Stop Trying to “Help the Environment”

I often hear other people say they are “helping the environment.” Whenever I hear this phrase I’m a little disheartened. I concede the intentions are good. Everyone wants to “help the environment,” even those that are at the same time actively causing damage, which is almost all of us.

My struggle with this phrase is not the sentiment. When I hear it, I should recognize the intention of environmental stewardship and be grateful. What it indicates though is a continued misunderstanding of ecosystems and the natural world–that it is something separate over which we have control and ownership. It also communicates that it is a choice one can make. It is a false choice.

This exemplifies our collective ecological identity; separation. One’s ecological identity rests on the foundation of their ecological literacy of workings of ecosystems, their environmental literacy of environmental issues, and then their sense of connection and relationship to the natural in which they live and depend on for their existence. And then one’s ecological identity manifests itself in actions they take or don’t take. These actions are a reflection of how one sees themself and their place in the biosphere.

We do need to save the environment in order to save ourselves, but also because all other species of life has a right to existence as well. So, it’s the right thing to do. Let’s also clarify this. Consuming another organism is not damaging to the ecosystem. Humans are a part of the food chain. Destroying a habitat to install a monoculture does harm the health of the ecosystem. However, as long as we are “saving” or “helping” the environment, we are operating from a paradigm of ownership and separation and continuing to do harm.

Instead of describing that, for example, recycling is “helping” the environment, look instead to how the actions you take (or don’t take) impact the health of the ecosystem. What’s the difference? The former a paradigm accepting that one’s actions are doing harm to an “other” and we can only do what we can to help. The other is built on scientific literacy of the workings of the ecosystem in which one lives and fully understanding one’s impact on the living and nonliving systems in which they are embedded. One is built on a relationship of commodity and the other is built on a relationship of reciprocity.

We won’t have saved the environment until we no longer need to do what we can to help, but instead live in a way that doesn’t disrupt natural geochemical cycles, disrupt food chains, and eliminate other species through our overconsumption and destruction of habitat.

I must recognize and confess my own hypocrisy. I’m writing this on a computer, in a home office, living a lifestyle that contributes to all of these concerns which are the manifestation of our collective ecological identity–perpetual growth and consumption. And I’m saddened by it because I recognize the ecological impact. Living in ignorance of my impact is worse. So, get this, I do what I can to help. Well isn’t that neat little circle I just wrote myself around.

Of course this is just semantics, but hidden in the language we use about something is the foundation of our understanding of that thing. So maybe what I’m chasing is a shift in our identity in which we all have deeper understanding of the ecosystems in which we live, and then based on that understanding, we do what can to help and reduce our impact. More importantly, we contribute to our collective understanding participating in societal from the commodification of natural world to living in reciprocity with the natural world. This requires using what we need to survive without permanently reducing natural resources and habitats.

What is your part you can do to help bring that about? What does this mean for what you consume, where you live, how you transport yourself, what you eat? Maybe most importantly, what does it mean for how you participate in the collective change necessary, which leaders you choose to represent you and which collective action through which policies you support?

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