Photo: How to become an environmentalist

Environmentalism isn’t a profession or discipline; it’s a way of seeing our place in the world (Credit: prayingmother via Flickr).

By David Suzuki

Young people often ask me what they have to do to be environmentalists. They want to make a difference. My answer is, "Follow your heart. Do what you love most and pursue it with passion."

You see, environmentalism isn't a profession or discipline; it's a way of seeing our place in the world. It's recognizing that we live on a planet where everything, including us, is exquisitely interconnected with and interdependent on everything else.

Life-giving water moves from ocean to air to land, across the globe, linking all life through the hydrologic cycle. Every breath we take contains oxygen from every plant on land and in the sea, as well as whatever issues from every factory chimney and vehicle on Earth. The web of all living things constantly partakes of and cleanses, replenishes, and restores air, water, soil, and energy. In this way of seeing the world, we are not only recipients of nature's most vital gifts — we are participants in her cycles.

Whatever we toss without a thought or deliberately dump into our surroundings doesn't simply vanish or dilute away. Our use of air, water, and soil as garbage dumps means that those emissions and pollutants move through the biosphere, ecosystems, habitats, and eventually our own bodies and cells.

Environmentalism is recognition of this. We need all people — plumbers, teachers, doctors, carpenters, garage mechanics, businesspeople, artists, scientists — to see and understand the world that way because once we "get it", we treat our surroundings in a radically different way, with the respect that we should have toward our own bodies and loved ones.

For most of human existence, we were hunter-gatherers who understood how deeply embedded in and utterly dependent on nature we were. Until we underwent the massive transformation from agrarian life to big-city dwelling, people knew that we were part of nature and needed nature for survival. We watched the skies for hints of a change in weather or for the first sighting of migrating birds. We welcomed the appearance of buds on the bushes, the first signs of spring thaw, or the indicators that winter was on its way.

Today we spend less and less of our time outside. I have a friend who lives in the north end of Toronto in an air-conditioned highrise building. On weekdays, he goes down the elevator into the basement where he climbs into his air-conditioned car to drive the Don Valley freeway to the air-conditioned commercial building where he works. That building is connected through a series of tunnels to vast shopping malls and food marts. "I really don't have to go outside for days," he once told me.

Ours is a shattered world, with torrents of information assaulting us from every angle. Headlines may scream of the aftermath of a hockey playoff or a devastating tornado in the southern U.S., and then trumpet Oprah's last TV program and another sex scandal. And then we hear of floods in Pakistan or Manitoba, forest fires raging in northern Alberta, and thinning sea ice in the Arctic, retreating glaciers, and drought in rainforests.

Reports about floods and droughts and sea ice and climate change get sandwiched between clips about scandals and celebrities, and so we view them as isolated events. An environmental perspective would consider the possibility that many of the events are connected to an underlying cause. Such a perspective would help us get to the root of problems rather than trying to stamp out brushfires without identifying the source of a conflagration.

We tend to think of environmentalists as folks concerned about nature or an endangered species or threatened ecosystem. Environmentalists are accused of caring more for spotted owls or trees than people and jobs. That's absurd. In seeing a world of interconnections, we understand that people are at the heart of a global ecocrisis and that genuine sustainability means also dealing with issues of hunger and poverty, of inequity and lack of justice, of terrorism, genocide, and war, because so long as these issues confront humanity, sustainability will be a low priority.

In our interconnected world, all of these issues are a part of the unsustainable path we are on. If we want to find solutions, we have to look at the big picture.

June 22, 2011

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Apr 07, 2016
4:45 PM

when are we gong to wake up and tell the world that the earth is dying? i want to get involve i dont want to open my eyes every morning and expect the world to heal itself. i am for the environment. i am for the world. i am for the trees and the sea.

Mar 27, 2015
3:52 PM

My husband says I have no business calling myself an environmentalist if I’m not willing to give up my car, my make-up, my hair colouring, give up 7/8 of my wardrobe, grow my own food, can, pickle, raise my own meat etc. I know it’s absurd, but what would you say to thaaaaat? He’s a project manager for an oil refinery…and I teach biology and environmental science…So you can just imaaaagine the way any conversation about any environmental issue goes…(insert rolling eyeballs emoticon here).

Blue Dot Tour was fantastic. Thank you for all you do!

Oct 15, 2013
6:51 PM

If one is against a cause say anything related to oil, yet uses all the benefits of oil, ie getting around using a combustion engine, uses technology (smart phones, computers, internet etc) which all use plastic and made from oil is a hypocrite, these people need to take a hard look in the mirror and feel ashamed of themselves for actually being so out of touch with reality.

Apr 01, 2012
2:38 PM

Hello, I am Masina. I am 17 year old and orginally wanted to become a Marine Biologist, but sadly I don't live in the right area. I then decided to change my mind to becoming an environmentalist because it is another passion of mines. You see, I am in high school and take a Environmental Systems class which I find highly interesting and my grades go way beyond average in there. I have talked to my teacher about becoming one, also I have looked up information about it. I live in near the Dallas/Fort Worth,Texas area so I do not know really if there is any jobs in my area. I do know they do have more than one job within the business, but need help understanding and finding an area of study that will catch my interest the most. I would really appericate it if you could contact me at because I have a ton of questions and would like to pursue a career in the environmental field. Thank you.

Feb 23, 2012
4:22 PM

At 19, and growing up passionate about the environment, animals, plants and everything in between, I am now looking forwards at going to secondary school and beginning a career.

Growing up, while other little girls played with barbies, I was getting my hands on any book I could about animals, insects or ecosystems. I used to watch any nature documentary I could, and pretend that I was Steve Irwin or David Attenborough researching animals in beautiful far away places. In my teens I got involved in horse riding and then training, still staying close with my passion for animals, and taking hikes into nature to feel at home when ever I could.

I would like to find a way to survive economically, while being in a career where I am helping to ensure a future that includes what we have left of our wildlife thriving. The only problem is that I do not know what career(s) could offer me those things, or where to start on my way towards one.

Sep 03, 2011
5:59 AM

This was very helpful. THANK YOU !!!!!!!!!!

Aug 29, 2011
11:26 AM

akshat says… hello i am akshat form india. i am very much intrested in environmentalism, i just love nature and want protect it. i am doing enngenerring but don wanna continue it want to become an environmentalist

Hello, I'd like to suggest to Akshat don't stop enginering studies because maybe you will be able to find or invent new kinds of way for ecological machinery. You are so lucky for be able to studying enginering if you can transform it in helping the environement. Any way I wish you good luck!

Jul 04, 2011
12:37 PM

hello i am akshat form india. i am very much intrested in environmentalism, i just love nature and want protect it. i am doing enngenerring but don wanna continue it want to become an environmentalist

form intrest to make it a passion and professsion. whai can i do..??

Jun 30, 2011
3:07 PM

@ Harold. Love that picture, my daughter was doing the exact thing on the weekend in amongst the Douglas Firs.

Jun 27, 2011
11:09 AM

I’m guessing my grandson’s an environmentalist! ;)

Jun 23, 2011
10:19 AM

As a 67 year old I have seen the climate changing and polution increasing. Our young adults don’t seem to get the message that everything they throw into our small creeks and waterways ends up in the ocean for which the world depends on for most of it’s food supplies. One thing I don’t see addressed and in my eyes is the fundamental reason for our dilemna today is the over population of our world. When I decided to have children 40 years ago I made a decision to only have 2 as I felt at that time the earth was already becoming far too populated. If they both survived then the population would stay the same. If one met with demise then the population would decrease. I know that business does not appreciate a decline in population due to the fact that it would also reduce sales of their products but is not the health of our world far more important?

Jun 23, 2011
6:58 AM

I really like this article. I do feel that people are catching on — albeit slowly. What do you feel is our best shot at getting the world to catch on fast enough — before it’s too late?

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