Beyond Environmental Consciousness

A power plant in the Turkish countryside. (Photo credit: Connor Schaefer)

A very popular phrase these days is “environmentally conscious.” It’s a pretty ambiguous term when you really examine it.

The word “environment” is pretty easy to wrap your head around. But what about that word “conscious?” Many people throw this phrase around in the vaguest way imaginable, talking about “environmentally conscious solutions” to the problems facing our world. But few really make it very clear what that term really means in this context.

To be conscious is to be aware and attuned to your surroundings. Alternatively, it can mean to be awake. So if we go with these definitions, environmental consciousness means being awake to the environment, and being aware of your own impact on it.

But I would say that environmental consciousness is not a big enough step to take anymore. To be conscious of your impact on the environment is a great thing of course, but it’s no longer enough. The amount of damage that humanity can and does inflict on the Earth is tremendous, so instead of simply being aware of our place in the world, we need to focus on actively working to be more responsible members of this world.

Another way to think of this is as a shift in attitude from passive to active, or to use a bad driving cliche, to shift from ‘Neutral’ to ‘Drive.’ When home from college, I live in Portland (Oregon), a city that prides itself on its collection of hipsters and its (general) love of the environment, so I’m accustomed to seeing cars that look something like this. But many Portlanders, and really Americans all across the nation (and people all across the world), show their commitment to the environment only by words or appearances, and take little action other than buying stickers or using steel water bottles. (That said, I really do love Portland quite a lot, and there are a lot of people their committed to the environment.)

But words and water bottles are nowhere near enough to bring about the kind of environmental change we need to be responsible to our planet. We all need to move from consciousness to activism. Our consciousness of the environment is something like waking up from a deep sleep of ignorance. But it’s time that we got up out of bed and started actively walking towards a goal of greater responsibility and care-taking.

This can take many different forms, but I believe that the most important thing to do is to become actively involved in the political arena in whatever capacity you can. Of course, we should all be personally responsible about the choices we make: The food we buy, the clothes we wear, the ways in which we get around. But the simple fact is that the greatest negative impacts on the environment are committed by huge industrial, commercial, and agricultural pursuits. Now, there isn’t a lot we can do to directly affect environmentally harmful companies and industries’ pursuits. But we can vote or lobby for a change of government policy toward these groups, and get local, state, or even national government involved in calling the nation to responsiblity.

And perhaps even more importantly, we can make this an important issue in the communities around us. While our own environmental decisions have an impact on the world, we can do so much more by encouraging others to be responsible as well. The more people there are who are genuinely concerned for and dedicated to treating our environment right, the more this kind of responsible thinking will become a part of our day-to-day lives and culture. It’s time to move above mere environmental consciousness. Spread the word!

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