Bursting the sustainability bubble

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

As an environmentalist, I often find myself trapped in what I like to call a “sustainability bubble.” I study with other sustainability students, I spend time in nature and I surround myself with like-minded people.

I spent last semester in Uppsala, Sweden, studying environmental justice. On that trip, the first excursion that I took was to Copenhagen, Denmark. There, I took a canal tour where I saw Copenhagen’s famous streets of colorful buildings and “The Little Mermaid” statue.

On the tour, I chatted with a young couple from Dubai. I told them I was in Sweden studying sustainability. The man asked me, “Why do you care about the environment?” I skirted around the question, but he kept pressing me: “What’s the point? We’re all doomed anyways.”

I was completely dumbfounded. I didn’t have an answer for him, and I certainly couldn’t fully explain the implications of climate change in the duration of the boat tour. When we passed by the iconic mermaid statue, I pointed it out to him and spoke about sea levels rising. I told him that I didn’t know when but that the statue would someday be engulfed. The more than 100-year-old statue might have to be moved if sea levels continued to rise. This seemed to get through to him.

Months later, his question still weighs heavily on my mind. Why do I care about climate change more than most people? Can I make a difference on this earth? Is ignorance bliss?

After giving these questions more thought, I have decided that I care for two reasons: gratitude and responsibility.

The natural world brings me a sense of fulfillment and joy unparalleled by anything else I have encountered. The most memorable days of my life were spent embracing Mother Earth. During my semester in Europe, the days I spent climbing mountains and watching the Northern Lights dance over the Arctic Circle were far more memorable and impactful than any of the days I spent visiting cities.

Back home in the United States, the days and nights spent in nature have always been the best. Whether I was rolling around on a rock during a sleepless night in the desert of Utah, camping on the banks of the Colorado River or gazing at a sky full of stars in Yellow Springs, the natural world has brought me an incomparable sense of happiness. 

This happiness and fulfilment comes from the sense that the earth is bigger than any of us. Our bodies and souls stem from the natural world. Every bit of matter or life on this earth was derived from some sort of natural resource. Every bite of food we take to fuel our bodies comes from the earth.  Whether you spend your days walking barefoot on soil or on the top floor of a high rise in a city, you cannot disentangle yourself from the earth. We all benefit from the resources that it gives to us.

I wish I had another opportunity to speak with the man I met on that boat tour. After years of loving the earth without questioning why, he helped me pinpoint the source of this intense love for the natural world.

We are all connected to the earth, and because of that, addressing climate change should unite all people through a sense of gratitude and the understanding that we are responsible for the earth’s well-being. Although climate change will most severely and dramatically affect the poor, it touches the lives of every single person. Moreover, the things we do to the earth today, both good and bad, will affect generations for years to come.

We know global temperatures are rising. We know weather patterns are becoming more extreme. We know thousands of species are going extinct. We do not know what this planet will look like in a few thousand years.

It can be terrifying to think about how drastically we are changing and hurting the earth, but sustainability is a noble and worthwhile cause. This mission is bigger than any of us. We must start to understand the value of the earth and protect our common home for generations to come. I encourage you to explore Mother Earth, to explore yourselves and to focus on the connections the human race has with this planet.

Charlotte Cheek is a senior Economics, Sustainability and Society (ECOS) major. She is a guest writer from Louisville, Ky.