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Even prior to joining the Seventh Generation team last fall, the term “environmentalist” left me feeling unsettled. It may be a moot point to many, but, as I reflect on the germination of my discomfort with the word, I hope to confirm that my foreboding instincts about its unfortunate evolution began, for me, not as an employee of an eco-responsible company, but as a regular-old citizen of the planet. This distinction matters to me; it matters because the answer has large implications for unearthing a new ‘speak,’ a wholly more inspirational and confoundingly simple re-wording of a movement that continues to cause so many citizens to run for the hills. How are all of the people who don’t spend 40+ hours per week, who don’t get paid to discuss our planet’s disparate chronic illnesses, feeling about "environmentalism"? And why do I detest that damn word so much?
For starters, the word “environment” is too loose. I looked it up, even though I thought I knew what it meant. I was annoyed then to find this partial definition of the word in Princeton University’s online dictionary, “the totality of surrounding conditions; as in ‘he longed for the comfortable environment of his living room.’" Even Webster, who went more to the heart of the matter with “the complex of physical, chemical, and biotic factors (as climate, soil, and living things) that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determine its form and survival,” left me feeling detached, uninspired, tensed up in the shoulders as if I needed to memorize these words for tomorrow’s ecology exam. The words didn’t get at me, they were separate from me and they didn’t grow fingers or arms to reach out to me, to take me in. I probed further. I searched for the term “environmentalist” and the first definition I encountered was “someone who works to protect the environment from destruction or pollution.” That was scary (and inherently impossible, by the way… the key word in that definition being “someone,” as if one person alone could truly protect the environment from destruction). The Herculean hum of that task, as stated above, not only alienated and overwhelmed me (how and where should I begin?), but, fundamentally, it made me sad. It forced me to think about destruction in all of its many forms and, after I did that for several minutes (3 minutes, 22 seconds, to be exact), the only thing I felt newly motivated to do was eat to organic potato chips and crawl under my organic cotton sheets (thank God I’m helping those farmers) to sleep it off. But I digress…
How could I be spending so much of my time talking about helping the planet, about evolving “the complex of physical, chemical, and biotic factors (as climate, soil, and living things) that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determine its form and survival” and not give a hill of beans about being an “environmentalist”? There is something dire about the public image of a movement whose members would prefer to deny involvement. Further to the point, it’s a problem for a company such as ours then to utter the following pathetically unmagical words: “We make environmentally-sound household cleaning products.” Oh, the abysm of it. Imagine if Ben & Jerry’s changed their tune and began shouting from the rooftops that they’re America’s socially conscious brand of “cold snack food prepared from a frozen mixture of milk products and flavorings, containing a minimum of 10% milk fat.” Where’s the emotion? The connectivity? The nostalgia? The eudaemonia?
I decide that the answer is ridiculously obvious. What I love is “nature,” not “environment.” What I want to be a part of - at peace with - is “nature.” What I’m afraid will be taken from me is “nature.” I couldn’t care less if the environment goes away, but I would be devastated if nature disappeared. The environment is for grown-ups; nature speaks to the child in me. It begs to be nurtured and I want to care for it. As it stands today, the environment considers things like emissions and hyperconsumption and economic efficiency and the ozone and deforestation and petroleum and degradation, things that make me want to hide. But nature holds hands with fresh air and sustenance and potentiality and the stars and trees and birth, things that remind me I’m alive. The environment says “don’t” and “no” and falls prey to bipartisan rhetoric. Nature says “listen” and “yes” and has Supremacy of being, yet leaves God out. We’ve all been so focused on the environment that we up and forgot about nature. It seems fitting that the phrase “can’t see the forest for the trees,” first penned in 1546, so accurately describes what’s been happening to us.
I looked up the word ‘nature,’ even though I thought I knew what it meant. I couldn’t be sure which definition I liked the best; I liked them all. “The material world and its phenomena,” “The forces and processes that produce and control all the phenomena of the material world,” “The world of living things and the outdoors,” “A primitive state of existence, untouched and uninfluenced by civilization or artificiality.” I was able to hold these definitions, their mysticism, their romance, the fluidity, the humanity of nature. I decided to re-read Emerson’s aptly-entitled essay from 1836. He immediately confirmed (or, more likely, originated) my thinking, only with eloquence: “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.”
Is the nature movement a no-brainer or what? So I decided today that I would become a “naturist.” I would waltz into the office on Monday morning and declare myself as such, forever shedding the pessimism and fear-mongering attached to the environmentalist moniker. I was all set to go; then I looked up the word “naturist.” Oops. It’s taken. Apparently, a “naturist” is a person who practices nudity for the purposes of health or religion. I was either going to have to shed more than just pessimism (making my office declaration in my birthday suit) or keep searching for an unclaimed title.
Totally unfair. The nudists get nature and we get the environment.
Maybe it’s just semantics to you, but not to me.