Today is Earth Day, and I have a confession to make: As an environmentalist, I am getting tired of hearing about climate change on the news, from my friends, in my dreams — all the time, around the clock. Sure, I believe that climate change is very real and very scary. But I worry that global warming has become the ugly, frowning face of environmentalism. While climate change can unite people and governments across the world, self-righteous preaching of a coming doomsday is alienating and ultimately hurting the environmental movement. After all, sometimes even the most zealous environmentalist wants to go camping or enjoy nature without feeling guilty.
This Earth Day, environmentalists should destroy the atmosphere of pessimism and negativity and ask individuals to find their own reasons for reconciling with the environment. Indeed, environmentally-friendly behavior has always been motivated by a collection of different inspirations. Romantic intellectuals like Henry David Thoreau praised the beauty of a sublime nature, finding spiritual fulfillment in a simple, sylvan lifestyle. Conservationists such as Theodore Roosevelt saw the importance of land management so that future generations may continue to enjoy crucial natural resources. Still others, such as Lois Gibbs, protested carcinogenic pollutants that slowly poisoned their families and neighbors at Love Canal. Each person found a different way to understand the importance of environmental protection.
All these ideas converged on an autumn’s day in 1969, when Sen. Gaylord Nelson proposed a day of celebration and education so people could discover exactly what nature and the environment meant to them. In an unprecedented grassroots movement, everyone from hunters to hippies gathered the next spring and realized that despite their separate interests, they could, together, celebrate a love of nature and the great outdoors while protesting oil spills, harmful pesticides, wildlife extinction and resource depletion.
While an effective response to climate change remains extremely important today, we cannot neglect that environmentally-friendly behaviors can stem from a variety of different ideas. Climate change will have negative impacts on millions of people and will affect developing countries in Africa and Asia the worst. Such a widespread and complex problem requires broad-based solutions from “environmentalists” of all stripes. Not everyone is going to believe in climate change, and not everyone is going to care. But everyone can find a way to care about the environment, be it through engaging with the outdoors or eating organic food. Forcing the debate to center on climate change excludes possible allies.
To effectively deal with climate change, and the host of other pressing environmental issues we face, environmentalists need to develop a new strategy. It is time to move beyond the doomsday warnings and pessimism that dominate much of the debate over climate change. Instead, we can push for needed changes in behavior and consumption patterns by highlighting some of the benefits of a sustainable lifestyle.
For example, while eating local, sustainable food reduces carbon emissions, it also strengthens local communities, helps small farmers, improves water quality, reduces soil erosion and simply tastes better. For those who can afford it, buying a hybrid car reduces carbon emissions, but it also weans the country from oil dependence, reduces the amount of carcinogenic particulate matter in the air, protects wilderness areas from oil drilling and saves money for the owner in the long run.
Most importantly, as individuals, we must examine our lifestyles and ask ourselves if we are justified in consuming for the sake of consumption. We’re not. Solving today’s environmental problems requires a broad examination of the complex interrelated factors.
As Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger explained to a charged, energetic crowd last Friday, environmentalism is slowly transitioning from a movement characterized by panic and denial to one based on innovation and increasingly diverse justifications. So although I wholeheartedly supported the rally to put a carbon cap in Connecticut, this is only one way of tackling the issues.
Take the coming week to think about what the environment and Earth Day mean to you. Try something different — get dirty and make pizza at the Yale Farm, take a walk around campus, or just play some Frisbee outside. Check out the events that Yale Student Environmental Coalition has planned, and find one that makes sense to you. We should find what we each love about nature, and carefully reflect on our connections and responsibility to the world and everything in it.
No matter our individual motivations, with a change in our values and attitudes, and a deeper understanding of our surroundings, we can create a better world, a stronger nation and a more fulfilling Life.
Charles Zhu is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. He is a member of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition.