WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A "GOOD" ENVIRONMENTALIST?

WORDS: KATE WEINER

IMAGE: ELIJAH STEVENS

I bought a new dress and a new top last week. 

It was the first time that I'd purchased clothing in 2016 and I was surprised at how much guilt I felt. For many reasons—from the fashion industry's toxic effect on the environment to the role of conspicuous consumption in accelerating climate change—I've committed myself to buying less, buying better, and buying thrifted (re: Shop Greener). What's beautiful about this rule is that it not only means I've cut myself out of the whole pernicious fast fashion cycle, but also that I feel released from the kind of desperate want that underlies materialism. When I took surfing the racks at Urban Outfitters entirely off the table, retail therapy was no longer a thing. Although I still love getting dressed—my friend Lily calls it the act of adornment—I used to want stuff a lot more than I do now. Lately, I've found the most creative spark from working with what I have, shopping my own closet and scouring secondhand stores. 

But of course, I still want things sometimes. I lack total control whenever I encounter an independent bookstore and finding sweet little gifts for friends from farmers' markets is my jam. When I saw that dress, handmade and printed with Picasso sketches, it spoke to that part of me that was craving fresh because it's spring and I'm moving to a new city and I loved the pearl grey linen. When I put on that top, made from deadstock materials and tied delicately at the waist, I could taste summer on my tongue. I'd done everything I vowed to do should I buy new—seek ethically sourced style, shop from a place of pure joy—and yet I still felt like I somehow failed.

What gives? When I reflect on my reaction, I realize it was because I feared I'd botched the good environmentalist purity test. Over the course of the last year especially, I've worked tremendously hard to align my values with my actions: I eat a plant-based diet, I grab my groceries from the co-op, I don't own a car, I donate to environmental organizations twice a month, I live a trash-light life—but not all the time. Sometimes, I buy cheesy popcorn packaged in disposable wrappers. Some months, I invest less in 350 and more on Lyft Line to meet up with friends for a night out. I didn't go to the water rights rally that I promised that I would go to; I didn't canvass for Food & Water Watch as I hoped to. There are all these ways I am not 100% and it pains me that I can't be perfect when the stakes are so high. 

Ultimately, however, this gnawing guilt doesn't serve me. No one can be perfect. We can only do our absolute best with as much vigilance and passion and hope as possible. It's vital to take note of slippages between our actions and our values and strive to winnow that distance. But we need to always do it in a spirit of compassion and not in judgement. 

Because compassion, really, is how things get done, how change happens. I distinctly remember speaking at a student forum on environmentalism. The organizers—representatives from a local naturalist organization and truly some of the kindest folks I'd ever met—had stocked the hall with bottled water. My first reaction was: Really? Aren't we all in agreement that single-use plastic bottles suck? I was surprised at irritated I felt, how disappointed in the failure of the environmental movement to craft messages that made it clear plastic bottles and plastic bags were a no-go. Without recognizing it too, I was putting myself in the position of better than—because for all my mess-ups, I thought, I never do that (even though I do other things that would be considered "worse"!) 

What made the real change in that situation was when I swallowed my judgement. I talked to the friend I was working with at the forum and we agreed that the best thing we could do was suggest an alternative. We shared with the organizer Loam's vision for trash-light toolkits. We sketched out a proposal for a program that we could coordinate in collaboration with their organization that would encourage students to reevaluate the relationship between their personal waste habits and the health of waterways. We channeled our reactivity into a plan for positive development. 

I know that in my life, being treated with compassion has generated similar change. I have several friends whose vegan diets encouraged my own pursuit of vegetarianism. What inspires me about these friends is how incredibly compassionate they are when we talk about food and farming and environmental impact. I never feel judged; I only ever feel listened to. That sense of being supported—of being given the space to ask questions, to experiment, to reflect—is vital. 

And to me, it's that ability to listen—to simultaneously be both student and teacher, open-hearted and constantly yearning—that constitutes an environmentalist. Because what does it really mean to be a "good" environmentalist?

It can mean many things. It means acting from a place of compassion—for one another, for ourselves, for our earth. It means recognizing that the environmental movement is a pluriverse and that there are a thousand and one ways to care for the world around us. Not everyone will identify as an environmentalist. Not everyone will be called to act in the same way. We need to celebrate our differences and co-create common ground. We need to develop our own definitions of what environmentalism means—definitions that feel most authentic to our perception of the world, most reflective of the change we want— and embody just that. For me, being a good environmentalist means that I am always striving to fight harder and act effectively with generosity of spirit and a sense of deep love. 

Now your turn. Define it. Do it. And remember that the goal is never perfection; it's to do the best that we can with joy and juiciness and justness.