Waking up has always been a slow process for me. Even after a good night of sleep, I stumble out of bed, dress, make my way to the chicken coop to let those lovelies out, and go make tea. Then I drink half the cup before I feel coordinated and mentally alert.
Once I get to that point, I become excited for the day. Then, I’m off to the garden, visiting the goats, tackling some creative project, researching a topic, or writing an article or next chapter.
I love that slow awakening. It feels good and natural.
By contrast, if I jump out of bed and race into action, it makes me feel stressed, anxious, and sometimes angry. Then I’m less productive. Plus, I don’t enjoy whatever I’m doing because I’m in the wrong state of mind.
Environmental awakening can be a lot like this too. Perhaps you start to pay more attention to the issues. As your awareness grows, you take small steps to behave in more environmentally friendly ways. Then, once you’ve started down the path of gentle transformation, you wake up to all the possibilities of living in environmentally harmonious ways.
Likewise, if you don’t ease into the transition, it can be stressful, anxiety inducing, angering, disturbing, and frankly… a waste of time.
To make beneficial changes, you must first understand the issues and learn about ecological systems. Then, as with learning any new skill, you have to start simple and work your way up to handling more complex tasks.
The following is a short accounting of some of the environmental issues I’ve encountered through my life experiences.
- While growing up in Southern California, air pollution and water shortages were pressing issues that directly impacted how we lived.
- When visiting my birthplace in Missouri, I saw the problems with monocropping.
- The year I lived on Maui, I learned how harmful invasive species can be.
- In my travels in France, I watched corporate homogenization endanger cultural traditions, regional cuisine, and historical practices surrounding food and economic security.
- In Egypt, the horrible realities of wealth inequality and the environmental and civic degradation it causes sank in.
- As a homeowner in Maryland, I discovered the devastating impacts of pollution from lawn care, plastic, and sewage on natural water ways and aquatic life.
In each of these places it was clear that human actions, including my own, were destroying environments and endangering the natural services we depend on. However, I also learned that gentle, focused action (especially if more of us do it) could make big differences over time.
Now, here’s a look at some of the gentle actions I’ve taken in response to learning about these issues.
Air Pollution and Water Shortages
I stopped running the water while brushing my teeth, shortened my showers, took a mellow yellow approach to flushing, and learned to love drought resistant gardens.
I drove less and carpooled more. I learned the power of using plants as pollution filters and exhaust buffers. I began supporting forest and wildland preservation and the creation of green spaces.
I learned about air polluting VOCs such as compressed air products, aerosol sprays, glues, paints, idling exhaust, etc.. I switched to low VOC alternatives, eliminated polluting products I didn’t really need, and stopped letting my car idle.
I wanted to understand why farmers would use monocropping practices that degrade their land while reducing their profits over time on purpose. I discovered that many farmers were forced into unsustainable practices through USDA policies that supported “get big or get out” corporate farming.
Many farmers are also locked into contracts, have massive debt on farming equipment purchases, and are farm poor (like “house poor”). They don’t like the corners they’ve been backed into. But they also don’t want to lose their family farms (which are also their homes) and the only livelihoods they’ve ever known.
After learning those things, I stopped blaming farmers. I directed my political actions towards the profiteers who supported/approved government policies that harmed family farmers and degraded our environment.
I started buying direct from farmers who were using regenerative farming practices. It cost more and took extra time to source products. However, I got more than groceries from those transactions.
I learned about natural farming, made new friends, and supported other people’s dreams which made me feel good. I could also visit the farms and see first hand that my support was helping solve environmental issues.
On Maui, I learned that tourists were some of the worst invasive species in terms of ecological harm. We broke off decades worth of coral with a kick of a scuba fin and stole countless natural souvenirs from an isolated island without the ability to regenerate those resources. We expected all the luxury mainland amenities even though shipping in those goods caused massive pollution and also allowed invasive insects, plants, and other wildlife to spread.
After that, when I traveled, I researched the ecosystem and culture to find out how to respectfully interact with both. I stopped imposing my habits on those experiences and instead enjoyed the uniqueness those new places had to offer.
I also became aware of the idea of bioregionalism and valuing and preserving the environmental uniqueness of the place we live.
France is a country with vast ecological and cultural differences and a strong sense of bioregionalism especially when it comes to food and preserving nature and culture. However, even there, big box grocery stores, industrial food processes, and regulatory standardization have been driving small farmers and regional product makers out of business for decades.
In response to corporate homogenization, many French people have fought against it with actions like letting pigs loose in grocery stores, blocking roads, and using strikes as a negotiation tool. They’ve also supported laws that regulate regional production.
Still, each time I visited France, I was struck by how much French life was moving in the direction of the environmentally-degrading, resource intensive, homogenized American lifestyle that I went to France to escape. That made me want to support local makers and regional cuisine everywhere.
Back in the US, I began to limit my use of chain businesses and mass produced goods. These mass marketed things are an invasive species of a sort. They take over, limit creativity, and crowd out local culture.
I also stopped being an unpaid, walking advertisement for mass produced goods by hiding or removing brand name labels. I focused my spending on locally produced and handmade goods.
In my year in Egypt, the wealthy café regulars I interacted with had yachts, huge mansions in many countries, and access to every luxury amenity imaginable. They had drivers, cooks, maids, gardeners, and more — all paid to ensure their comfort. The incredible amounts of natural resources they used to maintain their way of life was mind-boggling. Yet, they were miserable and bored with life. They took their misery out by lording power over non-rich people and gossiping relentlessly about each other.
Thankfully, I found solace in getting to know the local workers. Having come from a middleclass American background, I thought that if I wasn’t happy it meant I had to work harder to buy more. Living among people who were barred from economic opportunity, through enforced class structure, changed the way I saw everything.
From them, I learned to linger over a cup of karkade (hibiscus tea) for hours. I discovered that simple, cold meals take less work, make less mess, and allow more time for lounging in a shady spot. I came to know that hard work, done in the company of friends, or done slowly with sufficient breaks, doesn’t feel like work at all.
Most importantly, I discovered that there are countless intelligent, capable people who never get a chance to express their talents in life. It’s not that they are lazy. It’s because they are barred from social mobility by the people and companies who benefit from enforced cheap labor.
Sadly, those who enforce class structure also cause massive environmental degradation to the places their workers live. They use their neighborhoods as dumping grounds. They buy up land and strip mine it of natural resources causing massive ecological and psychological harm.
Without a living wage, and inhabiting environmentally hazardous soul-crushing places, those workers end up dependent on charity for health care and to make ends meet. The most disturbing part is that the people who profit most from these enforced poverty schemes also take enormous pride in establishing charities to help the people they make destitute.
It was incredibly easy to see all these connections in Egypt because no one tried to hide it. In the US, it’s harder to see the enforced class structure because we have a large middle class and a complicated legal system that obscure those connections between extreme wealth and enforced poverty. Yet the same abuses are prevalent here too.
After Egypt, I started enjoying more simple pleasures at home. I began supporting employee-owned businesses and buying from socially and environmentally responsible small businesses. I also used my role as a hiring manager to open doors to people who lacked access to opportunity.
In Maryland, when I discovered how much harm lawn chemicals did to the delicate water systems near my home, I stopped my chemical use, cold-turkey. I transitioned my lawn to bee-friendly, with lots of flowering weeds. That small change opened up a whole new list of environmentally-friendly opportunities.
Without the lawn to worry about, there was time to compost and grow food. There was also room for perennial edibles like fruit trees, berries, and herbs.
Rather than running a hose, we collected rainwater from the roof. We dug a few small swales and used mulch to slow and sink water into the ground rather than let it run to the road and down into the sewer system.
I also started experimenting with using plants as a biofilter to keep a small frog pond clean. I planted perennials around my compost pile so my compost leachate didn’t pollute waterways either.
I gave up bottled water and started carrying a reusable container. I started buying goods that came without unnecessary packaging. I used my own bags at stores. I replaced harmful cleaning products with safer options.
Change after change, life got easier, more beautiful, and more pleasurable. There was no hardship, it just felt good and natural to do these things.
Eventually, in 2014, we moved to an eroded, heavily sloped property in North Carolina. Since then, we’ve used permaculture inspired ideas to regenerate soil and create a lush, carbon sequestering, wildlife supporting, homestead haven where we can express our creativity as part of our daily lives. We drive less, use fewer non-regenerative resources, make and grow more of what we need.
There’s still lots more we can do to be better environmental stewards and I look forward to the pleasure of getting there.
The Slow Build
The truth is, our environmental problems are enormous. We will not be able to solve them in the near term. We have to take a long view.
But we can start making meaningful changes now. Then, as we gain momentum, we can make bigger changes at a faster pace.
If you look at the history of plastic use, it didn’t happen over night. Back in the 50’s there were just a couple products. Then, when product makers and users saw the benefits, the number of products increased. The graph above shows what the growth in plastic use looked like.
Of course, now we know that there are some terrible environmental consequences as a result. We are dealing with incredible amounts of plastic waste, toxins in our water and soil, and the degradation of natural environments from those increases. So, we are trying to learn how to phase out plastic and manage the waste in our environment already.
My point, though, is that the choices we made to get ourselves into these environmental messes started slowly and then built up to become the big problems they are today. The process of getting ourselves out of will need to happen the same way. The difference is the outcome won’t be waste, it will be a better future.
Right now, we’re in the 1950’s area of the graph above in terms of environmental action. We have started to embrace the idea of changing how we will live. And if we keep on this path and help others see the benefit of it, then we will start to see exponential increases as we gain momentum.
There is absolutely no reason that we can’t ramp up our actions to promote a healthier, more abundant, radiant, and ecologically sustainable planet.
The Danger of Failing to Transition
I also want to point out that even though our environmental problems are huge and we definitely need to start moving down the path of change quickly, we also can’t just flip a switch and stop doing bad things today.
There’s a learning curve and a healing process that needs to happen along the way. For example, if you look at the crisis in Sri Lanka, you’ll find that a sudden and mandatory transition to organic farming is one of the contributing factors creating so much financial hardship there right now.
Many Sri Lankan farmers were in favor of transitioning to organic farming over a 10 year period of time. They voted for leaders who promised to support them as they made a reasonable transition. However, then those politicians immediately banned imports of agrochemicals and synthetic fertilizers.
All those farmers — with no experience, and no resources to transition to organic farming, and no time to prepare — had massive crop losses and failures. Lots of land went unfarmed. Farmers, their families, and consumers saw the price of everything go up and just as their income was going down.
Going organic is a noble and necessary goal, but getting there requires a transformational process that takes years. It also requires strategic applications of compost, cover crops, and microlife boosting tools like vermicompost, compost tea, and biochar to create the soil stability. Farmers also need access to seeds from organic crop cultivars because the standard non-organic crops aren’t suitable for use in organic soil.
It’s a catastrophic mistake, and failure of understanding of soil works, to expect farmers to flip a switch and turn herbicide-hindered, synthetic fertility addicted soil into something they can farm organically. We must give them the time, support, and resources they need to make that transition successful.
With continued strategic soil care and good seed selection, it takes about 10 years an organic farm to achieve the same production as one that runs on synthetic fertility. But in the process of doing all that soil restoration, those transitioning farms also become massive new carbon sinks combating climate change. They take waste and turn it into healthy, vital soil.
The other thing I need to tell you is that when you awaken to the depth of our environmental issues, there can be a lot of guilt. You may feel the full weight of your unwitting participation in the problems. I certainly do.
You’ll also become aware that we can’t save all of the natural environment. Much of it is already gone or degraded to the point of being toxic. Knowing that leads to nostalgia and grief over the things we will never get back.
Guilt, nostalgia, and grief are powerful emotions and can be overwhelming. But trust me, these can channeled – not into saving the past – but into creating a place where conservation, regeneration, and innovation merge to make amends.
Here’s a way to look at the work to come.
The Old House Analogy
When you buy an old house, you do so knowing that there will be a lot of problems to solve. Yet, you also approach the process as an opportunity to learn, be creative, connect with the past, and build a beautiful home for your future.
Perhaps you do historical research to discover the original features of the house and their purposes. You might learn old skills like plaster work, milling, or masonry to be able to restore those beautiful and useful elements to their original glory. You would also likely make some updates such as adding electricity and running water and maybe add insulation.
The outcome of your efforts won’t be an old house fully restored with historical accuracy. It will be a renovated home with the good bones and character of the past and new features designed to support the way its human residents are adapted to live now.
This is how we need to approach environmental restoration.
We can’t go back. We’ve already changed the climate, degraded our resources, and altered the underlying stability of the natural systems that made it possible for large populations of humans to exist. Now we have to save what’s left — while moving forward to a future of ecological restoration and of regenerating natural systems faster than nature would.
Awaken to the possibilities and embrace the adventure!
Start with gentle changes like reducing what you use and replacing unsustainable purchases with regenerative purchases. Then, move on to ecologically transformative changes like carbon gardening. Deepen your relationship with nature so you can hear and respond better to its needs and your own.
And along the way, remember that lesson my Egyptian colleagues taught me. Hard work, done in the company of friends, or done slowly with sufficient breaks, doesn’t feel like work at all.