Remember at the start of the lockdown last year we saw news stories about the effect the quarantine was having on the environment?
Do you remember seeing video segments sharing scenes of deserted streets and town squares around the world that were slowly being reclaimed by wildlife?
What about how suddenly the canals of Venice were significantly more clear than they had been in years thanks to fewer tourists and ships polluting the water?
Or how the thick clouds of air pollution over some of China's major cities had thinned and dissipated for several months due to fewer people leaving their homes, and the air quality spiked from the lack of industrial toxins being released in the air?
I know you remember, because we probably Oooh! and Aaah! over the same news stories together. Feeling both happy to see the Earth carrying on without us, healing itself without our intervention, and sad that it took a global pandemic to get us to see some real-time effects of the impact human beings have on the planet.
Why am I talking about all this?
Well, this week marks the 51st anniversary of Earth Day, and although it's a bittersweet celebration -- partially because we didn't really get to enjoy the Golden Anniversary like we hoped, I wanted to speak to what the day and its efforts mean to my life.
Now, I know what you're thinking, "That's an odd topic for a blog dedicated to arts, culture and holistic wellness, Candace."
A fair criticism, but I remind you that one of my most often-discussed topics here on my blog is art and activism, as well as the role of the artist in society. I believe the personal is political, and between climate change being a major contributor to the global refugee crisis and mother nature being a major contributor to helping millions of us improve our mental health, this topic is more up my alley than you might think.
With that said, I'm no treehugger. I love trees, sunshine, wildflowers and the beauty that only nature can bring, but I've never treated my love and concern for the environment as a part of my identity or personality.
I'm simply a firm believer in doing what you can with what you have, and trying to align your values with your actions as much as possible. But I prefer to do it without drawing attention to myself or grandstanding about how much I care about the Earth, while implying that you might not care enough.
No one likes those people. Don't be like those people.
Not only do I try to avoid alienating others on this topic, I also know that I am nowhere close to being above reproach when it comes to caring for the environment or reducing my carbon footprint as low as it can possibly go. Just off the top of my head, I know I cause harm to the environment by:
But before you wag your finger, I assert that none of the above should equate to assuming that I don't care about the Earth, climate change or environmentalism. Just as I imagine most of us who do see ourselves as stewards of the Earth, I recognize that everyone is a work in progress, and it's virtually impossible for most human beings to live a rich and full life that doesn't negatively impact our environment locally, regionally and globally.
And perhaps it's that reality that keeps some from feeling as if they can't affect real change or have a positive impact on the environment. I'm sure I'm not the first to say that if we spent more time focusing on what we can do in our individual lives without judgment or condemnation from others, maybe overall we would see more people adapt their lifestyle to be more eco-friendly.
Maybe then their actions would align more with their values, and the feeling of powerlessness or shame for being a filthy, imperfect human being would disappear.
Don't get me wrong. I know our situation on this blue marble is dire, and I too am guilty of lecturing people who claim that all recycling is a scam or a waste of time. (Newsflash: It's not. You can recycle more than just plastic, people.) So I get how some can feel frustrated about what appears to be apathy. I'm also aware that the changes we make in our daily lives regarding our stewardship of the Earth is ultimately a drop in the bucket compared to what we need corporations and major industrial polluters to do in order to address climate change.
But I still believe we can move the needle significantly more in how we love the planet if we approached our individual contribution more from the perspective of "What can I do now that's reasonable and realistic? How can I embrace and prioritize nature's needs in my life?" Perhaps not to the point where it is disruptive and make's life profoundly more difficult, but perhaps with a little more consideration and positive impact.
Understandably, I can't answer that question for you as everyone's answer will be different, but I can tell you that I started out the new year with a pledge to do more to honor and protect the Earth as part of my personal goals or resolutions, if you will. And slowly, bit by bit, I'm doing just that.
Here's a list of the few adjustments I'm making or I've made to my life this year (or last year) in order to be a better steward of the Earth:
Now let's be clear, I'm not sharing this info above to virtue signal about my moral philosophy. I'm sharing these details because I think it's important to recognize that most of the pro-environmentalism rhetoric out there is written from a largely privileged perspective. Most articles and lists you'll find online on how to be a "better steward of the Earth" or reduce your carbon footprint is written by people who have clearly lived the majority of their lives in a bubble of comfort, and seem to want applause for doing what the poor and working class have done for years out of necessity.
How many times have you seen someone brag about how much they care about "going green" because they took public transportation, waited until the heat or cold was unbearable before turning on the air conditioner or radiator, or bought food at a farmer's market or local farmers' co-op? That behavior often infuriates the poor and working class who have been doing all of these things -- and more -- out of necessity for generations.
For example, maybe some of the influencers can hold off on patting themselves on the back about buying used or vintage clothes, while railing against fast fashion in a nation where buying secondhand clothes has been treated as a source of shame and ridicule for decades. Now that you're doing it "for the environment" shouldn't earn you applause, while others have done it for years because they simply couldn't afford the alternative.
The re-branding of eco-friendly actions that focus on consumerism, such as buying items packaged in something other than single-use plastic, without acknowledging the fact that the majority of our society does so because they can't afford the more expensive items packaged in glass, metal or aluminum is both irresponsible and hubristic.
Championing your use of buying fresh food direct from local farmers when for years it was viewed as a sign of people with unsophisticated palates and simple minds reveals not your commitment to being a steward of the Earth, but a desire to be viewed as morally or ethically superior. It also ignores the reality that buying organic food and access to large farmers' markets where there is a greater variety of food is an extension of privilege that turns a blind eye to the impact of income inequality.
The reason I chose the 5 examples above to share about changes I'm personally making in my life is because with the exception of thredUP and Earth Breeze, I wanted to focus on the reality that much of what we can do is already being done by the poor, and has been for decades. And sometimes, what we don't do is impacted by what our communities provide or don't provide with ease.
When I lived in Indiana, the act of recycling paper was easy and commonplace. Bright green dumpsters with an illustration of a dog carrying a newspaper in its mouth were located in every church, school, community center and VA hall parking lot around my city. And anyone could simply dump their paper recycling off at any time to be collected by the organization who ran the program. But when I lived in California, I never found anything remotely similar to that system, so I would go to FedEx Kinko stores and drop off my paper recycling there in batches so as to not overwhelm the container. Now I live in Newark, NJ, and I don't even have that option.
In Indianapolis, I used to recycle batteries at the library; ink cartridges and aluminum foil at Target; and small electronics at a green eWaste facility on the East Side that was only open to the public twice a month. Most people on the coasts find this surprising because they've been led to believe that folks in the Midwest don't believe in climate change. Meanwhile, after 10 years of living on both coasts, I've yet to see anyone take recycling seriously or if they do, their acts of eco-friendliness often involve spending money.
I share this because it's important to recognize that economics plays are large role in what each of us can do individually when it comes to taking better care of our planet. And with that in mind, the leaders of the movement would do better to credit the working poor for many of the actions that the middle class and wealthy love to brag about.
That's not to take away from innovators like Pretty Litter, Earth Breeze, and Gjenge Makers, founded by the amazing Nzambi Matee, who invented a process to create bricks out of recycled plastic -- as all of these companies make products that are more eco-friendly than the majority of their competitors. But perhaps a major component of leveling up our collective stewardship of the Earth is ending this "bragging rights" competition where those of greater financial means want to make sure you see them doing something eco-friendly by choice instead of by necessity.
Yes, go thrift shopping for clothes, but maybe save the fast fashion lecture for your wealthier colleagues. Enjoy your Meatless Monday, but remember that some of us have been eating meatless meals for years because meat being a part of every meal was never a standard we were blessed with growing up. Turn off the water when you brush your teeth, wash all your clothes in cold water, and wait until your fingers are numb before turning on the heat in the winter, but maybe stop acting as if you're the first person to do so, and that doing so makes you a good person when millions have done it for generations because they had to.
I want everyone to be a part of the movement to live more sustainable, eco-friendly lives because we won't be able to create real, substantive change unless we do it together. And the best way to do that is to check our egos, look outside our bubbles, and remember that aligning our actions with our values means remembering that those with the least are likely the ones who have the most knowledge and experience on how to do more with less.
* For those of us who grew up watching our parents try to stretch meals with as much pasta, rice, vegetables, and stock as possible because meat was so expensive, going without meat doesn't need a catchy theme night or the assumption that it's a hardship to choose to do so and it needs to be eased into so as to not shock your system.
Top Image: Planet Earth First by Photo Boards | 2nd Image: Global Hands by Amy Stanley | 3rd Image: Seedlings by Markus Spiske | Bottom Image: Driving Through Arches NP by Dino Reichmuth