This past Monday, I began my internship at Environment Oregon, Oregon’s largest environmental non-profit. I imagine this sentence will set off many red flags for anyone involved in the ENVS Program at Lewis and Clark; after all, the name practically oozes classical environmentalism and oversimplification. I actually am very excited about my internship despite this. Admittedly, this is mostly because I am involved in a solar energy campaign that I strongly believe in. It was not so long ago, however, that I would not have questioned any of the actions of large ‘environmental’ groups. I came to school believing that my reusable water bottle and shopping bags were enough to save the world.
The transition away from classical environmentalism and problem solving is a tough one, even for students who are much less dense than I was. I relate to Kristy Lee’s post in which she considers vegetarianism as a solution to environmental issues. In this post, Kristy laments the newfound futility of individual, incremental action that has accompanied her first ENVS class at L&C. Perhaps, she wonders, “my individual choice may not actually be as effective as I had thought.” She reflects on the confidence she used to have in her environmental convictions and in the morality of her decisions, and how these have been seriously challenged by her studies. A realization like this one can be a tough pill to swallow. One of the issues with classical environmentalism is that it is often simplistic, which is why it feels so reassuring. More contemporary thinking can be disheartening because it makes environmental issues feel hopeless. What could possibly put a stop to the moral and ecological harms of the meat packing industry, if vegetarianism cannot do it? If incremental consumerism doesn’t work, then what?
Challenging ingrained beliefs like these is just that: challenging. It can be confusing and discouraging, yet as recent grad, Aaron Fellows, points out in his post this can be the richest part of the ENVS experience. Unlike the majority of natural and social sciences, he points out, ENVS has few core concepts. Compared to a field like economics, we cannot rely on many commonly believed principles such as supply and demand or macroeconomic theory. I might add that all environmentalists really share across the board are a common set of issues that we face (e.g. climate change, biodiversity loss, etc.). This poses a huge challenge for our field to, in Aaron’s words, “synthesize our own structure by seeking out the most relevant perspectives, as well as those that might not seem so relevant at first.” He makes sure to point out that this, as well as being one of the biggest challenges, is also environmental studies’ greatest advantage. It allows us to constantly challenge what we think we know and constantly improve ourselves and our mission.
Rebecca Kidder, in her musings about the nature of challenges, agrees and writes that the complications of environmental studies make it that much sweeter. As Kristy points out, environmental solutions become much more complicated when we admit that the classic, vegetarian-style approach is not a silver bullet, but Rebecca reminds us not to despair. In fact, this is part of what makes environmental studies so valuable. She recounts some of her own academic, personal, and health challenges, yet frames them in a positive light. In ENVS we talk about ‘clumsy solutions.’ Oddly enough, clumsy solutions are good solutions, albeit a little slow and clunky because they attempt to incorporate and tackle many different aspects of an issue. Maybe that is the type of environmentalism we are learning: clumsy environmentalism. It is slower and more ponderous, but because it is fighting a broader, more realistic fight.
I can tell that in working with Environment Oregon this summer, it will be difficult for me to resist lapsing into the trap of classical environmentalism. Challenging conceptions is at the core of ENVS at L&C. It is hard at the beginning. Some people struggle with it a lot, and it doesn’t get that much easier; even seniors still wrestle with it. But it is in the wrestling process that progress is made. These three posts represent not just a struggle, but the depth of thinking that goes on in the Environmental Studies Program.