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.