Background illustration by Frida Kahlo.
By Jennifer Conner
Jun 15, 2016
Profound ecologist and writer, Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), once said: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
If you have ever studied the way the sun shifts in the sky throughout the seasons or tracked a rabbit in the snow, just for the fun of it; If you have ever laid in an open meadow and observed the clouds transform into mythological creatures or marveled at the brilliance of the Milky Way, then you have an ecological education, and more importantly, you have cultivated an ecological conscience.
Our conscience dictates our perception of what is right and wrong — it acts as a sort of moral compass. I believe that ecological conscience has a place in everyone’s psyche, though it may be repressed in those who are detached from nature. Those of us who have a well-developed ecological conscience feel pangs of right or wrong on behalf of the earth. And if you think about it from an evolutionary standpoint, it just makes sense. Our survival is directly linked to the perpetuation of our landbase and the natural resources on which we depend to breathe, drink, and eat. Why wouldn’t we feel regret, guilt, and anger when our landbase is threatened?
There is a spiritual element to the ecological conscience which makes shifts and changes on the planet even more palpable. We not only feel and recognize their effects in the physical world, but also on a deep spiritual and emotional level. Each time the earth is perpetrated by deforestation, or a toxic spill, or a release of radiation, it can feel like a stab to the soul. And it’s made worse by the fact that most of the destructive things done to the planet are done by our own kind.
Environmental activist, Derrick Jensen, likens our civilization to that of an abuser and the earth the abused. To take that metaphor a step further, those of us with an ecological conscience are the bystanders watching the rape or beating happen with our hands tied, while the rest of the world continues walking down the street, oblivious (whether blindly or willingly).
It’s hard sometimes to not get lost in the inevitable woe that accompanies an ecological conscience, but over many years, I have found ways to cope and use this sensitivity to my advantage.
Here are five ways to maximize your ecological conscience.
1. Don’t Blame Yourself
A few years ago I attended a lecture by Derrick Jensen, and he spoke about the “we” myth. His example was, “We are going to war.” He makes his point by saying something to the effect of, “wait, I don’t have bombs, I don’t have guns, I’m not going to war.” This “we” myth is part of how we are collectively brainwashed to feel powerless. However, when one recognizes the separation of “we” and one’s self, we become empowered as individuals. And when we become empowered, we can take action to heal our land.
2. Practice Acceptance.
We must learn to accept the destruction that is happening all around us. There are some heavy things going on out there. Fracking, nuclear releases, coal-ash contaminated rivers. Accepting these horrible disasters may seem counterproductive to those of us with an ecological conscience. We may want to lash out and rail on the people/companies who have done this (I’m guilty, big-time guilty of doing this!) But if you really think about it, there’s no positive outcome in blaming and lamenting and getting lost in the anger of what has already happened. This energy would be much better served in working to either heal the current destruction or to prevent the next environmental disaster.
3. Take Action.
Once we become empowered and we accept what is happening, then our path becomes suddenly illuminated. It is at this point that we can take action. Each of us must decide what our role is in healing the landbase. Some of us may work at protecting the land by purchasing a piece of it and managing it sustainably, while others may volunteer as environmental advocates with local, regional, and national organizations. If each of us with an ecological conscience took action in small ways, we might just be surprised at what we can get done.
4. Cultivate a Like-Minded Community
Surround yourself with others who have an ecological conscience. I cannot stress this enough. It is so easy to feel marginalized in this society built on materialism and gain if you have a well-developed ecological conscience. Many of us may be very susceptible to depression and social anxiety because of this, so it’s important to build a support group of others with “the wound.”
5. Educate, But Don’t Preach
Educate the public respectfully, professionally, and with an open mind, but don’t preach and don’t waste energy on trying to convince those who are entrenched in their beliefs to change. That said, always look for opportunities to educate and view the situation from a large-picture perspective. Instead of becoming overly emotional (which is my tendency, and is for many of us with an ecological conscience), one should calmly explain the science behind their position and find ways to present it from a different angle for those who do not feel as connected to the planet. For example, most environmental issues can be tied to adverse health effects and economic loss. In many cases, people just need to be educated (sometimes in tedious and unsexy, detailed ways) and it’s our job to do that in a manner that is as inclusive as possible.
We may “live alone in a world of wounds,” but following these five steps can assist with the healing process for both the planet and for those of us with an ecological conscience.