“Can you guys please be quiet? I’m trying to enjoy nature,” my niece says with an air of deadly seriousness. Our feet crunch loudly on the dirt road as my sister and I stifle laughter. She doesn’t seem to remember, but a year earlier (a truly astronomical amount of time in the busy life of a 7-year-old), I had jokingly asked her the same question as she giggled her way through our annual holiday hike to Lake Texoma. This year, she had come equipped with a net, a bird guide and a wicked load of knowledge about dinosaurs. What a departure she had made from squealing and cowering at the sight of harmless bugs!
I felt the strangest sense of relief. While I had grown up on the lake, surrounded by wooded areas and more animals than neighbors, my niece was just beginning to explore and understand the world outside of her suburban neighborhood. Her sense of excitement about the process in turn made me excited – and that, of course, got me thinking.
Leaving behind my childhood home near Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, I made my way to the “big city” of Sherman to attend Austin College in 2009. After graduating in 2013 with a degree in English, I worked in both an academic setting and in print media for a number of years. When possible, I eased the monotony of deskwork with volunteer hours at the refuge and eventually joined the local chapter of Texas Master Naturalists. During these years, I experienced a pretty broad spectrum of attitudes toward science and nagging environmental issues, with typical perspectives ranging from helpful and optimistic to openly hostile.
“Excitement” about nature and the environment has a darker side, I’ve found. It sometimes comes in the form of reluctance to perceived change (I’ve come to call this the “I’ll be dead by then” argument) or outright denial. Sometimes even those sympathetic to the issues experience burnout and are overwhelmed into inaction: The term “eco-anxiety” describes a relatively recent phenomenon, a “chronic fear of environmental doom.”
My own particular brand of eco-anxiety developed from sheer naivety. “Why would anyone be resistant to something that’s good for everyone?” I often wondered. Then I started to get my hands dirty. Turns out, being bright-eyed and optimistic about environmental solutions doesn’t hold up quite as well when it affects someone else’s life or habits or, maybe most importantly, their bottom line.
For example, many agreed that removing Styrofoam from the cafeteria at my former workplace was a step forward – except the ones who didn’t. They tended to remind me on a weekly or even daily basis that their beverages were not as well-insulated in paper cups.
Likewise, many reputable news outlets have reported on global warming trends with nary a mention of “climate change” or other seemingly frightening buzzwords that I’ve since learned to avoid as a journalist in the rural south. But sharing these kinds of stories with my readers only incited them to hurtful “keyboard heroics” – anonymous online attempts to personally shatter my confidence and the credibility of our entire news organization.
This wasn’t exactly the fan mail I was expecting. Thankfully, there’s more to the story.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once wrote,
“…the busy people sow and harvest and again sow and harvest (busyness harvests over and over again), […] the busy people store the barns full of what they harvested and rest upon their gains – alas, […] the person who truly wills the good in the same span of time does not see even the smallest fruit of his labors and he becomes the object of ridicule as someone who does not know how to sow, as someone who labors in vain and is merely shadowboxing…”
Eternally optimistic, albeit a little jaded, I sought out a new perspective. Instead of endlessly spinning my wheels – busying myself at all hours with the fate of humanity itself, as if it rested on my shoulders alone – I decided to approach the problem from another angle. Cue the angelic face of my 7-year-old niece and a fateful job opening in the Center for Environmental Studies at Austin College.
There’s good reason to want to change people’s minds about environmental issues. I’ll always see it as a noble endeavor, and one that must be undertaken if we hope to make real steps toward progress in this lifetime. But there are generations of children and young adults now whose minds need molding, not changing, who are excited to learn and be a part of a rapidly growing, increasingly relevant field like environmental studies, and want to contribute to something greater than themselves. I’m here for them.