Our Surprising Influence as Individuals

S Since publishing my first book late last year titled ‘Green is not a Colour’, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel extensively and deliver presentations to diverse audiences. During these talks, I’m constantly asked all sorts of questions: some about the book, some about myself, my journey, and some about sustainability in general. Sometimes they’re extremely tough to answer, other times not so much. But if there is one question that used to haunt me, and I would dread answering it, it would be something along the lines of this one:


“I am just one person in a world of over seven billion. What difference can I actually make? Not all that much if you ask me…”

For a very long time I struggled to answer this question. Murphy’s Law happened time and again that every time I delivered a presentation this question would arise. Some people genuinely wanted to know the answer so that they can improve their actions; others simply wanted know so that they could justify their dismal efforts of doing nothing to contribute towards a better world.

I didn’t ever respond with something unique, something that they hadn’t heard before that could ignite to a ‘light-bulb’ moment (excuse the pun). I’d revert to that famous Gandhi quote: “be the change you wish to see in the world”. I’d say that you need to start somewhere, and starting with yourself is the best place to do so. It was a standard, go-to answer than worked every now and then, depending on the audience. But if I’m honest with you, I would often feel disgruntled too and think “damn, is what I’m doing actually making a difference at all?” It’s not the type of thoughts that I want (or need) running through my head, especially when I am tirelessly seeking to inspire change. In an attempt to get these negative thoughts out my head, I decided to run an interesting experiment and quantify the difference an individual can make. I wanted some ammunition so that when I get asked that question again, I can deliver a knockout-blow of a response, leaving people with my memorable response.

I desperately wanted to show people the sheer influence an individual can have on both those around them and the environment. Many people are simply unaware of the influence they have. So I approached nine of my closest friends and family and asked them to do me a big favour: to please give up meat (beef and chicken) for 30 days. That’s it. I said that I would never ask for another favour again. A few resisted at first, but after some convincing (more accurately educating) I managed to get them all on board. When I share this story, people often ask me why I chose to ask friends to give up meat? Surely there were other ways to make a difference individually?

It turns out that one of the most astounding facts that we learned whilst writing the book was the enormous amounts of water it takes to produce meat. I was completely oblivious to this fact before writing the book. The World Health Organisation estimates that, on average, it takes 20 000 litres of water to produce 500g of beef, and 5 000 litres to produce 500g of chicken – mind-blowing numbers. To put that into perspective, 20 000 litres is the equivalent amount of water that we use to shower in 3-6 months, depending on length. Many people don’t believe that statistic, but when considering the amounts of water the animals consume during their lives (albeit short lived), as well as the highly water-intensive crops that we grow for them to eat, this figure becomes more believable. So by understanding the amount of meat my friends would resist eating, I could equate that back to water savings. The country I live in – South Africa – is currently experiencing the worst drought in decades, and so the experiment would also be meaningful in this context.

It was a two-month experiment. The first month I asked my family and friends to live business-as-usual, and consume as much meat as they would normally. Except when they did, I asked them to record the weight of the meat they ate. This would give me an average meat consumption per person per month. The second month, if they all followed through with my favour of giving the meat up, would give me the opportunity of quantifying those results. It turns out that the nine of us (myself included) ate, on average, 5 kg’s of beef and 2 kg’s go chicken each month (remember, we’re South African’s who love daily consumption of red meat). Fortunately, all of my family and friends resisted eating meat during the second month. Not one of them cheated or gave in, which I am very grateful for. This was music to my ears, and so I could use the meat-to-water conversion to quantity results.

If we do the math, individually we saved 110 000 litres of water (5 kg’s x 20 000 litres, and 2 kg’s x 5 000 litres). Collectively, that’s adds up to 1.1-million litres of water, give or take. If that just sounds like a figure to you that has no meaning, then hear this: 1.1-million litres is the equivalent of not showering for 27 years (two showers a day of five minutes each with an average flow-rate shower head). In just 30 days, “I” managed to save more water that what I’ve used in my entire life showering (I am 26).

What’s amazing, is that after I communicated these results with my nine family and friends, they were gobsmacked and continued with the ‘experiment’. They then themselves approached their own friends and followed through with the experiment with the same methodology. The total number of people undertaking “Devan’s 30-day meat-less challenge” now sits at 16. With that figure, although indirect, “I” have saved over 45-years worth of shower water. This is direct demonstration of the power you, as an individual, can have in making a difference. Sometimes you just don’t realise it.

Although I would in a heartbeat, I unfortunately cannot afford to drive an electric car or install solar panels on my roof. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make a difference environmentally. Just think outside the box and follow through with something, anything for that matter. So nowadays I tell people, “Don’t come and tell me you’re insignificant and cannot make a difference”. To be honest, I simply don’t buy into that argument. Its  an invalid, unsubstantiated argument to my ears. Regardless of whether you think you make a difference or not, you are. Your attitude, your mindset, your passion – they’re infectious to those around you, and your direct influence is more powerful than you sometimes imagine. Apply this thinking to your outlook on life – you may be surprised at the influence you have.


  1. Hi,
    I stumbled upon this article at the right time. For the past year I’ve been struggling every single day with finding the elusive “purpose” of my existence. Some days I would wither myself down to nothing; just another breathing person on the planet using its resources. As a nutrition major I think I’m doing good, learning educated stances on food choices, sustainability, etc. Little did I know that the meat industry is one of the largest polluters and consumers of natural supplies. This article has resparked my realization and need for thinking outside the box. Thanks for these words. Great experiment, too- simple, easy for consumers to understand and effective.

    1. Hi Darby,

      Thank you for sharing your story with us and our community. We are so glad you feel re-inspired to live and work according to your values. Please keep us posted on your journey and remember that you are never alone. We all struggle with finding “purpose” and sometimes it’s really as simple as enjoying every single moment, remaining present and making small changes which will ultimately create a much larger impact in our life. Best of luck to you! Xx

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