Nature has been one of my loves since before I even consciously realized what it was. I spent hours playing behind my family’s Michigan home, acting out detailed, make-believe stories with my brothers and friends in a small plot of woods along the tiny creek. Our family would often go on hikes together on weekends, trekking through county parks, looking for animal trails, or even searching for morel mushrooms [I never found any]. I remember going hunting with my dad, somehow managing to sit my restless, little kid self in near silence for a whole morning, listening to the forest breath and wake up in the early light. Throughout high school, I loved quiet nature walks and solitary bike rides, getting some personal time with The Great Outdoors and falling in love with its beautiful complexity. But I never called myself an environmentalist. Strict definitions aside, that term came with too much political baggage. I wasn’t interested.
At the dinner table, I grew up hearing that natural food was better, fruits and vegetables where good for you, and meat that we had hunted and killed ourselves was both healthier and tastier than anything you could buy at Wal-Mart. At the same dinner table, I grew up participating in nightly family prayer and listening to my dad read passages from the Bible out loud to all of us. I knew that our Catholic faith was important to our daily lives, and Sunday mass was never to be missed, not even on vacation.
I grew up with an understanding that politics were also very important, mostly because of how important our faith was. There was right and wrong, and for the large majority of every issue, Republicans were right and Democrats (or “bleeding liberals” as I usually heard them referred to as) were wrong. Pro-choice, lying, big-government, climate-change believing Democrats were going to send the whole country to hell.
Fast forward to about half way through undergrad. After an internship with a Michigan State Representative and the realization that almost every political decision seemed to come down to money, I had gone from wanting to become a politician and save the world (call me nothing if not a young idealist), to becoming completely disillusioned with the political scene and determined to avoid it completely. I had spent a semester studying abroad in Europe and had taken a full year off to volunteer with a Catholic youth ministry organization, traveling around the country in a van with 10 other young adults and staying with host families. I had moved across the country, switched colleges and majors, completed different internships in a new city, and was seeing something new every day. My thinking had started to change, but I didn’t call myself an environmentalist.
I got my first full time job doing marketing and communications for a building materials distributor. It was there that I was first exposed, in a real way, to the concept of corporate sustainability, specifically in wood and stone products, as well as recycling and the emissions that manufacturing processes created. I suddenly realized that there was a connection between the world that I loved so much and they way we all go about our business, and I focused a good deal of my energy on vendors and initiatives that centered on that connection. But I still didn’t call myself an environmentalist.
A few years later, I had finished grad school, moved to Florida and was working in a different industrial field, surge protective devices. One of our bigger markets was solar industry equipment, so I started learning about renewable energy. I learned how solar technology had gone through the roof while its price had dropped through the floor and how this energy source had more than enough potential to provide all the power used in the whole word. I met company reps, advocates, and policy makers from around the world who all spoke about why renewable energy made sense, regardless of your political perspective. I fell in love with the industry (smart arguments have always made me a bit weak in the knees, I suppose) but still didn’t call myself an environmentalist.
I eventually started working with a solar company, focusing on both solar education as well as solar contracting and construction. This lead to work on policy issues, as I soon realized that some of the thinking I had grown up hearing had actually created arbitrary barriers to the development of a sustainable business model for the renewable energy industry in general. Pretty soon, I was talking to politicians about initiatives to help open the solar market, working with the very people I had sworn I wanted nothing to do with 10 years prior.
Today, I’d like to hope that my spirit is still the same as the 8 year old girl playing make-believe in her parent’s backyard. I work for a clean energy non-profit, spending the majority of my time focused on solar energy, and I am very proud of the important work we are doing. It’s nearly impossible for me to avoid the term “environmentalist” and by most definitions, the name fits me very well. But, I still don’t fully embrace that label. And what about the others? Am I a Republican? Am I a Democrat? Something in between? Am I defined by the labels I was born into or the ones that I have picked up along the way?
Honestly, I’m a human, along with all of you. That’s the only label I can 100% identify with, and I believe that the same is true for anybody who is willing to look at their own labels closely. We’re all sharing the same planet, trying to make a living, and hopefully creating a future for those who come after us. I’m no longer naive enough to leave it at that and think we can all skip together into a utopian fantasy world, but the idealist spirit of my youth is back. I’ve realized that anything less would be giving up and settling for a subpar future, and this human’s not okay with that, environmentalist or not.