The Reluctant Environmentalist

Why is it always cloudy over here? I asked my tour guide. It never seems to rain but it always looks overcast. She replied in a pleasantly accented english, “This is normal, you get used to it after a while.” It wasn’t until we left the city of Beijing that I saw the sun for the first time on our several week trip through China. Until that point, I never considered myself an environmentalist. In fact, for most of my life it was much more convenient to not even think twice about the environment in which I lived. Sure, I like clean spaces and I’ll pick up trash around the house to make it look better, but I was never searching to be a part of some greater environmental cause.

chinaSo, why am I still reluctant to ascribe to environmentalist perspectives? I think it is two-fold. First, it is about inconvenience. As painful as it sounds from a first world perspective, the environmentally friendly products are often portrayed to be less convenient or more expensive options. The second is about distractions and guilt. We only have limited amounts of cognition and willpower and we often tend to concentrate on only the most urgent things in our life. For busy people, spending a lot of time thinking about saving the environment is simply not a priority. It takes time to fully wrestle with the idea of ‘what is enough’? Where do we draw the line between waste and consumption? If I drive a car, is that too much? Air condition? Flying across the world in a plane? Recycling? An SUV?

For me, it all boils down to waste. There is some part of the minimalism, living simply, and the efficient living movement that aligns itself to a less environmentally impactful lifestyle.

A Whole New World
In America, pollution is typically an asterisk. Or a maybe a footnote. Or possibly that river that wouldn’t be smart to play in. Or some minor haze somewhere other than where you live. Aside from a few major cities, Americans live pretty spread out lives. We have lots of space, and with distance and lack of density, we rarely see waste capacity issues. We simply do not (yet) have many of the visible signs of environmental degradation that many other large cities around the world face. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, I’m simply stating it is much less visible in the United States.

polutionWhen we were flying into (and out of Mumbai) we had an incredible and saddening experience. We literally flew through the pollution. There was a visible line in the sky as the airplane rose from the clouds. What we thought were overcast days turned out to be just a large band of smog that blocked out the sun. It was so thick the contrast between the bright sky and the cloudy underpinnings left a strange sense of sadness. I really appreciate the wonderful air that I’m allowed to breathe in Georgia. I never really thought about it before I traveled a little bit. I’d always taken the physical resources, beauty, and cleanliness for granted. My entire mindset changed after just a few very real experiences of extremes.

Understanding Before Your Friends
Have you ever been in a situation where you can see (or perceive) something happening in the near future before your peers? Maybe you can see your company falling apart even though the people working there or it’s owners remain naive or clueless. Maybe you have seen a friend going down a path that will lead to impending destruction. There are many times where something is apparent to you, but others who are impacted by it are completely oblivious. If that something or someone affects you or a loved one, it can be really painful and frustrating to watch the process take place. This is extremely evident if you have been around individuals who are making poor financial choices, you can often see their future well before they do.

That is where the frustration comes for both environmentalists and people who are indifferent to environmental issues. Environmentalist are concerned about the compounded future effects of current actions and the general population is annoyed at the insistence of change by a vocal minority. I really had no idea what real environmental issues looked like first hand until I traveled. I had very little empathy for change due to a lack of perceived need. When degradation takes place slowly there is very little outcry- it doesn’t create urgency. When it happens quickly people freak out (BP spill). People will change their attitude and habits when if they see a need.

Moving to a Win Win
I guess someone observing our electric car, cloth diapered kids, nice size garden, old school road bikes, and a small house would perceive our lean towards outwards environmentalism. While I do wish to continue decreasing our negative impact, many of the changes we have made in our life have been for the betterment of ourselves. The side effect has been a lower impact lifestyle. Eating locally grown, less processed food makes our bodies healthier. Spending less and becoming financially efficient has decreased our stress and allowed our family to enjoy the benefits of a stay at home spouse on a small income. Biking instead of driving keeps me in an active state of mind and good physical shape. We found pretty similar takeaways to the documentary No Impact Man.

So, I’m only partially an environmentalist. The driving factor is still simplicity, efficiency, and an overall reduction of life’s waste. We have certainly benefited from many of the changes we have made over the past few years. We are still striving to minimize our impact on our surroundings ,but I’m always looking for ways to make both our lives and others better at the same time. I don’t really know where to draw the line on what is enough, but I’m certainly aware that I currently have more than I need to be happy. I’ll search for contentment and hopefully leave the place I live a little better than where I found it.

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