Coconuts in TuvaluIt was the summer in between my two years of graduate school at Yale University and I had an internship with the U.S. State Department in the Pacific. What I thought would be a chance to continue my academic research in a beautiful setting, ended up changing the way I saw myself, my connections to others, and the planet.

During my time there, I had the opportunity to travel with the U.S. Ambassador to Tuvalu, one of the smallest countries on Earth.  It’s population of 11,000 lives on a series of atolls that are about a 2-hour flight from Fiji. As part of our visit, one afternoon we traveled to the country’s jail. The small building sat near the sea and housed about five prisoners and a guard.

The Ambassador and I were talking with the guard and I could see some of the prisoners out of the corner of my eye.  They were climbing palm trees in the yard and collecting coconuts.  They expertly maneuvered up the narrow trunks, got the fruit and then once they came back down, broke it open to drink the water inside. It was clear that this was something they did almost constantly and relied on the coconuts to keep hydrated in the intense heat.

I was jealous – we had been standing for a while and I was thirsty.  One of the prisoners must have read the look on my face because, before I knew it, he climbed up a tree, got two coconuts and then walked in our direction.  After asking the guard, he gave one to me and one to the Ambassador.  It was such a kind gesture among strangers.  And it was delicious – I held the heavy coconut in my hand and the refreshing water made the intense South Pacific heat disappear for a moment.

Fast forward a few months, after I had returned to the US, I was standing in a QFC grocery store in my hometown.  The fluorescent lights reflecting off the linoleum floor was a different world compared to the sand and sea of Tuvalu. I wandered the aisles of brightly colored cereal boxes and rows of canned goods, making my way to the produce section.

And that’s when I saw them.  Plastic-wrapped coconuts.

I picked one up like it was an alien.  I remembered holding the heavy coconut in my hand in Tuvalu.  I was confused – why would you wrap a coconut in plastic?  The fruit had a shell that didn’t need any help.  It’s not spikey or dangerous or needed in any recipe I could think of.  We don’t wrap oranges or bananas in plastic wrap.  Why in the world would we do it for a coconut? I stood there for a long while just staring at this pile of shiny coconuts in front of me.

The coconut story is a metaphor for how the small choices we make – the seemingly meaningless choices like putting plastic wrap on a coconut – add up to a big impact on the world.  Imagine how much plastic wrap was created just to be wasted.  The water and chemicals to manufacture it, the gasoline to transport it, the pollution caused – just so it could be thrown away.

In many ways that coconut was the beginning of my journey.  A journey that included becoming a Climate Change Specialist at the United Nations, focusing on the international negotiations and the steps that national, state and local governments can take to address climate change.  It included providing strategic advisory services to multi-billion dollar companies, co-founding ioby, the first crowd-resourcing platform that focuses on building stronger, more sustainable neighborhoods and creating Climate Winners.

My journey included this realization: we cannot underestimate the meaning in the small choices we make and the habits we practice. Those choices and habits impact all of us.  How we wrap our food, where we take our lunch hour, what we do on a date, how we play baseball or how often we eat guacamole affect – and are affected by – our collective environment.  These actions are connected to the rest of the planet and the people on it.

My dream is that we start paying attention to these connections – and we start doing something about them.  Because sometimes global challenges can’t be answered with global solutions alone.  They must also include every person making small but smarter choices. Those small choices and habits can add up to a more sustainable future.

Written by Cassie Flynn