How to Be a Better Environmentalist

Lauren Hickey ’20 and Jonah Watt ’18 last week brought together four people from different professional backgrounds to answer this question: How can I be the most effective environmentalist? The guests included an environmental advocate, an owner of a natural food store, a political scientist, and an economist.

The panelists: Associate Professor of Economics Erik Nelson; Maine Conservation Voters’s executive director, Maureen Drouin ’96; Morning Glory Natural Foods owner Toby Tarpinian; and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Government Shana Starobin

Hickey and Watt broke down their bigger query into four smaller questions, and two students from the audience also asked a couple of practical questions. Below are edited snippets of some of the panelists’ responses to these six questions.

Question 1: What does environmentalism mean to you?

Drouin: What environmentalism means to me is…I want it to be mainstream, I want it to be bipartisan, I don’t want to leave anyone out, I think all action is good, and I think we need to elect the right people to office and then hold them accountable once they are in there.

Tarpinian: My family has built a highly sustainable business around protecting what we have here.

Starobin: For me, it was finding the place I thought I could best express my voice and my particular talents and abilities, [which is] doing research and being an educator and thinking about policy strategies and what the best policy options there are to have on the table.

Nelson: Environmentalism is looking for practical ways to use markets and to use people’s desire to produce things that are highly valued, to nudge them toward different allocations of landscapes. As an economist, we need to identify the policy levers that make a difference and…[also] shine a light on the policy levers that don’t make a difference or are perversely worsening the environment.

Question 2: Are individuals or corporations more to blame for climate change and environmental degradation, and whose responsibility is it to take action?

Nelson: As a consumer, we could look at how different companies approach their production processes and support those that do a better job….One other thing, we could consume less of everything, drive less, eat less, buy fewer trinkets.

Starobin: States — countries — are in a great position to do something about climate change. We need coordinated actions and effective policies, and that has to go far beyond what any individual can do….Not that a corporation or individual can’t do their part, everybody does need to have all hands on deck, but we always have to go back to the locus of power. How can we change or create rules and regulations and at what level of government are they going to be effective?

Drouin: I would say it is our elected officials who are not holding corporations accountable. I firmly believe it is up to all of us to elect pro-conservation people who will enact [environmental] policy levers in 2018.

“We want an easy answer so we can go home, put our head on our pillow and feel good about ourselves. We want to align our practices with our values. If we don’t do that we experience cognitive dissonance — we feel uncomfortable.”
—Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Government Shana Starobin

Question 3: Is it more effective to vote with our dollars or to vote with our voice?

Tarpinian: I work in a retail store. It’s all about money and what people are buying….If American people stopped buying foods that weren’t labeled [as genetically modified], it would be a quick transition to labeling them or genetically modified stuff going away. People vote every day with what they buy, and that dictates a lot how the country will move forward.

Starobin: [After giving an example of the dilemma with consuming chocolate, much of which is produced in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire where child laborers are used.] You can choose to buy a product that is more likely not to have been made by child labor, but what about the rest of the supply chain? Do you relocate production outside of Africa to somewhere where there is no problem? There are tradeoffs that have to be made. We have to remember that going back all the way to developing countries, there might be producers that as a result of standards might be pushed aside. They can’t be a part of [the industry] any more because they can’t pay to play, they can’t pay to get the certifications so we can all feel good about ourselves here….I don’t want you to walk away thinking there isn’t hope, there isn’t a pathway — there is — but it requires thoughtful consideration and also thinking about the right policies that can create shifts.

If your higher goal is to make the world a better place environmentally than you left it, than I think it is important to act consistently with that. You will feel energized and tranquil, and that will allow you, when you have the opportunity, to make a bigger impact. Even if recycling doesn’t do much on the margin, still do it because it makes you feel like you are part of a larger project.
—Associate Professor of Economics Erik Nelson

Question 4: How can environmentalists find common ground with other fights for social justice and other causes?

Nelson: One place where there is a nexus [is that] the poor and disenfranchised get the brunt of bad environmental consequences in this country, because if you’re wealthy, you don’t want [polluting industry] in your back yard.

Drouin: Maine Conservation Voters is working with the Immigrant Welcome Center of Greater Portland. We’re working with them on a civic engagement project in our democracy….It’s not specifically around the environment but…if you look at the polling, everyone wants clean air and water, that is true for all races….It’s important for mainstream environmental organizations, which are predominantly white right now, to stand up and speak out at critical times when there are issues that affect not just environmental justice but racial justice.

Question 5: If I have one hour a week to work on the environment, what should I do?

Nelson: Once a week, write an email to your mom and dad and say the next car you buy is going to be electric. Badger your parents until they buy an electric car. Another thing is think about a career in the environment. Study in a way that will make you marketable to the firms and nonprofits that work in the environment.

Drouin: One of the things I learned as an organizer is to take big problems, and to really think about your goal and to define it. And once you decide what you would like to achieve, then you can break it down into steps.

Question 6: What do you do on a daily or weekly basis to help the environment?

Nelson: A year ago I bought an electric car, a Nissan leaf….And I do recycle with a passion.

Starobin: I signed up for We Compost It. I hope that in the future there will be mandatory composting and it will be the norm. I hope to pursue that as a policy option. We should not all be thinking about what to do with our food waste that ought not go to the landfill. Rather, there should be a good system there for all of us to do it.

Tarpinian: What we do at the store is we compost everything and it goes back to five of the organic farmers we buy produce from in the summer. And we recycle everything.

Drouin: I have chickens. A lot of my compost goes to them. I think it is important to do stuff that is routine — recycling and composting. And civic engagement…You also have a voice when it comes to our democracy and you should never give that up, you should always participate.

Watt: The most important thing I do is lead Bowdoin Climate Action….I think the most important thing I’ve done is engage with students and community members and have greater discussions about what it means to fight for environmental and climate justice — why we do this, what we’re fighting for — and sharing our stories in that way.

Hickey: I think for me, I educate myself and take pride in being informed and also helping to inform others….Another thing I do is…even if I know the utility of taking a shorter shower isn’t as great as policy changes, it’s a reminder of what I care about and things that give me hope.

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