This column first appeared in The Environmentor Volume 9, Issue 1, September 2004, Page 6.

Small Changes, Big Results

In 1960, Buckminster Fuller remarked that he figured humans evolved to pay attention only to changes we can SEE; things that change too slowly are ignored as posing no threat, or are not even noticed at all.

It is hard for environmental educators to rally concern about issues such as resource depletion, accumulating pollution, Global Warming and Climate Change, when the daily changes are too small for us to see. It is hard to inspire actions such as conservation and recycling, when the improvements may seem too small to notice.

Folktales show that our ancestors were aware that accumulated small changes can have big effects. They also recognized that temporary smooth sailing does not guarantee happy landings.

Here are bare bones synopses of some traditional stories for you to retell in your own words, when you are teaching about the importance of small changes.

"The Pudding that Stopped the Preaching"
Ozark folktale

A busy farm family was preparing to attend a revival meeting. Mama was cooking her famous pudding for the potluck supper, but was so busy with other preparations that she forgot to add the salt. She asked first one, then another member of the family to stir in a spoonful of salt for her, but they were all too busy with their own preparations (Note: In telling this story, you can have fun ad libbing their tasks and excuses.) She finally added a spoonful herself -- not knowing that the others, contrite, had slipped into the kitchen one by one to add a spoonful for her. At the meeting supper, every guest preacher had to eat a bowl of her famous pudding. It made them so thirsty that they all had to leave the pulpit for water!

"Nail Broth/Stone Soup"
European folktale with variants from many countries.

A penniless discharged soldier, hiking home, stopped in a prosperous village and begged for a meal but every household turned him down, complaining that they had so little themselves that they could not spare anything for a stranger. Determined to teach them to share, the soldier offered to teach these poor hungry folks how to make soup from just a nail (in other versions, a stone) which he had in his pocket. The miserly villagers provided pot, water, and fire. When the "soup" had little fragrance, the soldier explained that he had already made soup from this nail/stone several times; if only he had some onions, this batch would be better. Unfortunately he knew they had none. But a villager managed to rustle up some onions. In a similar manner, he tricked the villagers into adding other vegetables, meat, and seasonings for an excellent soup. They were so pleased with this "free" meal that they provided bread, cheese, beverages, and dessert enough for everyone! Next morning, they fed their benefactor breakfast and packed a generous lunch for him; and he gave them the nail/stone.

"For Want of a Nail"
nursery rhyme attributed to George Herbert (among others),
purportedly based on history of King Richard III of England

For want of a nail, a shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe, a horse was lost,
For want of a horse, a battle was lost,
For want of a battle, a kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

"Boiled Frog" --- WARNING: nice metaphor, false fact.

Legend says that you can cook a live frog by placing it in a pan of cool water and gradually raising the heat. By the time the frog realizes its danger, it will be too late to jump out.

However, Dr. Victor Hutchison at the University of Oklahoma says, "The legend is entirely incorrect! The 'critical thermal maxima' of many species of frogs have been determined by several investigators. In this procedure, the water in which a frog is submerged is heated gradually at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit per minute. As the temperature of the water is gradually increased, the frog will eventually become more and more active in attempts to escape the heated water. If the container size and opening allow the frog to jump out, it will do so." Naturally, if the frog were not allowed to escape it would eventually begin to show signs of heat stress, muscular spasms, heat rigor, and death.

"Twenty Story Building" (cartoon)

A man jumped off a 20 story building.

As he passed the 3rd floor, he was heard to say, "So far, so good!"