4 Things Every Aspiring Environmental Activist Should Know

4 Things Every Aspiring Environmental Activist Should Know September 17, 2015

I’m brand new at environmental activism.  One thing I have learned over the past year is that it is easy to get discouraged.  There’s four myths that I think contribute to this.  They can affect anyone who is environmentally active, but they especially affect those new to earth activism.  And so I want to rebut each of those myths here.

1.  You don’t have to have all the answers.

The first myth is that you have to have the answer to climate change.  When you talk to people about taking action to slow climate change, you will inevitably be confronted by a naysayer who is eager to argue that what you are doing not the answer to climate change.  I think what drives some of the naysayers is despair.  They are afraid to hope, and so they resign themselves to what they perceive as the inevitability of failure.  But as Frank Herbert wrote, “Fear is the mind-killer.”  If you are like me, then you are one of those people who would rather work against incredible odds for a better world than throw up your hands and do nothing.

It is easy to criticize any proposed solution, because climate change is an incredibly complex problem.  No single solution will be the solution.  And every solution do will have unintended and unforeseen consequences for which we will have to find other solutions.  Slowing climate change will require large numbers of people working at many different levels for an extended period of time.  This doesn’t mean that your work isn’t valuable.  It just means that your work is a small part of a much larger effort, the whole of which is very difficult to see.  Climate change is bigger than any one of us, and the solutions will be bigger than any one of us as well.  

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to have all the answers in order to legitimate your activism.  If someone challenges you about whether what you are doing will make a positive difference, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know. But I’m doing what I can right now. And that’s important to me. I encourage you to do the same.”

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2.  You don’t have to do it all yourself.

The second myth is that you have to do it by yourself.  When you start to get active, it’s easy to get discouraged and wonder whether your small contribution is really making a difference.  But remember that you didn’t cause climate change by yourself.  And you’re not going to solve it by yourself.

Part of the shift in consciousness which our world needs is a shift from a paradigm of hyper-individuality and alienation to a paradigm of community and interconnectedness.  We got ourselves into this situation, in part, by being overly focused on the individual.  So part of getting ourselves out of this situation is shifting the focus to the collective.  Individual action is important, but collective action is what will turn things around.

Whenever you start to despair about the effectiveness of your actions, it may be a sign that you are too focused on the level of individual choice.  Take a step back and ask yourself how you can turn your individual action into a collective action.  Ask yourself how can you connect with other people who might share you concerns.  Building community is one of the most important ways to fight against the status quo. 

3.  You don’t have to be perfect.

The third myth is that you have to live up to someone else’s standard of environmental purity.  When you get involved in environmentalism, you start to see all the ways that you can make changes in your life, and it can be it can be overwhelming.  And you will inevitably meet someone who will try to belittle the work you are doing because they think you are a hypocrite in some way.  Maybe they think you should be a vegan.  Maybe they think you should give up your job doing whatever you do.  Maybe they think you need to stop using a computer or driving a car.  Whatever it is, they will try to make you feel like your work isn’t valuable because you not are living up to their ideal.  To them, I think you can only respond, “I don’t claim to be perfect. But I’m doing what I can right now. And I think that’s important.”

Similarly, none of our solutions have to be perfect either.  Every solution we come up with will have unintended negative consequences.  If you go to a climate march, you may have to drive to get there, which creates greenhouse gases.  If you want to connect with others doing the same kind of work, you may have to use a computer, which is made of rare earth metals and has built-in obsolescence.  If you want to reduce your carbon footprint by installing energy-efficient CFL lightbulbs, you may discover that they mercury in them, which has environmental costs associated with both extraction and disposal.

There is no perfect choice, no choice free of all negative consequences.  But it’s important not to be paralyzed by this fact.  We don’t have to be perfect.  The best we can do is to try to educate ourselves about the consequences of our actions and make the most responsible choices we can given a range of less than ideal options.

girl hugging tree
Source: scottsampson.blogspot.com

4.  You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone.

The fourth myth is that only those have earned their environmental chops have a right to speak up.  Getting involved in environmental activism can be daunting.  It seems like everyone else has been at it so much longer and knows so much more.  But it’s never too late to get active.  And you don’t need to feel embarrassed and you don’t need to apologize to anyone.

Recently, someone on Facebook questioned my right to speak out about the environment, because in their mind I had not proven myself as an activist.  I’ve been quite open about the fact that I am new to environmentalism.  But I was nevertheless tempted to send this person a list of the things I have done recently.  But I think that would have been a mistake.  There is always more to be done, and it is impossible to satisfy everyone.

But more importantly, I think it’s a mistake to buy into the myth that you have to meet some threshold of activism before you can raise your voice.  Raising your voice is a form of activism.  Speaking out is a way of changing the dominant narrative.  It is a necessary precursor to more tangible forms of change.  Of course, we need to act with our hands and our feet, too.  But it’s wrong to diminish the importance of speaking out.

As I’ve said before, I am new to all this and I don’t really know what I am doing.  But I think that’s okay.  I think it’s important for people to see that it’s never too late to get active.  And I think it’s also important for people who are thinking about becoming environmentally active to not be discouraged by those who have been active for a long time.  Sometimes this discouragement is unintentional, but sometimes it seems intentional.  Some people who have been active for years or decades may feel like those new to the movement should have to prove themselves.  But this attitude is counterproductive, because it ends up driving away the very people that the movement needs.

If you’re looking for a place to get started, you can sign “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment” and then click on this link to a list of ideas for transforming the principles expressed in the Statement into actual actions.

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