Finding your place in the environmental movement

I often tell people: moving to the US made me an environmentalist.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t aware of environmental issues before. As I’ve written here, growing up in 90s China, it was pretty hard NOT to be aware. The language “protect the environment” was on every recycling bin. Workplaces organized tree-planting trips in the spring. As kids, we wore masks in the spring to shield ourselves from seasonal dust storms, and were taught in school about endangered species. From a young age, I understood that “the environment” was important, and “saving the Earth” was the right thing to do, but I didn’t know if what we were doing mattered. I was missing the context.

Then I came to the US for college. I’d never seen sky this blue. Seeing backyard squirrels and geese casually napping along the river delighted me. National parks in Vermont and wildflower fields in California took my breath away. It amazes me, to this day, that there is water safe enough to drink straight from the tap. (I know that is not the case for far too many communities here, and the US is by no means “perfect”, but try to imagine how I felt – having to boil water before drinking it my entire life!)

Then things started to click.

I realized where the massive amounts of stuff China was making went, which is why I clench my teeth when someone says “What about China’s emissions!” I saw my individual footprint change not for my own doing, but because we are constantly pushed and pulled by big systematic forces. For example, I now had the option to buy renewables, but I also used more energy since living spaces are bigger. Seriously, even the fact that you could get your own room in college was mind boggling, as I lived in a dorm room of 16 in middle school and 6 in high school.

Moving gave me the big picture I was missing. Coming to the US made me realize how much things could be better, and what policies (like the Clean Air Act) can achieve. I also understood that individual actions are so much more than minimizing your own impact; people can vote, organize, demand institutional changes, influence consumer culture through their purchases – all of which shift the cultural norms around sustainability. Most importantly, I learned that from fighting against oil spills, air pollution, toxic sewage and pesticides, to reversing the loss of nature and biodiversity, the environmental movement has never just been about conservation and wildlife. It has also always been about us: our health, our livelihood, our quality of life, and our children – their chance to survive, flourish, and coexist with the extraordinary forms of life on this magical place we call home. The Earth is 4.5 billion years old, having survived asteroid strikes and more – it has never needed saving. It is the human species that do.

Where do you fit in the environmental movement?

I strongly believe that once we stop framing “the Earth” as some amorphous being that needs to be saved and change people’s perception of the environmental movement, many more people will find themselves aligned and excited about it. After all, who can’t get behind a cleaner, healthier, fairer and just better world?

Still, “where do I fit in” is a fair question, and something I’ve grappled with for a few years. Recently I heard about the idea of a “Climate Action Venn Diagram” on an episode of How to Save a Planet, and I really resonated with it.

Basically, to find your place in the broader environmental movement, ask yourself these questions: What are you good at? What is the work that needs doing? What brings you joy? If you can find something that hits all three, bingo – that’s your niche. (If you aren’t sure where to even begin these self reflections, there are also a lot of online resources to help you like this article or this quiz.)

As for me, after a few years of focusing on individual actions to minimize my own impact (e.g., composting, biking, reducing consumption), a graduate degree in food and agricultural policy, and writing this blog for 2 years, I can finally say I feel like I’m settling into a comfortable niche. Specifically, I learned that:

  • I’m not an organizer, strategist, or an agitator that can be constantly protesting in the streets.
  • This world encourages specialization over generalization, but I am just curious about too many things to stick to one topical area. That is ok!
  • While I’m active on social media, I’m not great at taking pretty pictures or writing snappy captions. I don’t enjoy being online all the time, nor am I capable of building a massive audience quickly.

Learning these lessons about myself has at times not been pleasant (“should I be in the streets with everybody else?” or “what is wrong with me that I don’t have 12K followers?!”), but the process has taught me about my strengths, my interests, and what I genuinely enjoy doing too: reading and researching about a variety of environmental topics, breaking down complicated topics and communicating digestible bits of information, teaching those around me concrete steps they can take to reduce their environmental impact, etc. In fact, some things that I used to see as shortcomings in my environmental work have turned out to be blessings: I’m now perfectly happy with the small but engaged group of folks that I connect with on social media, many of whom local – I love that I can actually get to know people, who they are, what they do, develop friendships and have in-depth chats – all things I could never do if I managed to somehow scam 12K people to follow me online 😛

Is an environmental degree necessary?

Because of what I do (research) and where I live (among the top 10 American cities with the most master’s and doctoral degree holders, 3 are in the Greater Boston area), this is something that comes up often among folks I interact with. And the answer is no, absolutely no.

Of course, if an environmental degree is what you want and need, by all means, pursue that dream! But if the goal is to dedicate what you can to the environmental movement, there are so many amazing ways you can contribute using the skills you already have.

  • A people person? Organize swaps, beach cleanups, and letter writing campaigns.
  • Love to paint? Use your art to highlight the environmental injustices in the world.
  • A natural teacher and communicator? Host talks and workshops on any environmental topics of your choosing!
  • Interested in public service? Run for local office!
  • Want to devote your professional career to environmental sustainability but can’t make a job transition? Push for changes within your workplace!

You get my point: there are no qualifications needed to be an environmentalist; everyone already has the tools and skills. And the truth is: the environmental movement needs every one of us right now, not just the ones who think they qualified to do this work.

Happy Earth Day, my fellow Earthlings. Whether you consider yourself a newbie or a seasoned environmentalist, I want to welcome you to the environmental community and let’s get to work.