My Selfish Environmentalism

About the Author

Eva Rendle is an Environmental Studies major at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She has been passionate about the outdoors her entire life and hopes to help inspire that same passion in others..

Last Saturday I volunteered to plant trees next to the South Boulder Creek.  As I stepped out of my car and trudged slowly across the parking lot, I realized I hadn’t been awake that early on a Saturday in months.  I watched people running or walking their dogs next to the creek and wondered if maybe sleeping until noon was a waste of a weekend.  I arrived at the two white trucks and drank some coffee with the other volunteers.  Someone handed me a waiver to sign.  I didn’t read it, but I assumed it was telling me that participating in any activity outside of the comfort and safety of my home was dangerous and unpredictable.  Eventually one of the people in charge gathered up the volunteers and told us that we were going to be planting a few different kinds of trees next to the creek.  People had created a trail that was destroying vegetation and eroding the soil next to the creek and we needed to create a barrier to stop people from using that trail.

We broke up into small groups and spread out to different sites to begin planting.  My heart dropped when I saw the trees.  They were about a foot high and looked like twigs.  They looked even smaller when we put them in the ground.  Had it not been for the orangish colored mulch we sprinkled around them they would have been nearly impossible to see.  I really couldn’t picture them growing into anything capable of keeping anyone off of the trail.  My fears were confirmed about thirty minutes later when a woman and her dog came walking towards us.  She saw us working and in an indignant tone asked, “You’re planting trees? In the middle of the trail?!”  The woman in charge tried to explain to her that it wasn’t a real trail and was actually damaging the surrounding ecosystem, but she wasn’t listening.  She shook her head and walked away, stepping directly on a baby plum tree as she left.  Then we watched in horror as she let her dog pee on a couple of our newly planted willows.

As we stood there helplessly, trying to save the fledgling trees that she had destroyed in a a matter of seconds, I wondered if there was any point to what we were doing.  These tiny twigs weren’t going to keep anyone off of the trail.  And even if they did, what difference would it make? This was one tiny ecosystem in a huge, collapsing environment.  I sat down, feeling frustrated and powerless, and thought back to an environmental science class I had taken in high school.  At the end of the year we were required to turn in a scrapbook that documented the three community service events we had been required to complete throughout the year.  I hadn’t done any community service.  I took pictures of myself picking up trash in my backyard, got my friends to forge ranger signatures, and got 100% on the assignment.  I didn’t feel guilty or dishonest, I just felt lazy.  We had spent the entire year learning about everything wrong with the environment and I had concluded that there was absolutely nothing I could do to make a difference.  I wasn’t about to give up any of my precious time to contribute to a useless cause.  Luckily, I eventually got over that feeling, and the work of environmentalists like Winona La Duke, Vandana Shiva, and Sylvia Earle inspired me to continue with environmental studies in college.  After three years of college-level environmental classes, though, those discouraging feelings were beginning to creep up on me again.

After a couple hours we had finished planting all of our trees and I headed home to reflect on the experience.  I was feeling mixed up, because on the one hand I was discouraged about the work we had done, but on the other hand I was happy to have spent the morning outside in the sunshine.  Being outdoors has always made me happy, but have I ever really done anything that’s going to help the environment?  I began to wonder if my reasons for caring about the planet have been entirely selfish all along.  I thought back to my childhood, spent running around in the forest or digging for clams on the beaches near Seattle.  I loved nature because I loved how it made me feel, and this remains true today.  I want to protect the wilderness because it makes me happy.  Destroying nature means destroying my playground.  I don’t particularly care about preserving the planet for future generations, I just want it for myself.  I wondered if maybe our biggest problem lies in the fact that not enough people feel this way.

I’ve done a lot of research this semester in regards to Nature-Deficit Disorder, a term coined by journalist Richard Louv to describe the conditions that have arisen from divorcing ourselves from nature.   In Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, he attributes many problems in children, like ADHD, depression, and obesity, to a lack of time spent outdoors.  Studies have shown that exposing children to nature can significantly reduce their ADHD symptoms and a recent national study directly links the increase in childhood obesity with a reduction in time spent outdoors.  In fact, it seems that many health and behavioral problems found in people today are consistent with the problems you would see in any animal taken out of its natural habitat.  We have separated ourselves from our natural habitat and are beginning to suffer the consequences.

I had the opportunity to interview Richard Louv for a paper I wrote earlier in the semester.  We discussed his work and the events that led up to his book Last Child in the Woods.  At the end of the phone call he asked me what I planned on doing after college.  I told him about my love of the outdoors and my desire to help connect people with nature.  He told me that he gets to meet a lot of people who are passionate about the environment, but that the people who seem happiest are the ones working to get more people outdoors.  Speaking with Louv made me wonder if maybe the solution to our problems is to stop worrying about the environment and start worrying about ourselves.  We will never be able to reverse the damage we have done to the planet if we remain disconnected from nature.  Both human health and the health of the environment depend on our ability to shift our paradigm.  We need to stop viewing ourselves as controllers of nature and start viewing ourselves as a part of nature.

Biologist E.O. Wilson developed the term biophilia to describe the tendency of humans to affiliate emotionally with other life forms.  He says that humans are deeply and biologically tied to the natural world.  He also says that  “To know this [natural] world is to gain a proprietary attachment to it.  To know it well is to love and take responsibility for it” (Wilson 10).  We must get to know the natural world around us and develop a sense of love and responsibility for it.  Our fate and the fate of the planet as we know it depend on it.

On that Saturday afternoon, as I thought about my morning planting trees, I realized that it wasn’t the trees themselves that mattered in the long run.  What mattered to me was the time spent outside.  With each tiny twig we planted, we forged a small connection to the natural world, and that connection was more important to me than anything I’ve learned in a classroom.  Education is important in it’s own way, but it’s meaningless if we can’t apply it.  Humans are meant to experience nature.  It’s important for us not to get so caught up in studying it that we forget to enjoy all it has to offer.  Edward Abbey, in a speech published in High Country News in 1976, voiced this sentiment better than I ever could:

One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out.  Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast… A part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic.  Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure.  It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it.  While you can.  While it’s still here.  So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space.  Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much;  I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators.  I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards. (Abbey)

My tree-planting experience made me realize that it’s okay to be a selfish environmentalist.  I may never invent the next great clean energy source or get GMO’s banned for good, but I know that the work I do will be valuable in it’s own way.  As long as I am able to share my love of the outdoors with others I will have made a positive difference in the world.  So, after spending my Saturday morning planting trees and my Saturday afternoon reflecting upon the experience, I closed my laptop, turned off my cell phone, and ended my day with a hike.


  1. Robert Michael Pyle

    That’s a fine meditation, Eva. Contra Jensen in Orion, I agree with you that enjoying what’s out there is at least as important as fighting for it. But the fight goes on too, and the effort remains important and not entirely without hope.

    Since you’re in Colo., you might want to check out my book _The Thunder Tree_, set there, in particular the essay on “Extinction of Experience,” v/a/v your own thoughts. Richard wrote a kind preface to the new Oregon State U. Press edition.

    Carry on, and keep on getting OUT THERE: as Calvin said to Hobbes after a hard day, “The world’s not so bad, when you can get out in it!”

    R. M. Pyle

  2. The background of that story sounds eerily familiar – it’s why I’ve come to passionately dislike the sort of environmentalism that preys on pollution to garner donations, and try to focus on all the ways that we can live truly better. First of all, (for) ourselves, and only secondly, incidentally, in terms of ecology.
    It may sound selfish, but if you really accept that living good means living *in* this world, as a part of it, then it becomes a life lived more passionate, rather than “eco-actions” and donations put on top of a lifestyle that’s doubly hurtful, to us, and to the world around us.

    Gerald, – the ecology of happiness

  3. This is a wonderful article, Eva! You have such passion for our environment and for the outdoors! I know you will do well in your future career and look forward to hearing all the good things you will accomplish in your life. Keep up the great work! You may just become a much published author, too!!

    Aunt Kathie


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