Changing the world, one person at a time

  I was fresh out of college and green -- in more ways than one -- when I learned that not all environmentalists are created equal.

I’d applied 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 it."

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?

"As for 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 road?

"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."

I’d be 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 we consume.

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.

Sarah Wright is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org) where she lives and works as a marketing associate for the paper.

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