pupils around the world have protested, so much so that the governments are finally starting to take action against climate change. On May 24th 2019, there was even going to be a global protest. Greta Thunberg started off completely on her own but she became the role model and lead figure for a world-wide movement. Her name and her actions are known around the globe and she also appeared on TV to hold speeches. Already at the current European election, the influence of the FridaysForFuture movements becomes very clear in Germany: ‘Die Grünen’, the German party fighting climate change, have strongly increased their share of the vote and especially first-time voters and young adults voted for them. Greta started the movement almost a year ago, but the chain reaction she set off is still not over. The chain has not ended yet. Greta’s protest has already caused change for young people all over the world in half a year’s time and also strongly influenced the European election, so her impact on the future of our planet will probably be world-changing too. If Greta had not started her protest, we probably would not be fighting climate change as strongly and stubbornly as we do now.
I have also experienced the power of the individual myself. At the age of 16, there was only one girl in my school who ate a vegan diet. At first glance, that seems quite small in comparison to all the other children who were still eating animal products. However, a few weeks later her twin sister became vegan too. At the same time, my best friend and I became friends with the twins. With time we got to know the twin’s reasons for going vegan and what actually changed in their lifestyle without animal products. Half a year after the first sister became vegan, my friend and I decided to eat a vegetarian diet. And both of us again influenced and inspired others to consume fewer animal products and even turn their back to the whole meat industry. The first vegan girl started off alone at our school but influenced many others to join her cause.
All the previous examples have a rather positive connotation. But powerful individuals in history have not always been a good thing. The most notorious one is Adolf Hitler. His concept of Aryans and his ideal image of the world has spread so widely and influenced so many that Hitler was able to lead a whole country to death and kill millions of people. Especially bullies in every-day life start off as an individual. All that is possible because of the bandwagon effect: Most people just take the easy path and go with the flow sometimes without regard to their own beliefs. But every flow starts off with individuals. Regardless of whether the individual’s influence is negative or positive, it can lead the flow. And that is why you should never underestimate the power of an individual. People are suggestible and we should keep in mind that that suggestibility can lead to both helpful and harmful circumstances.
At the beginning the individual may seem small but because we are a community and therefore cannot help but influence each other; the individual can set off a chain reaction. Individual actions can be contagious. In order to actually bring a change to a society, a country or the world you need a community and some sort of collective identity that the community shares. But every community starts with a single person. Many people need courage to take action and hope that their actions will actually have an impact. In short, every movement needs a leading figure. Somebody must take the first step and there lies the power of the individual. However, you should not wait now for others, Greta Thunberg or Martin Luther, to take that first step and lead you. Especially now, in an age of social media and worldwide web, it is easier than ever to spread information and propaganda and reach people around the globe. You do not necessarily need money, fame or special competence: If you want change and somebody to take action, that somebody always begins with you. You are somebody and you are entitled and able to take that first step.