The Butterfly Effect: Small Things That Make A Big Difference In The World

It’s all too easy to overlook the profound impact of the small and seemingly insignificant wonders that surround us. But these very elements quietly shape the course of our lives, and illuminate the power of small things to usher in seismic change.


Small things that make a big difference in the world, day after day. GlobalGiving explores how little things can make a big difference.

    1. The most indestructible species on the planet can’t be seen with the naked eye.

    Meet the tardigrade. Also known as “water bears” or “moss piglets,” tardigrades are only a millimeter in size. This tiny animal can live anywhere—even in the vacuum of space. Tardigrades hold the title of the most indestructible species on the planet and hold the important role of a pioneer species. They create carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus, which attract microscopic animals and plants, which eventually become part of the food chain for larger animals. Scientists think tardigrades will play an important role as the Arctic’s permafrost melts and could pave the way for colonizing Mars. They might also help researchers learn how to extend human life in extreme circumstances proving that even the smallest things can make a big difference.

    2. A microchip shaped the modern world.

    The first microchips were invented in the late 1950s by Jack Kilby and Robert Noyce. Their integrated circuit, made out of a single silicon crystal, was much smaller than existing transistor technology and much easier to produce. The silicon microchip shaped the modern world, making leaps in technology possible. Silicon Valley, famous for technical innovation, was even named in honor of the tiny integrated circuit that revolutionized the world and brought us into the “age of information.”

    3. A bird the size of a dime is key to biodiversity.

    The smallest hummingbird, the Cuban bee hummingbird, weighs less than a dime and is only about two inches long. These amazing animals can hover in place, fly backward, and can fly around mountain peaks in the Andes at elevations where there’s almost no oxygen! This ability is important to maintain certain ecosystems, as many plants rely on hummingbirds for pollination, especially in lowland rainforests and cloud forests, where other pollinators like bees have trouble with the rain. Hummingbirds are also adapted to drink from specific flowers, which leads researchers to believe that they’re very important for plant biodiversity.

    4. The backbone of our ocean is actually translucent.

    Coral polyps are small, translucent animals that are related to anemones. As they grow, coral polyps eventually create a coral reef. Coral reefs support 25% of all marine creatures though the reefs cover less than one percent of the entire floor of the ocean. Healthy coral reefs act as a harbor for young fish and protect shorelines from storms.

    5. A single light bulb can add up to big savings.

    One LED light bulb uses 90% less energy—and lasts 25 times longer—than traditional incandescent light bulbs. These small things make a big difference for a traditional household, which can save about $225 in energy costs per year by using LED lighting.

    6. One act of kindness can transform your health.

    Research has found that helping others can be good for our mental and physical health. A single act of kindness reduces stress, improves our emotional well-being, and even improves physical health. Doing good does you good by boosting your oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. Making kindness a habit has been shown to reduce inflammation and decrease blood pressure and cortisol. These cardioprotective responses can protect you from some chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes, and cancer, leading to overall better health and longevity. Researchers have found that when someone sees a person engaging in prosocial behaviors, they are likelier to do the same, causing a ripple effect of kindness.

    7. Tiny batteries power everything from cell phones to cars.

    The patent for the alkaline battery was filed in 1957 by Lewis Urry, Karl Kordesch, and P.A. Marsal, building on an earlier patent filed by Thomas Edison. These batteries have a higher energy density and longer shelf life than zinc-carbon and zinc chloride batteries but provide the same voltage and perform well in more extreme environments than other options. We use alkaline batteries in everything from cell phones to electric cars. The first little batteries paved the way for many technological advancements we use every day.

    8. The ocean’s ecosystem depends on microscopic larvae.

    Fish larvae are so small that they can’t even swim against the current, but they play an important role in aquaculture and fisheries. When they hatch, larvae are microscopic in size, only 2-4 mm, but their survival directly affects the ecosystem. Fish larvae generate almost 60% of the food that organisms in coral reefs eat and are good indicators of a reef’s health.

    9. Small commitments are the building blocks of healthier habits.

    Experts have reported that starting small is the key to building habits and creating long-term change. It’s easier to commit to a specific adjustment in your behavior, and those winnable goals can lead to sustainable habits. By making the “minimum viable effort” and frequently practicing the change, a good tiny behavior can grow into an even better habit.

    10. Checking a task off your to-do list leads to job happiness.

    Small wins are great for more than just building good habits. In a study observing what defines fulfilling and innovative work environments, researchers found that making progress in meaningful work was the most important factor. People who are more creative and productive tend to have a positive inner work life. If someone finishes their day feeling like they accomplished something, odds are they will come to work the next day feeling motivated and happy. All it takes is a small step forward in a meaningful project to ignite a positive reaction.

    11. Microbes keep trees standing tall.

    Trees don’t stand tall on their own, they get help from small clusters of microbes. These small things make a big difference in the survival of a tree. Tiny microbes can actually keep trees alive in harsh conditions. Through chemical signals, bacteria can hear a tree’s call for help and turn on genes that convert nitrogen or deliver excess water to the plant.

    12. Parasites are responsible for a devastating disease.

    In the tropics, small parasitic flatworms known as blood flukes are responsible for the second most devastating socioeconomic disease on the planet next to malaria: schistosomiasis. These flatworms use aquatic and amphibious snails as intermediate hosts before moving to human hosts. Schistosomiasis infection rates soared in the 80s after a dam was constructed on the Senegal River, expanding snail habitat and preventing prawn migration. Native prawns are important snail predators and their reintroduction at several sites along the river, where rates of schistosomiasis were high, saw a 80% drop in the rates of infected snails and a 50% decline in the severity of schistosomiasis infections among villagers.

    13. A little water leak adds up to big losses.

    The little drip of a leaky faucet may not seem like a big deal, and fixing it may seem like more trouble than it’s worth, but a faucet that leaks at a rate of one drop per second will waste 2,700 gallons of water in a year. By replacing a faucet’s washers and stopping that drip, you can save a lot of water (and money on your water bill)!

    14. Bicycles can help save the planet.

    If more people used a bicycle to commute, experts estimate we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 11% by 2050. One study found that in urban areas, half of all car trips are less than three miles. Making the small change of cycling or walking instead of driving could easily substitute for 41% of these trips, saving nearly 5% in carbon emissions.

    15. Beaver dams are worth millions of dollars in conservation.

    Beaver wetlands hold 470,000 tons of carbon each year and perform global carbon-capture work that is worth millions of dollars. A dam will slow and filter water, reducing erosion and initiating plant growth on formally dry and inhospitable land. When a beaver dam creates more wetlands, other species thrive. 25% of species living in these wetlands fully depend on beaver activity for survival. Important plant life increases by over 33%, providing food for wildlife and people. Dam-generated wetlands also provide protection from wildfires, as the concentrated water in the landscape keeps the flames at bay and shelters wildlife.

    16. Planktons feed food chains.

    The group of organisms considered plankton includes both plants and animals. These tiny organisms are found in fresh and saltwater and drift in the currents. If we didn’t have plankton, many animals throughout the food chain would starve. Plankton breaks down organic material in the water, which creates both food for other organisms and oxygen for the entire planet. Phytoplankton in particular are responsible for creating about 70% of the world’s oxygen.

    17. Termites are a farmer’s best friend.

    Termites are a poignant example of how small things make a big difference. Generally considered a pest, less than 4% of termites in the world actually infest homes. Most termites are critical to natural ecosystems because they help recycle dead wood from trees. The nitrogen-rich soil these detrivores create has incredible benefits. Termite soil on farms can increase crop yield by 300%!

    18. Teeth-brushing habits matter in more ways than one.

    The simple act of brushing your teeth twice a day helps prevent plaque buildup and cavities. But did you know that you can also save up to 4 gallons a minute by turning off the water while brushing your teeth? The small turn of the faucet can save up to 200 gallons a week for a family of four!

    19. Carpooling protects the planet.

    When you opt to carpool, there are several benefits for you, the environment, and road congestion. The small change of riding with a nearby coworker to the office can build a new connection while also saving about 20 pounds of CO2 for every gallon that isn’t burned by taking separate cars. In the US alone, if one passenger was added to every 10 vehicles, fuel consumption could be reduced by up to 7.74 billion gallons annually. According to a study by the International Transport Forum (ITF), carpooling can reduce global emissions by as much as 11%!

    20. A smile makes a world of difference.

    The science-backed practice of taking care of yourself improves mental and physical well-being. Studies have found that practicing self-care strategies—that can be as simple as sharing a smile with a stranger or calling a loved one to say “hi”—can lower your chances of experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue. Self-care can help to improve your well-being and mental health by giving you coping mechanisms to deal with the stressors of everyday life.

    21. Mindful breathing can change your perspective.

    Mindfulness is a self-care strategy that can help you shift your perspective and foster compassion and understanding. A simple way to incorporate mindfulness into your day is through mindful breathing. This little thing can make a big difference in managing stress, coping better with serious illness, and reducing anxiety and depression.

    22. The “real” butterfly effect might not cause hurricanes—but it does make a difference.

    While the popular concept of “the butterfly effect” was never intended by its originator, a meteorologist, to be an example of how small things make a big difference—quite the opposite. It was a study of the unpredictability of weather patterns. Nonetheless, the so-called butterfly does make an enormous difference in the world. In fact, these pollinators are responsible for one in every three bites of food we eat and contribute more than $200 billion to the global food economy.

    23. One dollar can clear five pounds of disaster debris.

    Ocean Blue is working to recover 5 million pounds of plastic and disaster debris from coastal communities hit hardest by hurricanes and other disasters. Every $1 donated will fund the recovery of 5 pounds of disaster debris, helping coastal communities recover after storms and fighting against the flow of plastic into the ocean. Little things can make a big difference!

    24. One farm can serve thousands of children in South Africa.

    Keep The Dream196 (KTD196) is purchasing a farm to generate revenue, enable ongoing camping programming for children, and provide office and kitchen space to facilitate its growing program. Through just one farm, KTD196 will be able to expand their work with more than 2,743 children in the Limpopo Province of South Africa, equipping them with life skills, increasing their self-esteem, and reducing rates of teen pregnancy and suicide in the communities where they live. Over the last 15 years, KTD196 students have had an average matriculation pass rate of 93% compared to the 65% average in the country, setting the children up for success in work and higher education.

In a world where problems can seem overwhelming, it’s important to remember that even the smallest things can make a big difference. Donating a few dollars to a charity you care about can help create meaningful change. So, let’s continue to embrace the small things that make a big difference, knowing that together, we can truly make the world a better place.

Support a cause you care about during GlobalGiving’s Little by Little Campaign and get matched from April 8-12, 2024.


Featured Photo: Care for Wildlife at the Virginia Living Museum by Virginia Living Museum

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