To Be Better Stewards Of The Earth, We Need To Unlearn This One Big Myth
Environmentalism is one of many paths to understanding ourselves and how we relate to the world around us. It is a daily practice of cultivating awareness of how inherently interconnected we are to everything in the universe.
Being a better lover of the earth requires us to start with introspection. It requires a willingness to look at uncomfortable truths and have the courage to unlearn what we thought we knew. It is only through unlearning that we can begin to see beyond the individual and collective stories that keep us trapped inside our own heads. In a world that is built on convenience and knowing, this process is, in itself, a revolution.
What do we need to unlearn?
In the collective story of modern Western civilization, humans dominate nature. We are not a part of nature. In this view of the world, it is very easy to simplify, structure, and divide everything into individual categories that exist independently of one another.
For example, let's consider how we are primed to believe that single-use plastic is something we can use for two minutes and then throw it "away" with the idea that it will be taken care of elsewhere or somehow disappear. The reality is that when it comes to plastic, "away" does not exist. Plastic fibers are found in our tap water and bottled water, and throughout the rest of our environment too. Everything we put out into the world comes back to us through the water we drink, the food we eat, and even the air we breathe. "Away" is not only here, it is inside us.
This story plays out in the structures of capitalism and industrialization, and it is how most of us have been conditioned to understand ourselves and the world. It is what makes it possible for us to continue to exist within systems that are at odds with our best interests and the interests of life on Earth.
We are currently living in a story where we exist at the center of everything. All the other elements of the world are "other," unless they are serving a purpose connected to us. When we dare to look beyond the story it is evident that things are much more complex: The whole world is connected, and everything works in relationship to everything else.
Therefore, if our actions are detrimental to one part of the system, they are detrimental to the system as a whole. So the loss of species, the destruction of ecosystems, the pollution of habitats—these are ultimately a destruction of ourselves as humans, too.
How can we start to unlearn the myth of separation?
By approaching environmentalism as a more spiritual practice, we can begin to untangle the myth of separation and create a more intentional life that serves something much larger than ourselves. Here are some actionable ways to dive deeper into the path of unlearning:
We must drop everything we thought we knew and start asking more questions about how our daily actions affect the environment. Remember that it is not about finding a solution as much as it is about continuously seeking to ask better questions.
Embrace the mess.
It will not be straightforward. Unlearning is a process of discovery. It is complex, and it will take time and patience. It will drive you nuts, and that's OK. It doesn't always have to be that serious, so make sure you introduce some humor into the mix from time to time.
Practice mindfulness daily.
Meditation literally rewires the neural pathways of our brain. In the most tangible sense, it changes us. It changes how we see ourselves in relationship to the world. Adopting any meditative practice, from breathwork to yoga, can support us as we navigate this path.
Stay humble in the face of nature.
Making a point to seek out experiences that remind us of our insignificance can give us perspective. Look at the moon every night or track its cycles on your phone. Pay more attention to the stars, the mountains, the ocean, or any other natural landscapes to cultivate a sense of wonder and connection.
Drop the labels of "good" or "bad."
This, too, is social conditioning, and it limits our ability to act authentically. It is better to be imperfectly vegan, imperfectly zero-waste, or imperfectly minimalist than to not try anything at all. Be willing to find the beauty in the process instead of the attainment. This also applies to how we approach others: Everyone else is going through their own process. Shaming or guilting will not change or awaken anyone who is not ready. Judging other environmentalists for what they are or are not doing "right" is also incredibly unproductive. We must lead with openness and build bridges instead of walls.
Unlearning with others is more fun. Find and join communities, events, and friend circles that are on a similar path. Reach out to like-minded people to share resources, inspiration, and laughs. It is amazing to be reminded that we are not alone in any of this. There are other people that have experienced the same anxieties, frustrations, and joys as us.
Being an environmentalist is more than just knowing the right terminology or being associated with certain groups or people. It is a way of life that requires us to dismantle what we thought we knew, over and over again.
Taking an approach of unlearning is essential to moving past performative action and into authentic transformation. Unlearning allows us to feel humbled by the vastness of the universe both within and outside of us. It allows us to embody different ways of being and living in the world that we never knew were possible. In interconnection, we find belonging and purpose.
Alexa Gantous is a freelance environmental strategist and the co-founder of LitterRally, a mobile dancing trash pickup party. She is also the founder of TrashTalk Studio, a living lab through which she facilitates mindfulness workshops that help people re-frame the environmental crisis as an opportunity.
Her multidisciplinary approach uses design thinking as a tool for ecological innovation, and the power of play as a way to co-create positive cultural impact. She has a BBA in Strategic Design and Management and a minor in Environmental Studies from Parsons School of Design.