I hope old Shakespeare won’t mind me borrowing Hamlet’s most famous quote for my own contemplative monologue. It’s also something that I would love you to ponder upon too.
What does it mean to be (or not to be) an environmentalist and am I one? That is the question, or rather, with apologies for my greediness, two questions.
I was discussing this with a friend the other day. It should be a simple quandary. However, I find it’s not so easy to answer.
Let’s start with the word – environmentalist. For me, a specific image comes to mind. Well lots of images in fact, filled with the familiar faces and the resonating words of contemporary personalities such as Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough and Chris Packham plus all the not-so-famous activists and scientists who lead the way on climate change awareness and protect the natural world around us.
I’m not an activist or a scientist but I do actually care about the environment. I’ve always loved trees, our waterways and wildlife and I have always followed the Country Code and anti-littering mantras of Keep Britain Tidy. In the noughties I tackled our family’s food waste like a carbon-reduction ninja, proactively bought less stuff and turned our automatic response to broken items from ‘instantly replace’ to a more thoughtful reaction of ‘repair first’.
I blogged about my Zero Waste Week challenge in 2008, which was the specific event that led to the chain reaction of some of the personal actions described above. I mentored others through their own waste reduction challenges and engaged in many interviews with the media during the following decade. When writers and radio presenters built me up as a campaigner and activist, I would often shudder. Not because I felt there was anything wrong with that but because I didn’t feel I could live up to its label. I’m an introvert, I’m not a rebel and I hate standing out from the crowd. I was merely a ‘rubbish blogger’ who enjoyed helping others who wanted to reduce their waste too.
I’ll leave you to guess how I reacted when one particular radio presenter called me a ‘tree-hugging bunny lover’. It makes me laugh now but at the time I pondered a lot on the intentions of the presenter and how he was using labels to belittle my beliefs and the environmental benefits of reducing waste.
I hate labels. I find they come laden with pre-judgments and prejudice, complete with a coating of expectation. Included in that is the issue of self-expectation, which, accompanied by the painful naggings of one’s resident inner-critic, can be the hardest to escape of them all.
So let’s look at a dictionary definition of an environmentalist. The Cambridge Dictionary explains it as “a person who is interested in or studies the environment and who tries to protect it from being damaged by human activities”.
I am indeed a person. I am interested in the environment, including the air, water and land. I also try to protect it from being damaged by my family’s activities and those of others.
So does that mean I qualify as an environmentalist? I guess the true qualifier is that word “tries”? After all, actions often speak louder than words and in hindsight my rubbish actions, even though still not totally zero waste, certainly speak for themselves.
Other things we have successfully tried include composting, insect-friendly gardening, using rainwater and providing water and shelter for our garden birds and local hedgehog. We also try to reduce food miles, use natural sustainable materials where possible and holiday locally.
Sometimes change has been enforced rather than happening voluntarily. For example, I’ve tried to reduce my car use many a time but my habits have regularly got the better of me. Lockdown has finally provided a solution for that. With a car battery that’s now more often flat than not (simply because there is nowhere I need to go), my main mode of transport to my workplace is on two legs. It was a pain at first but these days it’s no longer an inconvenience. I actually prefer it.
Has that definition helped? For me it has. I certainly try my best for the environment even if, according to the resident judge in my head, my best is often not good enough.
I posed the question in a recent conversation with nature writer Matt Gaw, author of The Pull of the River and Under the Stars: A Journey into the Light. His reply was that environmentalism is not always about one big act or about having a magic silver bullet. He described it as “a peppering of smaller actions that lead from one thing to the next – more like magic silver buckshot”.
So as I close the lid on my laptop, with its broken flickering screen (the only way I could finish this article was to plug it in to an old TV screen), can I now categorically say that I am an environmentalist?
It has been years in the making but my conclusion is yes. I may not be a marcher or a rebel but it is clear that everyday actions count as much too and there is room for everyone to have a role, regardless of age, time, expertise or courage.
To the controversy-courting radio presenter, yes, I can say it loud and proud that I am finally a tree-hugging bunny lover. Trees are our future. They deserve our love and if you’re not hugging one, you should certainly be planting one. I just wish I’d had this confident realisation eight years earlier.
An environmentalist, eh. To be or not to be? For me, it’s no longer a question. To plant a tree or make a donation to The Word Forest Organisation, click here.
Karen Cannard and The Team