The Environmental Major Conundrum

October 18, 2019

At this point, one question comes up in almost every single one of my Environmental Studies classes, is included within at least two discussions and debates each semester, asked by students, by professors, by assigned readings. It’s a question of guilt, of self-reflection and of choices. It’s the question of whether us Environmental Studies students are actually making an impact, sitting in an unsustainable classroom space, using a ton of energy and living lives still somewhat apart from and even in detriment to the earth. Are we doing enough, simply reading and writing and learning about climate change and nature? Is there action in education? Was our big ocean acidification research paper completely cancelled out by that three hour plus car ride home the other week? 

 

Maybe, maybe not. A large component of environmentalism today is the guilt factor. The public shaming of plastic straw users has reached new heights. In fact, one  restaurant’s new “pasta straw” left one woman with an allergic reaction from gluten (Twizzler straws are the answer, in my opinion). In a lot of ways, the guilt makes sense, especially if it works. It is maybe a little twisted, but I do derive some vague sense of satisfaction when someone confesses their guilt over consuming meat. But hey, if it’s guilt that decreases the number of cars on the road, steaks in the store and plastic in circulation, then by all means, yes, shame them all! 

 

But then again . . . maybe not. At this point in the class discussion, someone always brings up the industries. “It’s big corporations that need to be kept in check, taken down. We need to be voting, lobbying and dismantling their power structures, otherwise nothing will change.” Another student pipes up: “But supply equals demand. If people are consuming, the industries will keep producing.” And back and forth it goes. Where the blame falls is never fully answered in the debate, and a lot of these questions often linger in the air long after we’ve moved on in the conversation. Still, sitting there in Brothers College, Seminary Hall or the Hall of Sciences under all those electric lights, enclosed in four walls and feeling very separate from all those trees just barely visible through a window, I can’t help but wonder if the second student was right. Am I a bystander to the environment? Or even worse, by participating in institutions which, by their very existence, may cause environmental harm, is anything else I’m actively doing worthwhile?

 

 GRAPHIC COURTESY OF CAROLINE POLICH

 

As a vegan, I like to believe I am actually making an impact with my actions. Statistics have shown vegans may technically save up to 200 animals per year from their slaughterhouse fate, a number I say with pride. But still, I use cars, throw out used razors and occasionally eat one-use microwavable meals. 

 

The line of perfection is difficult to follow in today’s unsustainable world, a world in which many of us have been born into and did not fully create. The operation of this world is not designed for major environmental action. And the truth is, I love my Environmental Studies classes, I really do. I always leave them feeling inspired, bursting with ideas, and ready to take on a career in the field. And while I so admire Henry David Thoreau, secluding myself in a cabin in the woods to live the most eco-friendly life possible for the rest of my days doesn’t fully feel like an action plan to me (although I do plan to spend some of my time secluded in the woods). Very few of us currently possess the capability to live a zero-waste, fully environmental life. And even if I found out Greta Thunberg once bought something online and threw out the packaging, I’d forgive her. In the ways in which we are educating, spreading information and expanding the environmental movement, the world is shifting. A majority of the population now agrees climate change and environmental degradation is likely the largest and most important issue of our time. And these efforts are not going unnoticed. 

 

So, yes, maybe one way of looking at things would envision a bunch of students sitting in a classroom while the earth melts. But I also see a future of activists in that classroom, students who care so much they are willing to have these conversations, make this issue a part of their lives; students who will most definitely make widespread change.

 

Rebecca is a junior Environmental Studies and Sustainability and Studio Art double major.

 

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