Guest post by Hanna Morris, UC Berkeley student. Hanna is teaching a student run course (“DeCal”) at UC Berkeley this fall, called Communicating Sustainability.
“Why do you care so much about the environment?”
I’ve been asked this question countless times throughout my twenty years of existence. Although often asked with the intent of expressing disapproval through a tone of mock curiosity and premise of genuine bemusement, it’s really a perfectly reasonable question. I should have a perfectly reasonable response.
The problem is, my answer is not so simple. And I’m sure my response will not satisfy the question. But, the “issue” of “environmentalism” has become so politicized and so messy and so lost in the void of ideological warfare, that I hope to offer a tiny personal perspective on “why I care so much.”
It started with sea turtles (I wanted to save them) and grew into an identity (one more assigned to me than chosen). I was (and still am) the “environment girl.”
Because I grew up in a very politically conservative part of New Jersey and was, to speak frankly, rejected as “weird” because of my passion for trees and turtles as opposed to Vineyard Vines and George W. Bush, I developed an all-too-common politicized view of the environment I loved. I associated selfish Republican businessmen and preppy high school bullies as the antithesis to conscientious and caring, liberal environmentalists. I chose to view Republicans as destructive and Democrats as constructive, looking to build a more “sustainable” future for both people and the environment.
I fled to Berkeley after high school, telling people I went for the amazing academic program but truthfully, left in search for some sanity and sense of belonging outside of the Wall Street suburbs. But, Berkeley is anything but “sane.”
Living up to its nickname of “Berzerkeley,” my new home was everything I wanted– different and stimulating and interesting and inspiring and the opposite of Somerset Hills, New Jersey. I thought I finally found Utopia.
But after basking in the sun of radical politics and culture for the past two years, I’m beginning to take notice of my sunburn.
It’s a philosophical cop-out to organize my thoughts in a strictly heads or tales, Right versus Left,political outlook. My hometown calls liberals “ignorant” and my new home calls conservatives “selfish.” Wall Street thinks happiness will come from an open market that exchanges work and time for money and goods whereas Berkeley thinks happiness will come from building a more inclusive and equitable economic and social landscape. But the truth is, adopting either one political perspective or the other is nothing more than a flip of a coin. No one knows what political system will truly make a person happier or our global society healthier. And isn’t that what we are all looking for– happiness?
All I know is, the celebrated trajectory for happiness “society” (including both Republicans and Democrats) has mapped out: elite college education then ethically-questionable but high paying jobthen promotion and lots of money, houses, cars, and pampered babies then pastel-colored retirement condominium in Florida, will not make me happy and may very well compromise the social and environmental health of our global commons. Even without the financial crisis crushing this trajectory as plausible for my generation, I am just not convinced of the Eden it promises.
I certainly can’t speak for everyone, but I feel the most alive and experience the most meaning and emotion and life not when I purchase a new product, but when I watch the sun set and bay water glisten, feel the cool morning breeze and hot desert sun, smell the salty ocean air and wild mountain flowers, hear the river gurgle and thunder crackle, taste the crisp autumn air and cold icy snow.
That’s not to say I only feel a sense of genuine emotion and “happiness” when I’m in nature. I’m profoundly moved when I see and experience how other people interpret, cope with and find meaning from life. I’m inspired by art and literature and music and film that attempt to make sense of our shared struggle and hopeless confusion with what “happiness” is and how we can find it. I feel most connected with other humans, and my own self, when I create and share rather than destroy and take.
But these moments are rare. I mostly experience a feeling of discontent and uneasiness. And although I do speak from a position of great material advantage that cannot be underscored enough, there’s something essential and vital missing from my life that cannot be filled with a “successful” job and car and big house and diamonds and fancy clothes. But if this is what society says will make me happy, and if invoking political change is hopelessly agonizing, then where is my alternative? Where is my future?
I’ve always been the “environment girl.” It’s my assigned identity in this place called “society.” But, despite the unwanted political and ideological meaning this prescribed label may hold, in answering the big question, “why do you care so much about the environment,” I can say the following: it gives me a sincerely profound sense of hope.
I kind of hate bugs and humidity and absolutely love air conditioning and indoor plumbing. It’s not about going back to “rugged nature” (whatever that may mean), it’s about realizing that our current perception of how to achieve happiness could be enirely wrong. It’s about accepting that we will never know the unknown if we ardently think we do in fact know. And if materialism, consumerism, conformity, social inequity, and the pursuit of a monetary-produced mirage of happiness are what’s replacing nature, then destroying the environment feels very wrong. We could be blindly annihilating the emotional substance of life that creates a real sense of meaning, connection and existence in this vast and cold universe.
I don’t know enough about other life (let alone my own), none of us do. But it gives me hope that if I keep my heart and mind open, I will gain some wisdom and meaning from other people’s brave interpretations and from my own personal experiences. My direction in life isn’t aimless, it’s just unknown. And I hope it will always remain that way.
But if we accept “Western” society’s singular perception of how to achieve “happiness” and, in turn, blindly destroy nature (the undoubted substance of physical life and potential substance of a deeper, more profound emotional life), human creativity and other cultures in pursuit of this fallacy, then my hope will most certainly be destroyed along with it.
This is why I care so much about the environment. And this is why I sincerely hope you do too.