Confessions of a 21st century environmentalist studying abroad in Chile

When I look at myself in the mirror, I see a hypocrite. Depending on the day, this can make me uneasy. But generally, I carry on lightheartedly and without too much preoccupation. I would say that most of the time, I carry a pretty positive self-image. I’ve heard that some other modern activists speak openly about hypocrisy, so the person in the mirror can’t be doing too bad. 

Why a hypocrite? Because I live a 21st century American lifestyle, and I also care about the planet. I was born and raised into a generation of friction, a generation of young people with the world at their fingertips but also on their shoulders. I spent my childhood as an animal-crazy nature-lover, matured into a teenage environmentalist, who morphed into an I-don’t-know-what-to-call-myself-but-I-just-care. My current rejection of a label stems from the fact that I don’t yet have a firm grasp on my worldview. I still can’t figure out for myself how to responsibly live on this planet that I love so dearly. I’m working on it.

I am part of a generation that is aware of the ways the planet is suffering, and of the injustices that people suffer in consequence. We are taught environmental values in school, and we can’t help but stare the evidence of our overly consumptive lifestyle in the face. Climate change is becoming impossible to ignore:  in the news, in our backyards, and in our favorite places to travel. Groundwater contamination spurts out of the tap. Trash floats and piles up before our eyes. The spaces between our communities and parks are filled with never-ending monoculture crops, strip malls, prisons, dumps, power-plants, factories.

But I am also part of a generation of adventurous young people who yearn to experience the diversity and beauty this world has to offer. We love this earth. We love walking on it, eating from it, skiing down it, diving into it, marveling at it, climbing on it, photographing it, writing about it. More and more, people of my generation have the opportunity to travel, to gain worldly consciousness, to become inspired by all that the earth has to offer. Most would agree that this characteristic of the 21st century lifestyle is an overwhelmingly positive one. We have opportunities that no one has had before.

And here appears my story. This January, I boarded a plane to Santiago, Chile, where I am spending six months on international exchange at La Universidad Católica. I am here to immerse myself in a culture completely new to me, to become bilingual, to explore beautiful country and landscapes, and to discover more about myself and how I fit into this overwhelmingly large planet. I feel so fortunate to have this opportunity and am determined to make the best of it.

http://www.ezilon.com/maps/south-america/chile-road-maps.html

http://www.ezilon.com/maps/south-america/chile-road-maps.html

But with the words of Wendell Berry’s local agronomist gospel ringing in my ears, I know that this experience reflects the hypocrisy and friction I embody as a 21st century environmentalist, as a modern day lover of the earth. I know in my mind and heart that true “sustainability” requires an intensely local lifestyle. As of yet, modern travel is not sustainable (although I have infinite respect for the long-distance bicyclists out there). This is the tragedy of our generation: we are born with such a desire to explore, so much curiosity, such a love of our planet, that we can’t help but damage it.

My philosophical conundrum became visceral when I traveled to Patagonia for a two-week vacation. Three friends and I flew to the far south of Chile to complete a 75-mile backpacking trek in Torres del Paine National Park. During the nine days we spent physically getting to know a living, breathing, often un-relenting corner of earth, we were consistently stricken with awe. We witnessed a one hundred square mile glacier, magnificent winds and waterfalls, forests pulsing with moisture and life, firm and steady rivers, and gorgeous geologic formations. The rhythm of walking my human feet and pushing my muscles through these landscapes inspired me constantly. I felt very close to large-scale cycles of water, energy, and life, the cycles that sustain and destroy on a daily basis and on a geologic timescale. The sky and the earth seemed to be in constant conversation, which I witnessed firsthand through powerful wind and rain. In essence, I felt very close to it all. I felt like a participant of the planet’s processes. After all, I am a participant.

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On the most physically draining day of the journey, I pushed my body and backpack up a mountain of stones and shrubs for hours, to ultimately reach a peak overlooking a glacier. The view stopped me in my tracks. Bigger than most lakes I’ve swum in, Glacier Grey reflected blue-white toward my windswept face, and my vision got lost in the swirling curves of its textures and crevasses. Not only was beauty hitting me directly in the face, I was also physically standing before a climatic wonder, a regulator of processes, a testament of cyclic power and millions of years of ancient change. I felt small and fragile, weak and insignificant, the cliché backcountry experience, the reason many of us pitch tents and climb mountains.

Yet as I spent the next day walking kilometers beside Glacier Grey, observing and letting myself be affected by its presence, I became alarmingly aware of my power. My power against the fragility of the planet. I thought deeply about my carbon footprint, which includes the energy it took to fly so far south. I was forced to take ownership of my consumption, which could take a glacier down in time. I fully and deeply realized that I am helping love this earth to death.

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My emotions during my journey were complex. Yes, I went through these sorts of tragic realizations. But I also spent everyday bewildered by beauty, as I became aware of natural cycles and encountered a sense of spirituality in rhythms that simply felt good to my body and soul. I remembered how liberating it feels to have nothing to do except walk, and sustain myself (which involves peanut butter and sleep). I remembered how good and natural it feels to wake and sleep according to the sun and the weather, to let myself be affected by my surroundings, to sense fully and freely. I love the culture of the trail: meeting fellow trekkers, sharing time with my friends cooking noodles and oatmeal, motivating and laughing with each other, playing cards and music on the dirt. After the journey, my blisters, scars, sore muscles, and dirty skin were remnants of a conversation, a dance, a romance with a piece of living earth. The euphoric experience I had in Patagonia is something I yearn for, even live for. It reminds me why ecological and social justice is worth fighting for so hard, and it reminds me of what it means to be human. What it means to inhabit my body on this earth.

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We are living in an era of friction. This friction forms as sustainability values come into contact with values of worldly consciousness and adventurous spirit. We are living in a unique moment of time. Centuries of technological advances have opened the world up to us, and who can argue against seizing this opportunity to do all that we can do, and see all that we can see?

During my first class at La Católica, “Climatología” (climatology), my professor put up a slide about sustainable development. He chose the generic sustainability definition: meeting today’s needs without sacrificing the needs of the future. But then, he asked the class: is this a good definition? Is there anything missing?  The class sat in silence. He answered his own question with another one: what do we define as “needs”? The bare minimum of sustenance and water to survive? Or enough to sustain a first world lifestyle, including the ability to explore the beauty of the earth? The definition, and therefore, our entire philosophy of sustainability, hinges on what we think is worth sustaining. What does it mean to sustain? What do we believe we owe our grandchildren? Nothing is black and white. Nothing is strictly scientific. We can and should play the numbers game, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the ideological game within ourselves.

I have to say, I was hoping for clear answers to come to me in Patagonia. I was hoping that this constant friction within me would somehow become smooth like the ice that forms the glaciers. I was hoping for answers in the form of a clear path to take, I was hoping I would somehow realize how to care for the planet in the 21st century. But no such path appeared, except for the physical “sendero” ahead that led to the next campsite. Nevertheless, I ended the journey feeling overwhelmingly refreshed, content, and clear-headed, more so than I had felt in a long time. Rather than a sudden realization, a feeling slowly seeped into me over the course of the nine days. The feeling was humbleness and acceptance. I don’t have to claim a worldview. I don’t have to know what’s best for the planet. In fact, I’m not sure that’s even possible. But I can invest myself in things that feel right, and work to make sure that those things continue into the future as long as they can. Local organic gardens, walking in beautiful places with friends, community organizing (and potlucks), making music, cooking good food, planting trees, sharing art and poetry, cleaning and restoring watersheds, living cooperatively, surveying and taking care of forests. These are some things that feel good to me, some things that give my life good rhythm, purpose, and love. That’s all I need.

And of the hypocrisy inherent to airplane travel and the like? It’s still there. The friction remains. It’s going to stay there until we have airplanes that run on solar energy from panels made with completely renewable materials. But my hypocrisy has become easier to bear, as I am less preoccupied over absolute and essential sustainability, and more over how I can enjoy this planet in the most responsible and loving way I know how.  And so, I can start to come to terms with traveling – as an activity that enhances my understanding of the world and who I am within it. Needless to say, I will always strive to travel more responsibly and compassionately however I can. I can take buses and trains, engage with the local community, volunteer, support small-scale economies – to name a few.

We are a generation of friction. Beyond environmental dilemmas, it’s equally hard to come up with opinions and solutions to crises, as issues of politics, economics, justice, and equality are tangled up, chaotic, distorted, and entrenched. Like I said, our generation has the world at our fingertips and on our shoulders. An overwhelming amount of information about the problems of the world is available to us every minute of the day – and this availability gives us responsibility. The information is available and so we must be informed. And if we are informed, we must be able to determine the most responsible way forward. The world is on our shoulders, and it feels heavy sometimes! But traveling helps remind me that I am human. And what does that mean? As humans, we are powerful when we are together and we are powerful when we are doing what we love. We are animals of this earth; we hold instincts, perceptions, and connections with one another, and can only act from there. Here in Santiago, I am ready to explore my new surroundings and myself amidst it all. It feels good to be a human; it feels good to be living now.

Author’s note:  I use the phrase “my generation” to refer to a specific subset of young people today, a group that I identify with. Generally, I mean young, relatively privileged, educated Americans. I acknowledge that not everyone has the same opportunities. I can only speak for myself but have noticed that other people around me appear to operate in a similar situation, thus the generalizing of “my generation.”
I’d like to start a discussion. What are your thoughts on modern travel? Do you feel like a hypocrite? What does our generation owe to the future, and what do we owe ourselves? 

Posted in _Excerpt, California Student Sustainability Coalition Magazine and tagged , , , , , , .

6 Comments

  1. This is your conscience speaking. You should feel like a hypocrite, because you are. From the outset of your mammoth diatribe it was absolutely clear you would conclude that you shouldn’t feel guilty. But you should. And so should anyone who extracts more over their lifetime than they protect, conserve or restore. Your lifestyle IS unsustainable. Accept that, live happily on my back, as you will, but also please accept you are a hypocrite. Love from Planet Earth.
    ps Patagonia is one of my rather least spoilt bits (not helped by your airtravel might I add), and there are human powered means of visiting it via the Carratera Austral, or via the sea.

  2. I just wrote a response but then I accidentally hit the reset button. I could not undo that mistake and now I am going to go rage and kill something. I just want to let you know that this article is the most well written article I’ve read in a long time. It’s inspirational, and I hope environmentalists, writers, and rebellious teens all learn something from it. I really appreciate that you managed to nail how I feel about so many things, that I could only dream of expressing. Thanks

  3. Meredith, this is a wonderfully written article. You painted such a beautiful picture of your time in Patagonia. So happy for your experience! For the last few years I’ve been on a personal mission to figure out what sustainability really means; despite finishing a master’s degree in renewable energy engineering and traveling to several countries to do “sustainable development” work I still don’t feel like I have any clear answers. I used to be so naive to think that I could change the world by volunteering abroad, but after serving at a few NGO’s in the global south I realize that greatest changes took place within myself. Sure I may have connected a few solar panels to light bulbs or built a cob wall, but I think that most of those things would have happened without me. Additionally, I think it would have been far more resource efficient and “sustainable” to teach a local how to do those things than for me to take a plane ride (as you mentioned) half way around the world to do them. But I don’t think those trips were at all a waste, they touched me in a deep way by exposing me to the less privileged ways of life that most of the world lives in.

    Though the carbon footprint I generated while traveling to go volunteer abroad likely exceeded any offsets from my work, I think what those experiences did more than anything else was give me stronger feelings of compassion towards others. Ultimately, I think traveling made me truly appreciate my American lifestyle. It has also motived me to do more volunteer work at home and to donate money to charitable causes when I can. Obviously, not everyone who travels abroad will walk away with that kind of attitude. But I will say that traveling has the potential to change one’s approach to environmental and social issues in ways that watching documentaries or reading books never could.

    I think we owe it to ourselves to be happy and to pursue the things that interest us. When we ourselves are content I think that’s when we best serve the world. It just so happens that modern travel is a common way for people to eek out a meaningful existence. It also happens that there are many pieces to the “sustainability” puzzle; there are so many different skills and disciplines needed to assuage our human impact on this planet. I see traveling as a great opportunity for people to go deeper into whatever it is that interests them (hopefully it’s something good!), to become more aware of their place in the world (it seems like you’re doing a bit of that in Chile), and to walk away from the whole experience more competent at serving the world with whatever skill we have chosen. *Note that within these statements there is a strong distinction between travel and vacation!

    Last I just want to mention that – like most environmentalists – I also struggle with that feeling of being a hypocrite. And the fact that no matter how environmentally benign you try to be, you still have a serious footprint on this planet just by living in the modern Western world. Currently, I work solar PV research lab and I often think of how much non-renewable electricity I use at work, of all the non-renewable energy that went in to producing the solar modules themselves, and of all the sometimes toxic compounds that go into making some modules. If I think about how all the environmental and social impacts of working at that lab exceed the environmental benefits, sure, then the work becomes frustrating. But what I like to think of it is a means of laying the groundwork or foundation for a more “sustainable” society years down the line. I try to keep in mind that it took a lot of people’s efforts to create the problems you mentioned like climate change, water contamination and pollution. Furthermore, those problems have been compounding arguably since the industrial revolution, so I think it’s logical that it would take a while to fix our bad habits. Maybe patience helps make the struggle a little easier…

  4. >What are your thoughts on modern travel?

    Horribly unsustainable, given its dependence on oil. But often times, it is necessary to participate in it in order to have an acceptable standard of living (if you’re lucky). Especially in context to the United States, with its suburban sprawl and low population density, many people must commute several hours a day to their place of employment in order to get even the lowest standard of living. And even those more privileged, and concerned about the ecological crisis, face the need to utilize modern transportation infrastructure in order to network, gain information, conduct scientific research, and so on. What all this illustrates is that we must recognize that its not enough to individually attempt to abstain from utilizing unsustainable transportation–instead, we must focus on dismantling the system as a whole that subsidizes and entrenches the need to rely on unsustainable transportation.

    This also answers the second question: no, I don’t feel like a hypocrite, because individual consumer choices have little impact if there is no feasible alternative. Energy should be devoted into attacking the system as a whole, rather than efforts to improve one’s own carbon footprint individually–the latter always seems to smack of being motivated by the selfish want to pat oneself on the back for being “greener than thou.” The only time that individual abstention is to be encouraged is if it is accompanied by efforts to actually create an economic base that creates an accessible and economic alternative.

    >What does our generation owe to the future, and what do we owe ourselves?

    I’m just going to leave two quotes from the philosopher Slavoj Zizek:

    >The exemplary figures of evil today are not ordinary consumers who pollute the environment and live in a violent world of disintegrating social links, but those who, while fully engaged in creating conditions for such universal devastation, buy their way out of their own activity, living in gated communities, eating organic food, taking holidays in wildlife preserves, and so on. (Violence, p. 27)

    >The true ethical test is not only the readiness to save the victims, but also – even more, perhaps – the ruthless dedication to annihilating those who made them victims.

    All in all, I think we have an obligation to solve/mitigate the ecological crisis by any and all means necessary.

  5. This is marvelous, Meredith 🙂 You summed up my feelings, confusions, and contradictions perfectly. <333

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