Environmentalist’s dilemma, from a freshly minted ecologist’s perspective

“If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

E.B. White

In the Introductions of most ecology textbooks that have fallen into my hands over the years, authors always try and make a distinction between ecologists and environmentalists. Loosely quoting from memory, “Ecologist can be environmentalist, but not all environmentalists are necessarily ecologists. Ecologist is a scientist first and foremost, meaning impartial and methodical, working to answer science questions and provide facts rather than opinions.” However, with the continued growth of the “green” movement, the science of ecology has found itself being merged and meshed with environmentalism, primarily in the public eye. “You’re studying ecology, you must know everything about recycling!” (“Yeah, but not that kind… Wanna hear about detritivores?”) Other topics range from the really important, for example, energy issues (“So what’s wrong with fracking?”) to ridiculous, e.g. alternatives to toilet paper. Not really my area, mate.

That’s not to say that I don’t know answers to some of these questions, I’ve done plenty of extra-curricular activities relating to sustainability over the years to know things. However, throughout my time at university I’ve mostly met ecologists of the scientist-kind, who often aren’t even willing to participate in such discussions. My classmates and fellow students in ecology programme, on the other hand, most are specimens of a different species: a bit less curious about the world, more passionate about its problems; more observant of social issues, less of food webs. For some reason it drives the more experienced, older colleagues nuts (while their reactions and comments are often just frustrating). Like we are not respecting the science or are somehow not worthy of it, or conversely, are over-experienced to dabble in science communication, outreach, sustainable living, providing practical solutions arising from climate change etc etc. If I’m being honest, I don’t see better use of our skills and knowledge than that. And also as CJA Bradshaw expresses so elegantly, “…ecology is now possibly one of the most ‘important’ science disciplines because it is the only scientific line of inquiry that deals with these planetary-wide problems for humanity”. There’s that.

Oh, to be young and idealistic! In my university application essay I did say that I want to save the world… That was five years ago. In the time since then I met students of many different disciplines and none were more enthusiastic and yet depressed than ecologists (and related). Today there probably is no area of ecological science left that wouldn’t consider, study or address climate change at least to some extent. I don’t know, maybe we studied it wrong, but there was nothing more dreary than trying to gauge the extent of this global problem, possible effects and consequences on natural environment and to us. Droughts, floods, fires, diseases, wars. Fun. (We never looked at the consequences specifically like that to be honest, but it wasn’t hard to get the general picture. Preparing for our final synoptic exam was just peaches, and the cherry on top was the news that we crossed 400 ppm CO2 mark.)

Constant exposure, though, can make one immune, whether it’s violence on TV, bullying on the Internets or climate change horror stories (in media, from politicians, in lecture halls). While I’m certain that most of Class 2013 will continue to be idealistic and work to mitigate and adapt to the big changes, we are also the ones who know very well how hard it will be to achieve any of this. And that’s, well, depressing.

So sometimes it’s very tempting to play ‘ecologist, the scientist’ card and just don’t care about recycling, water saving or the footprint of a brand new t-shirt. Just turn off the crisis mode, stop fearing climate change for a bit. “No one’s doing anything about that, it’s not my job either…” Right?..

For me there are a few areas where I’m not being a very good environmentalist, choosing to savour the world rather than save it. (Exception is flying, which I hate save that feeling of accomplishment after every trip. I already had 8 flights this year, but that’s what I get for studying abroad. Though none of them were really essential and could’ve been avoided… I hate flying so much and the fact that all the benefits of those other good choices that I make are eliminated the minute I step onto the plane.) I don’t have patience for charity shops. I don’t eat a lot of meat as it is, but I doubt I could ever go vegetarian or vegan. I could take shorter showers, too.

And then there is the question of children. Don’t worry, I don’t have plans of having kids just yet,  “I don’t know about you but I’m feeling 22” as T-Swift puts it. I just graduated, world’s my oyster. And yet, I am thinking about kids, been thinking for a long time (yes, I am one of those girls). But then in this day and age not having kids is somewhat an ultimate expression of environmentalism. Think about it: no kids means no additional mouths to feed, no additional environmental footprint of all their activities and activities of their descendants (and I am not talking here only about nappies). The world’s population continues to grow, while individual carbon footprints are increasing too, as developing nations are catching up with the wealthy Western ones. Then think of the freedom having no kids provides and it looks like it’s a win-win situation.

We as freshly minted ecologists are facing this dilemma every day: whether to be just a scientist and worry about your ants, fungi, boreal forests or what have you, and when it comes to the health of the planet simply be sensible about your actions while not really letting that intervene with your preferred lifestyle. I guess, it’s not really a hypocrisy, since being green (actually intelligently green, not just the hip kind) is not what we technically preach. But maybe it should be? Others look up to us because they don’t know better, but maybe we should embrace that role and be an example. Food for thought, dear reader.

I think that I should be a model green person (and I strive for that). But then, what to do about the kids, about wanting them but also worrying that the state of the planet might very well be questionable by the time they get here? (Okay, this is a whole other discussion, as well as whether them just being born would actually make the planet worse off. Plus, they might discover how to cheaply harness hydrogen energy, who on Earth knows. See, I should really write another article just about this, there’s loads to consider!)

Eventually, it all comes down to what we want and what we believe in. Being environmentally-conscious is all about principles and certain behaviour. But sometimes some things just happen to be more important, even if not as rational. So what part of us will we be willing to sacrifice? Is it all worth it in the end? Maybe there is some third option? (I’m still working on that.)

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One response to “Environmentalist’s dilemma, from a freshly minted ecologist’s perspective

  1. Consider the field of human ecology. Though highly abused in the term’s application, it is the broadest consideration of the interactions and relationships human behavior creates with the external environment. I believe the topics you listed are all addressed as aspects of our human ecology, though few are using the term as a tool to stop the unraveling of ecosystems, the loss of biodiversity, human poverty, and social injustice as a start. See greenvegans dot org where you’ll find a link to my blog (book) that is trying to do this.

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