THE EGO AND ENVIRONMENTALISM
WORDS & IMAGE: KATE WEINER
Several weeks ago, I was visiting with a good friend. Ours is a beautiful friendship but it's not without bumps. We are each becoming ourselves and whenever we catch up, it's heart filling and sometimes heartbreaking to see the ways we intersect and the ways we diverge.
That first night, I fell asleep in my friend's bed after a giggly night of swapping stories and sharing pizza. When we woke up, my friend shared that she'd had a dream where I was chastising her for making trash. She said it laughingly as she made her morning coffee but her disclosure got at something deeper within me. Did my friend really think I would judge her for creating waste? Was there truth to it? Sometimes dreams are meaningless—I'm still making sense of my platonic slumber party with John Legend that turned into chaos when he got a Pop-Tart—but sometimes dreams give us insight into what we are truly thinking.
I mulled over these questions throughout the day. I didn't think my friend was any "less" because she made trash—I do too! But I knew that my passion for sustainable living could mix with climate urgency to create a combustive strand of pushiness. And I knew too that my spiraling tendencies were manifest in how I carried myself. I'd open a refrigerator to shelves stacked with plastic packaging and find myself deep in thought on the plastic islands in the heart of the Pacific. I might not say anything to my friend when I came back to the table but my body language always betrays me.
One of my biggest shortcomings as an environmental activist is that I struggle to extend the same patience and compassion I show to acquaintances with my close family and friends. I am easily frustrated when the people I love most in my life are unwilling or unable to make the kinds of changes—eating less meat, refusing most plastic, investing in renewable energy initiatives—that I consider crucial. I get it into my head that if the people who care about me the most don't want to do those things that I care about the most, then I'm no good at my work. This is a pernicious and pointless cycle. It's unfair and ungenerous to those I love and it's unfair and ungenerous to myself.
The rest of the weekend, I was careful to keep my "environmentalism" under wraps. I was so afraid of being perceived as self-righteous— especially because my friend and I had a fight a few months ago surrounding a sustainability initiative—that I hid the many habits that bring my actions into alignment with my values and strayed from conversations on sustainability. In my day-to-day life, I am surrounded by folks who bring their own stainless steel tiffin for packing up leftovers and ask for their cocktails without a straw. Far from my community, I worried that my friend would think I was an asshole for doing so.
This is ludicrous, I know. I'm not proud of my (in)actions. I'd made up this complicated story in my head that my friend would think I thought that I was better than her because my vision of sustainable living is different than hers. I didn't embody my whole self out of fear my actions would be misread as a judgment on her. My friend might've cared or she might've not. But I don't know because I didn't ask. Instead of engaging in a compassionate discussion about our own approaches to living a life in alignment with our values, I kept my projections firmly in place.
I want to share this story because it brings up several struggles that I know many of you share. From feeling self-conscious that our sustainable practices will be perceived as self-righteous to struggling to accept that someone we love might look at the same body of evidence as us and map out a different plan of action, the ego is a perpetual part of environmentalism. When you care as deeply about the earth as any one of us in the Loam community does, it can be difficult to not take perceived affronts to your sense of sustainability so damn personally.
The environmental movement(s) can be clouded by judgement—about what you eat and wear and buy and why. There is so much infighting on what actions to take and how to live that sometimes I want to take temporary leave to a treehouse in the woods. The environmentalism I am working to cultivate at Loam is rooted in the belief that the environmental movement truly is a pluriverse—and that because of that, doing the "right" thing can vary across diverse cultural and climate contexts.
This experience has helped me see that I want to get better at bringing this breed of environmentalism to life everyday by pouring more energy into cultivating love and less into protecting my ego. I don't think that what I am doing is the best or the only way. In spite of that, I've judged others at some point and I've been judged by others at some point. This kind of ego-driven judgment not only shuts down channels for communication but also the potential for transformation.
If we want our environmental messages to stick, if we want to create change in our communities, we have to learn how to live apart from our egos. This can mean many things (and it sure isn't easy!) but I've found that the following three mantras in particular have guided me toward good intentions since my experience with my friend.
When I am feeling my ego cloud my judgment, I try and remember this:
- It's not personal.
- Everyone is doing their best.
- Compassion creates conversation and conversation creates change.
I want to build a better world. I want to do whatever it takes. And if that means leaving my ego at the door, I'm all in.