Cultivating Meaningful Change

I recently had the opportunity to speak with a climate change organizer whose work deeply inspired me. Throughout our conversation, he lamented activists working to shed light on positive environmental progress. Highlighting these small movements, he argued, distracted us from the real work that needs to be done to mitigate the catastrophic effects of rising concentrations of carbon dioxide. “At the end of the day,” he said, “If you’re thinking like this, you’re not really helping anyone.”

photo of a young woman outdoors

For days after our conversation, I was flooded with doubt and embarrassment – with shame, really – at my own shortcomings. Loam, the environmental arts collective that I first seeded at Wesleyan, is rooted in illuminating stories of positive change. My co-curator Nicole Stanton and I work hard to build a dynamic body of evidence that people care. We’ve constructed flowering vertical gardens that have been donated to local schools; we’ve collaborated with zero-waste advocates on creative campaigns. As our community grows – as we welcome farmer-florists and artist-activists and guerilla-composting crews into our fold – we feel especially grateful that our work gives us an entry point into exploring the diverse ways we can cultivate a meaningful life. The collective we envision is driven by an ardent accountability to the thousands of ecosystems that we’re a part of, by the belief that creativity and sustainability are symbiotic.

It isn’t that the climate change organizer is wrong – we do need to recognize that working together for a safer future will require sacrifice, revolution, and big picture rethinking. But what strikes me is how his steadfast faith in only one way of doing things ignores the rich philosophical, social, and cultural diversity within the environmental movement. His position puts us in competition instead of in collaboration.

For some of us, fear of a hypothetical future is a catalyst for change. For others, anxiety breeds complacency. If I didn’t have hope, if I didn’t act from hope, I couldn’t do what I do. Judging ourselves – and one another – for what motivates us is fundamentally a distraction from our shared goals.

Just as the environmental movement has space for activists working from both places of fear and feelings of hope, it also has space for those of us who don’t fit into mainstream perceptions of what an environmentalist is – or should be.

As a college student, I struggled to link the dense scientific articles I read in class to my work as a sustainability intern at Wesleyan. Much as I loved the intricate illustrations of soil horizons and flower petals that peppered my five-pound textbook, I didn’t have the mind for math, and I tripped over lab experiments.

It wasn’t until I took an interdisciplinary dance class in my junior year that I was able to better actualize my work as an activist. Movement helped me understand the biological building blocks of nature in a way no textbook could. As spring bloomed wild within our New England town, several friends and I worked together to perform a 45-minute-long improvisational piece by the river that flowed just a couple miles from our close-knit campus, a river that had nourished us without our notice for most of our college career. Embodying the cycles of the river connected us more deeply to our environment and cemented our conceptualization of the havoc industrialization, eutrophication, and commercial recreation had wreaked on our community.

I realized that it’s through movement – through interactive art and embodied hope – that I can best nourish the ecosystem I’m a part of. Each of us has within us what we need to grow some kind of beautiful in the world. Trust that what makes you tick can be translated into meaningful action. Because whoever you are, whatever invigorates you, there is room for you at the table.

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