The Little Things

When we think about the life on our planet, what comes to your mind? One really obvious thing is that there are a lot of us – a lot of human beings. There are currently thought to be about 6.92 billion people on earth. If we figure that the average human weighs about 50 kg we can calculate that we, as a species, make up about 335 million tonnes. And while that seems like a lot – and while some of us could do to lose a million tonnes here or there – 335 million tonnes is nothing! Humans make up only a very small part of the total weight of living things on earth – we are maybe about one third of one percent of the total living mass on the earth. 

What else then? Oh, maybe livestock… we could include farm animals. Also, there are a lot of trees and other plants, right? Surely these are the major categories of life on earth, no? 

Livestock – well, maybe about 600 million tonnes. They’re more numerous and they weigh more put together than humans but they still only about one percent of the world’s total mass of living things. 

Plants make up a large part of the total, but you know what’s more important than that? Insects! They may make up more than 20%. Even just ants on their own make up at least three times as much biomass as we do – and maybe a lot more. 

But the real winner in this contest is the stuff we can’t see with our unaided eyes – the really small stuff – the microbes. 

And coming in in the lead is an organism you may not have even heard of - cyanobacteria. They’re microscopic organisms that live in the ocean. They weigh next to nothing, but there are lots and lots of them. One teaspoon of seawater may contain about half a million cyanobacteria – and you thought it was crowded at social hour! Well, there’s a lot of seawater so that cyanobacteria in the world number in the octillions! That’s a one with 27 zeros – a billion billion billion… So, together, they make up probably three times the biomass of humans. 

Microbes all together – that’s bacteria and yeasts and all of their friends - make up more than half of the living matter on the earth. 

This planet belongs to the little things. 

We are often advised to focus on the big stuff. I think it’s good advice. I know that I can get so wrapped up in the trees that I fail to notice the forest. 

There’s a classic demonstration about this. I wish I could do it for you now, but you’ll have to imagine… So imagine: 

I take out a large jar and I put in fist sized rocks one after the other until they reach the very top and I can add no more. I ask you: “is this jar full?” Well, then I take out a bucket of gravel, and I pour that right in with the rocks and I shake it a bit so that the gravel falls between the rocks. And I ask you “is this jar full?”. And then sand, and then water. 

The fact is that I would never be able to get to the big stuff at all if I put the small stuff i first. Just so, we can fill our lives up with unimportant things until there’s no room for the big stuff – the things we really care about – our values, our goals in the world, the ones we love… 

However, there is an important flip side to this truth. In fact, the big things don’t always look like big things and they don’t always have the weight and density of a big rock. They can be as light as snowflake number two million, four hundred, and ninety-two thousand, three hundred and sixty… Down comes the branch, or the repressive dictator, or the cruel wall, or the oppressive law, or a damaging prejudice, or even a socio-political system such as ours that limits people on the basis of their place of birth, the identity of their parents, or the colour of their skin. 

Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the power of small things in his excellent book “The Tipping Point.” He points out that change does not happen in a gradual linear way. You can add effort after effort after effort and nothing happens until you hit a special point – he calls it the tipping point. And suddenly, things change dramatically. Water breaks into a boil or freezes to ice. Suddenly, the Soviet Union begins to crumble. Suddenly, Mubarek is out of office. Suddenly, gay marriage goes from being unthinkable to generally supported. 

An important point that Gladwell emphasizes is that very small things can lead a big, complicated, system to tip. He talks about the high crime rate in a major city. A very interesting approach was taken. Rather than to focus policing efforts on arrests and patrolling – the big rocks perhaps - they tried focusing on the small stuff. They removed graffiti assiduously. They fixed broken window panes. At first, nothing happened, but then – remarkably – the crime rate began to drop precipitously. The small actions had created a changing atmosphere that at a point began to tip – and the change fed on itself, accelerating and improving everything all around. 

The fact is that even when we can’t possibly move the big rocks – even when the problems we face seem enormous and insoluble – even when we feel like one tiny snowflake landing on a sturdy branch – we can make a difference. And if we can make a difference, I say we should make a difference. 

One day an elephant saw a hummingbird lying flat on its back on the ground. The bird's tiny feet were raised up into the air.

"What on earth are you doing, Hummingbird?" asked the elephant.

The hummingbird replied, "I have heard that the sky might fall today. If that should happen, I am ready to do my part in holding it up."

The elephant laughed loudly and mocked the little bird. "Do you think those itty-bitty feet could hold up the sky?"

"Not alone," admitted the hummingbird. "But each of us must do what he can and this is what I can do myself."

We are not alone in what we believe and the struggles we face. We are not alone in wanting equal marriage rights for same-sex couples and we have seen a tipping point come about. 

We are not alone in believing that the potential of any given human being should not be restricted by the particularities of their birth. 

We are not alone in believing that millions of people should not have their lives ruined because of drug use that harms no one but themselves. 

We are not alone in believing that no one should be forced to live on the streets. 

We are not alone in believing that everyone in our society should be treated with decency and respect – no matter the colour of their skin, their level of ability, their sexual orientation, their age, or their national origin. 

These goals seem like some mighty big rocks – they seem like boulders that have not moved despite the efforts of thousands of well-meaning people. They seem like massive mountains of stone that will never move. 

But they will… they will move eventually. At some point, the accumulated actions of many, many good people will reach a tipping point and we will see a new day dawn. 

The key is to keep our faith – keep to our purpose knowing that the changes that set up change can be so small as to be unnoticeable – the weight of a single snowflake. How can we remain faithful? 

During the Middle Ages, a traveler once came upon a place in France where a great deal of building work was going on. He began talking with the stone cutters and asking them about their work.

He approached the first worker and asked, ‘What are you doing?’

The man, very disgruntled, and obviously unhappy in his hard toil, replied, ‘I’m cutting these huge boulders with the simplest of tools and putting them together in the way I’ve been told to do.

I’m sweating in this heat and my back is hurting. What’s more, I’m totally bored, and I wish I didn’t have to do this hard and meaningless job.’

The traveler moved on quickly to interview a second worker. He asked the same question: ‘What are you doing?’

The worker replied, ‘Well, I have a wife and children at home, so I come here every morning and I work these boulders into regular shapes, as I’m told to do. It gets repetitive sometimes, but it helps to feed my family, and that’s all I want.’

Somewhat encouraged, the traveller went on to a third worker. ‘And what are you doing?’ he asked.

The third worker responded, with shining eyes, as he pointed up to the heavens, ‘I’m building a cathedral!’

A few octillion of tiny green microorganisms produce fully one fifth of the oxygen you are breathing right now. Unseen and unnoticed, they do the work that transforms our world. 

Each of us is about two million times taller than a cyanobacterium. We outweigh them about a billion billion billion fold. We can out-think them, out-run them, and we can actually live out of water! And we know what we’re working toward – and it is great indeed! 

The big advantage of the microbes is persistence. A cyanobacterium never says it’s hopeless. A fungi never says “I give up.” 

Let us learn the patience and persistence of the little things, and let us always remember how the smallest things can ultimately change everything.