What Does It Mean To Be Environmentally Conscious? And Does It Matter?
If you look up the term “environmentally conscious” in the dictionary, you’ll get some variant of the following definition: “showing concern for the environment.” Yes indeed. But how do you show concern for the environment? What does it mean to be environmentally conscious, and how can you apply those insights to your own life?
And does it even matter if you’re environmentally conscious? If the rest of the world keeps burning fossil fuels and treating our planet like a trash heap, why should you buck the trend?
Environmental consciousness can mean different things to different people. As you’ll see below, that’s a good thing. And yes, it definitely matters. Below is my interpretation of what it means to be environmentally conscious and an attempt to help you elucidate or elevate your environmental consciousness as well.
You realize that you’re part of a much bigger picture:
To me, an individual understanding of environmental consciousness begins with a recognition of your place in the grand scheme of things. In all likelihood, you live in a neighborhood with other humans close by. You are a member of all sorts of communities - some defined by geography, some defined by other dimensions. You are one of many living things - human and nonhuman. And you live on a pretty big planet, the only one known to sustain life in the universe.
In essence, you realize that you’re part of a much bigger picture. Imagine being zoomed in like a magnifying glass. That’s how many of us go about our lives: preoccupied with ourselves, largely unaware of the world beyond our little bubbles. When you zoom out further, that bigger picture comes into play. Soon enough, each dimension disappears and neither you nor your neighborhood are visible. Unless you go far into outer space, the vast tapestry of life on planet Earth never eludes your mental lens.
And once you level set your place in the world, the next step becomes a bit easier.
You recognize the benefits of environmental consciousness:
Once you understand the bigger picture, you can recognize the benefits of being connected to that bigger picture, which to me is another way of expressing environmental consciousness. You realize how cool and helpful it is to think about the soil below your feet, the plants all around you, the water near and far, and the sky above your head. It’s human nature to love nature and life itself.
Perhaps most importantly, you realize that it’s good to be environmentally conscious regardless of how f*cked up the world around you is. You can’t control whether the planet warms by 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2 degrees or 3. You can’t control if we save the birds or the bees. But you can control the decisions you make each and every day, and when you have a healthy level of environmental consciousness, you can appreciate the correlation between that and being a good person and living a good life.
Once you think globally, you can act locally:
There’s a common expression in the environmental community to guide one’s understanding of how to think and act consciously: think globally, act locally. What I’ve described so far leads into this crucial frame of reference. When you think global, you recognize the implications of your actions. You also understand how small you are in the vastness of the universe. Thus, you realize that the best way to at least start to have an impact beyond yourself is at the local level.
You educate both yourself and your sphere of influence:
Before you act, you should educate yourself. This doesn’t mean you have to know as much as your favorite environmentalist or environmental scientist (just like you don’t need to know exactly how a car works to get a driver’s license and drive). But you should have some understanding of what it means to be environmentally conscious. How can you do that? The options are endless. Take a course. Watch a YouTube video. Listen to a podcast. Read a book. Volunteer. Attend an event. Maybe even connect with someone (or a group) on a social media platform like LinkedIn or Facebook. Do all of the above.
Once you’ve educated yourself, you can influence your sphere of influence. As renowned scientist Katharine Hayhoe argued in a TED Talk, this is perhaps your biggest lever of impact. We trust our friends and family more than anyone or anything else in our lives, so when you raise your environmental consciousness, you can spread the word to the people in your sphere of influence - family or not. We all have a voice. Use yours!
You understand your values and adapt your lifestyle accordingly:
Once you’ve educated yourself, you’ve likely developed some insights into what environmental consciousness means to you. The next step is to align that understanding with your values. A life well-lived is lived in accordance with a healthy and robust set of values learned and honed over time. Just like any other pursuit in life, it’s best to engage in it with a good grasp of your values so you can solve the Jigsaw puzzle of how you, a living and breathing human being who has the great gift of consciousness, can adapt your lifestyle in a way that feels both natural and impactful.
When you know your values, you know what really matters to you. Thus, you can ascertain what you can easily do in your life to be more environmentally conscious. In contrast, some things may prove difficult to forego or change because they may infringe on your identity or sense of self.
You consume and think consciously:
Once you’ve oriented your lifestyle toward a higher degree of environmental consciousness, you can consume and think consciously. When you dig into a juicy burger, you think about whether eating burgers is a value-driven activity for you. Same with flying across the world or ordering Amazon packages left and right.
Moreover, you think actively about the world around you. You connect to the bigger picture and - as I expressed earlier - realize just how small you are in the vastness of the universe. You’re one of a nearly infinite quantity of living things living on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. Think about that. If that doesn’t at least change the way you think about your life and the world, I don’t know what will.
You do what you can, with what you have, where you are:
The final step toward environmental consciousness lies in this gem of a quote from Theodore Roosevelt: you do what you can, with what you have, where you are. You’re not Superman or Wonder Woman, but you are a human being with a big brain and (hopefully) a big heart. So you get to work thinking and acting consciously in a way that feels right for you. Right doesn’t necessarily mean comfortable by the way; these exercises may lead to some discomfort because we simply don’t like change.
So what can you do? It depends. Maybe you can reduce your beef consumption; you were never a huge fan of steak, and when you looked at the environmental harms resulting from raising and killing cows for food, quitting beef didn’t prove so hard. But maybe you live in an apartment building with little control of things like heating and cooling, so you recognize the limits of your efforts. Or you can cut back on single-use plastics, but you don’t have viable alternatives to commuting by car to and from work. It’s no one’s place to tell you what exactly you can and cannot do...or what you should and should not do.
A journey of environmental consciousness is different for each of us. Again, this is a good thing; it’s a reflection of the value of diversity. But in broad strokes, I hope you can take something from one, some, or all of the seven steps I outlined here to help you become more environmentally conscious.
To recap, here they are:
You realize that you’re part of a much bigger picture.
You recognize the benefits - mental, physical - of being more connected to nature and the environment
Once you think globally, you can act locally
You educate both yourself and your sphere of influence - family, friends, colleagues, contacts, etc
You understand your values and orient your lifestyle accordingly
You consume and think consciously
You do what you can, with what you have, where you are
And if you need a good quote from a much more qualified environmentalist and change-maker than me, look no further than Jane Goodall:
“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what kind of a difference you want to make.”