How (on Earth) to Save the World?
A few weeks ago I graduated from Unity College, a tiny, environmentally-focused school in rural Maine. In the time-honored collegiate fashion, I put on a truly ridiculous hat and marched across a stage to receive a handshake and a piece of paper. Like so many who have done the same for generations before me, I came down from that stage to be greeted with a question that has haunted postgrads since time immemorial (or at least since we hit senior year): what are you going to do with your life?
The fact that all of the majors at my school are environmentally focused gives its graduates some degree of synchronicity, but we still had a wide range of answers to that wince-worthy question. Some of my classmates were bound for graduate school; some for careers in sustainable agriculture, wildlife, or conservation law enforcement, to name but a few. My degree in Environmental Writing leaves a bit more room for interpretation, so I tried to scout my horizons from a more sidelong perspective. If there was a take-home message that I glimpsed in that periphery, it’s a phrase more reminiscent of a theological education than one in the liberal arts. As stuffed into the proverbial nutshell: Have faith.
Just to be clear— I wasn’t handed that message along with my diploma, but as I looked around at the other members of the largest graduating class in my school’s history (all 146 of us), I was struck by the notion that we were headed out into the world on a profoundly selfless mission. We were going out to do what grads have always been entreated to achieve: save the world. These days, that message doesn’t quite strike the lighthearted chord of generations past. We live in an age of melting glaciers, rampant desertification, and devastating extinctions, all spurred by a staggering human population that seems largely unable or unwilling to shed the blinders of daily living and take a good look at where we’re headed. Still, I was able to dredge up a little hope – have a little faith – when I looked around at the rest of my class, because whether we aimed to be game wardens, farmers, or wildlife biologists, we were all bound forward in the name of something greater than our species or ourselves. Believing that you (yes, you) have a meaningful part in this cause is so critical it has become cliche. These days, thinking you can save the world is an audacious act of faith.
Now, the focus of my alma mater is sustainability science, and I recognize that there doesn’t seem to be much scientific thought to what I’m advocating here – at least, not at surface level, but hear me out. I believe in believing because I think it is critical to our sustainability as a species. Faith, I’d even venture to say, is an ecological imperative, as it gives us a fighting chance. Faith allows us to pit our will to live against the harm we have wrought throughout the course of human history. It allows us to recognize where we have faltered and drives us toward an evolving ideal by means of our present-day practice. Our species’ capacity for faith is an adaptation, an ability, but moreover, it is an obligation. Call it a sacred duty or a survival mechanism – or even a call to arms, as there is nothing passive in pursuit of saving the world.
We must have faith because it is a waste of our inherent potential to ignore what we can do by bringing belief to living, breathing, daily fruition. Whether we place our trust in a scripture or scientific creed, we must believe in something, if only because we can. Congregations all over the globe make this commitment by keeping a whole history’s worth of stewardship traditions alive and vibrant. Each new generation of scientists (some of whom graduated alongside me) goes out and builds upon the learning of those who came before them and those who work around them, and that is a profoundly faithful thing – to seek any sort of truth in this world takes a dedication that is selfless as any service to a spiritual institution.
Being a real-life environmentalist is not always a whole lot of fun. The end-all-be-all of a sustainable lifestyle is not the reusable grocery bag or the backyard garden or even lobbying your legislators for environmentally conscious policies. We who seek to live sustainably must make those sorts of lifestyle choices in full awareness that the way we spend our days will not negate the impact of our existence. The knowledge that you are one of 7 billion on a planet of finite resources is a heavy load to bear. How do you live with that knowledge? How do you reconcile the fact that in order to contribute to the world, to simply inhabit it, you must deplete its resources? How do you balance that depletion with your own attempts at replenishment? In other words, what are you going to do with your life?
Toward the end of my college stint, I stopped trying to give my full answer to that question, as it took more time and attention than the questioner was usually prepared to give. That was fine by me, as I’m not much for talking when it can be avoided, but in case you were curious, the long version sounds something like this: “I plan to keep my eyes and ears and other applicable senses wide-open to how the wind is shifting. I will stuff myself to the figurative gills with both the straight facts and sheer speculation as to what shapes the world around us, and I will try my damnedest to evoke what is beautiful, dangerous, startling, old and new in that world by writing my way through its flaws and facets. I will apply the tools I’m able to wield toward the goal of having someone recognize what I’ve written as something they wanted to say or needed to know or already believed. I will try to highlight the vitality of being human (seeing as I am), and hopefully I’ll find a way to do this learning for a living.” No one really wants to hear that during a brief encounter in the library, though, so usually I stuck to the synopsis, which was “Something worthwhile.”
I may not know exactly how I’ll to go about doing that, but somehow, I will. This internship with The Tributary Fund has given me an invaluable start, as it has allowed me to begin recognizing the ways that natural history and human nature interweave and overlap, and how we can make that overlap meaningful at ground level. In the pews and the prairies, the mosques and the mountains, temples and tropics and even the college campuses of our planet, we may take a page from those who came before us, and write another for those who are yet to follow.
As I said earlier, knowing who and what we are can be quite a guilt trip, but it is a cross we may bear with grit and grace. There are niches to fill and a balance to keep as best we know how. To do that, we will need people who are willing to open their eyes and likewise their hearts and minds to their place in larger patterns. We will need passion and patience and a reason that runs a little deeper than reason. We will need to have faith.
~ Hannah Kreitzer, TTF Intern/blog contributor 2011-present