I hope this series can, at the very least, open a conversation about how we teach and learn about sustainability.

My First Impressions

I still remember where I was when I first heard about the now-infamous PETA activist tactics. I remember thinking they were a bit extreme, but hey they made a headline and entered the conversation, right? Then the larger piece began to come into focus as I watched the collective eye roll from those around me. “So, this is environmentalism eh?”

I understood the motivation behind sensational acts even then. When you believe in something so strongly, it makes sense to go to great lengths to garner attention. Attention that may not be received by writing letters or holding a sign on the corner. But memories of these tactics have stuck with me. Now, as a sustainability consultant, I am in the position to shape environmental messages in the way I feel does the most good. In many cases, I think this deterministic approach can delay the widespread adoption of environmental actions, both big and small. So, what is the best way to spread sustainability information in a world that seems to complicate and frustrate the average person just trying to do the right thing?

Environmental Realism Middle Ground

Our world is becoming ever more black and white, with a narrowing amount of wiggle room in the middle. Yet, as a member of modern society, it’s impossible to avoid negatively impacting the environment in some way. A strong advocate for the environment, especially one who fancies themselves as an “educator,” is slotted into a category and can have trouble expressing opinions that fall outside that perceived classification. For example, if the CEO of an electric car company is “caught” driving a diesel truck our society is quick to discount all of the good they’re doing in the name of hypocrisy.

Like most things, I feel that the right course of action falls somewhere in the middle. Throughout my career in the sustainability industry, I have learned to celebrate forward progress, no matter how narrow the scope. To hold onto optimism even when we fall short. I think at the heart of it, people are good, and people want to do the right thing. (Put another way: it’s hard to find a significant number of people who go out of their way to do the wrong thing.) So, a typical member of society just needs to know what that “most right” thing is, and understand that there are trade-offs to every decision. And as an environmental educator, we need to be able to explain how and why, while avoiding placing individual blame. After all, it ain’t easy being completely green, but it shouldn’t be so hard to be chartreuse.

The Environmental Realist Blog Series

I’ve sat with these thoughts for many years. I’ve seen and experienced what I consider the right and wrong way to communicate sustainability actions year after year in my projects and my community. It’s what led me to want to put my thoughts and experiences into writing. Perhaps there are more people out there that feel this way.

Over the next few months, I’m going to dig deeper into the idea of “environmental realism.” How my upbringing has shaped my outlook on environmental sustainability and education. How we can celebrate individual progress while recognizing that there’s more to do. That the scope of actions needed from all levels varies, and all are required to make lasting change. And how I’ve experienced the efficacy of positive environmental education in place of shame and blame.

Changing behaviors is difficult, and it falls not only on the individual but on government and industry to allow for these behaviors to change. We must be realistic in our approach and allow for an incremental bottom-up understanding while pushing for sweeping top-down change.

Stay tuned…