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Why I’m in Environmental Studies

By: Stephanie Higgins

I was in my undergraduate studies when I attended a gathering with fellow geography student nerds. The icebreaker question was “why are you in environmental studies?”

Everyone had a story: the feeling of being in nature, wanting to preserve nature, or they loved learning about nature. But I couldn’t quite place it for myself. I thought back to fishing with my dad as a child and he explained that I couldn’t eat the fish we caught from Guelph Lake because of the pollution. He continued, explaining how what we put in the water goes to the fish and that it comes back to us and I wouldn’t do well if I ate it. I interrogated him in that innocent childlike way: “How can the fish live with the pollution, but we can’t? What about the fish we do eat, are they safe from pollution? Where did the pollution come from?”

He did the best he could to answer me, but concluded by saying that we should be able to eat the fish from the lake, and that it shouldn’t be getting polluted in the first place and we shouldn’t leave the environment worse than we received it.

This concept my dad described is in opposition to the historical interpretation of the Abrahamic societal perspective which Aldo Leopold described in his 1949 collection of essays ‘A Sand County Almanac’: “We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.” While humans can parcel off the land and own pieces of it, does that mean they get to ruin it the way they want, when it is impossible to own something forever? If these owners do not take good care of the land, then the onus falls to future generations to remediate the landscape or live with the consequences of its degradation.

Ultimately this perspective does not see human existence as integrated with, and reliant upon, the existence and abundance of the natural world. With the emerging climate crisis, is it necessary that we wait for a global water crisis, forest crisis, and soil crisis for humans to learn from our short-sighted consumption of the landscape?

In Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, editor Theodore Roszak made the point: “If the self is expanded to include the natural world, behaviour leading to destruction of this world will be experienced as self-destruction.” And our old pal Leopold finished that above quote with, “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

To hammer this idea home, it is echoed in the definition of “sustainability” in geography: to use the environment in a responsible way for current and future generations, (seven future generations), and if we’re not doing something that can be done for the next generations, then we shouldn’t do it.

But of course, I didn’t give this whole story with definitions and citations in that nerd meeting, I just said I liked fishing when I was growing up and I couldn’t eat the fish. I danced around this larger idea just as others had. We saw in different ways how we are a part of the environmental community and understood we need to be better community members.

I understood the environment was losing the battle against economic wealth and political power in our capitalist system, and it felt as though I was signing up to be the witness of this sad, slow progression studying how the planet was slowly deteriorating in one way or another, and (if I’m lucky) help fix a negative environmental impact us humans have likely caused in the name of capital.

This is what I danced around, what I didn’t know how to say but can type years later in the face of this climate crisis that we are still not doing enough about: that I care about the environmental community (all flora and fauna), humans, as well as all future generations having a chance on this planet more than people having the right to accumulate wealth and power. I think societally, we are only starting to articulate this, and starting to demand this is respected.

On that note, a big shout out to everyone who came to the climate strike.

Sources:

Leopold, A. (1989). A Sand County almanac, and sketches here and there. Oxford University Press, USA.

Roszak, T. E., Gomes, M. E., & Kanner, A. D. (1995). Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind. Sierra Club Books.

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