By Caroline Smith
You can read all the data sets and statistics you want. Whether it’s depleting carbon emissions in half by 2050 or the last sea turtles on earth, each day is a race to mass extinction. And as much as you want to stop climate change in its tracks, no amount of metal straws or carpools will stop the rate we hurtle towards heatwaves in December and the Port of Long Beach sinking into the Pacific Ocean.
This is the existential pain of caring about the climate. As much as you want to change the world, your tiny individual actions seem to change nothing. Climate anxiety and ecological PTSD are very real phenomena that are becoming more prominent. I used to be the same way, having sudden bursts of climate anxiety, wanting to never use a plastic thing again and trying to be environmentally pure.
That was until this semester when I enrolled in environmental literature with Professor George Hart here at Long Beach State University. I thought the class would be pretty basic, looking at nature in romantic poetry, the sublime and all that, but it turned out it focused on ecological theory and how to implement it, as well as a service learning element. Restoring a marsh at the Los Cerritos wetlands is a unique kind of homework assignment.
I asked Professor Hart what he thinks is special about his class: “The service learning component makes it unique for me. I don’t teach any other class like this, and so connecting what we’re reading in a literature class with actual community work that needs to be done and makes a difference, is really special. It shows students how to take ideas from literature that you don’t think could really apply to anything and find their relevance.”
This class ended up completely shifting how I think about the environment and where I learned that I was fine, actually. I needed to relax and chill out, long enough to realize that I was already being ecological.
It’s completely understandable to be stressed out by data dumps. Hearing how the sea levels are rising 0.14 inches a year leaves you with no action to take. You hear that number and are immediately discouraged by the fact that there is nothing you could do to change that. So as much as we want to think that a data set and some graphs can shock the world into changing, there is no clear action to take.
A quote from Octavia Butler’s “The Parable of the Sower” explains this better than I could, “It’s better to teach people than to scare them.” People will stay motivated with the climate cause if they are taught the path. What is important is the personal experience. This doesn’t mean a personal experience with a climate disaster, we shouldn’t have to wait for everyone in the world to be caught in a hurricane to believe in climate change, but also interaction with the environment. You should care about the environment for environment’s sake. Because you grew up near a park with a creek that had frogs singing or you went to the beach where sea lions played in the surf. You should be connected to the environment.
To see ourselves as a part of the environment instead of the ruler of it, we need to dismantle our anthropocentric view of the world. Anthropocentric means centered around humans, and this current era of Earth’s life is called the anthropocene because of the profound effect we’ve had on Earth’s history. For the most part, the human instinct is to believe we’re at the center of the universe and through innovation and self-realization, we have triumphed over nature. However, if we always have the idea that we are superior to all other parts of the world, we are going to have a lot of trouble finding the motivation to change. You are not special. Or at least just as special as everything else.
The way to get over our anthropocentrism is to realize that we are a part of this world, and are connected to all other living and nonliving things. This is what philosopher Timothy Morton calls “the Mesh,” a sort of explosion of contextualization. If we think about all things in the universe existing in an infinite, connecting fabric, the idea that our actions have an effect seems more plausible. By rejecting your anthropocentric notions and placing yourself on an equal plane to a squirrel, a tree, and the ocean, you find the inherent worth in these things and yourself. Many ideas in ecological philosophy are influenced by Traditional Ecological Knowledge. Hart describes its importance as this: “It is respecting and understanding the wisdom and the experience of the indigenous peoples that had lived in the places for millennia and generations. They have adapted their human communities and culture to the place in very specific ways. They understand what the plants do, what the animals do. They actively maintained and altered the environments but for the good of humans and the other species. That’s the kind of knowledge that we can look to as the caretakers of the land here before us.”
Another element of ecological talk is centered around trying to go back to the past or trying to preserve our present. Often, when we imagine our future, it looks pretty similar to our present, just with the potential problems erased away. It’s tempting to think that we can keep living the way we do with only a few small changes, but that kind of thinking will perpetuate the problem. We cannot demand to keep using the same amount of energy and increasing efficiency when the solution requires so much more change than that. We cannot expect to stay the same in the present and our future to change. We have to change here and now so we can create a better future.
So what are these serious changes then? How do we “be ecological?” By reading this you are already on the right track. You are taking time to examine your view of the environment. While the whole course has been about finding the answer, I asked Hart to simplify it. “I think the idea of coexistence, that’s one of Timothy Morton’s big ideas, and to be ecological is recognizing that we exist with other species, and they’ve got an equal claim to the world and their place on the planet. Again, in Morton’s book we read in class, ‘Being Ecological,’ he says, you’re already being ecological and you may not even know it. So his goal is to say, ‘yeah, look for the things where you’re being ecological in your day-to-day life and that will help you. Instead of becoming a monk or going to live out in the desert in a cave, you can continue to do what you do. He says, “to coexist nonviolently with others, that is the goal.’”