I was fresh out of college and green -- in more ways than one -- when I learned that not all environmentalists are created equal.
for a job with a 10-year-old national environmental organization,
based in Boston, that recruits young people to work on grassroots
campaigns all over the country. Invited for an interview, I arrived
in San Francisco excited to join a room full of other hopefuls who
wanted to make the world a better place.
Early on, I
sensed I didn’t belong. The interview coordinator was brisk
and wore the black suit of a no-nonsense businesswoman; I was
wearing a brown wool skirt and sweater bought from a friend at a
yard sale. Somehow this made me feel as sheepish as I’d felt
in grade school in winter, when I forgot my shoes and had to
scuffle around in moon boots. Up until then, no nonprofit function
had made me feel bashful about wearing recycled clothes.
Our leader cut to the chase. "Let’s start off by discussing
the organization’s core beliefs," she said. Why, I wondered?
Weren’t we all there because we cared about protecting
natural resources and living a life freer of mindless consumerism?
Apparently not. Our leader continued: "It may be helpful
to talk about what we don't do. We don't do science. Think about
global warming. Ninety-nine percent of the world's scientists
believe that climate change is happening, and we don't need any
more studies to show that. What we need is to do something about
Clearly, I thought, this woman doesn’t know
the kind of scientists I do -- ecologists who not only do studies
but who also tell lawmakers to toughen up clean-air regulations and
protect forests that absorb greenhouse gases. Science grounds our
activism, and if it hadn’t produced scientists such as Rachel
Carson to bring environmental problems into the public eye, would
we even have an environmental movement?
education," she continued, "it's too slow. We need to act now. And
there's not enough compelling evidence to show that environmental
education really has an impact on people later in their lives."
Since I’ve been trained as a teacher, this
unsubstantiated bit of opinion gave me pause. If we fail to educate
young people about the importance of the environment, who will
protect our air, water and public lands a few decades down the
"And finally, forget about living the simple life,"
she said. "If you want to change things, how you live doesn't
matter. I mean, if I decide not to buy my gas at Shell, no one will
ever know about it or care. But if I get 20 people to protest
outside Shell and get in the newspaper so that more people know
about an issue, that's making a difference."
the last to dispute the importance of the media to any
activist’s campaign. But the organizer’s scorn for "the
simple life" is typical of too many environmental groups that
ignore what any freshman biology student knows: The more of us
there are, the more we consume, so the sum of what each of us does
in our lives counts. So far, the only way to decrease our impact on
the world is either to cut our population or reduce the resources
More important, I want to live as though what
I believe and do matters. It's like the philosophical question
about whether a tree falling in the woods really falls if
there’s no one around to see or hear it. I think what each of
us does in our lives -- our choices of how to live, what to drive,
what to buy -- adds up. From living in rural western Colorado, I've
learned that people have an impact even if urban environmentalists
don’t notice. Our rural electric co-op supports alternative
sources of energy, including geothermal, and residents tap into
solar energy everywhere you look. They may not carry membership
cards for any of the big-time green groups, but my neighbors behave
like true environmentalists, sensitive to the land and aware of
what they take from it.
No surprise: I didn’t get
the job. But that weekend in San Francisco forced me to think more
carefully about my "core beliefs." Call me naive and idealistic,
but I learned that I want to work for a group that’s
inclusive and interested in the long-term. If wearing a black suit
and disparaging the work of other environmentalists is this
group’s definition of "activism," they can count me out. So
I’m sifting through garage sales and watching my neighbors,
who are teaching me the art of quiet impact.