In Which I Ask “Am I An Environmentalist?”
by Sarah Gillig Sunu -- February 11th, 2013

Greetings all,

Sorry for the radio silence! Things have picked up quite a bit this semester, and I’m working hard to stay on top of them.  One of the great things about the classes that I am taking this semester is that they are really giving me a chance to dive into why I’m doing what I’m doing, and how I’m doing it.  Full disclosure, what follows is largely an essay I wrote for Conservation Ethics, but while I was working on it, I realized I was writing it to you, dear readers, and so I thought I would share it. You will notice that I allowed myself the luxury of many parenthetical statements (I love a good parenthetical statement)!  The essay prompt was “Am I an environmentalist?”

Sooooo--Am I an environmentalist??

Behind the library just now, pondering environmentalism.

I believe I am not not an environmentalist…but do I fit my own definition of what an environmentalist would be?

I spend a great deal of time thinking about the environment. I think about how the environment functions–how systems and species combine to create unique biomes.  I think about how humans alter the environment to suit their own purposes. I think about how my choices—paper, or plastic? walk, or drive?—impact the world around me. But am I an environmentalist?

I deeply appreciate the natural world. Even though there are many places that I will likely never go (Bhutan; Sri Lanka), and species that I will never see in the wild (giant squid; Bengal tigers), I still care about their continued presence, and it gives me pleasure to know that they exist. Does that make me an environmentalist?

I do my best in my personal life to make choices that have a lower impact on the environment (no beef, no pork). I feel strongly about my role as an environmental educator and steward, in the context of my professional sphere.  I seek out environmental policies to support.  I try to help others learn to care for the environment too.

But there are things I don’t do. I don’t attend environmental protests. I don’t provide logistic, or financial, support for the environmental movement. I don’t sign public petitions. I don’t compost (though I would like to). I don’t completely eschew plastic (though I try to avoid it).  I don’t call my representatives. I don’t evangelize to my friends and family (though they sometimes give me more credit than I deserve: they’ve somehow become convinced that I don’t eat any meat, when I actually do still eat fish and poultry).  And I don’t unilaterally agree with prominent environmentalists on every issue out there (both on their perception of the problem and their approach to handling it).  So what am I?

View of White Island Lighthouse from Star Island. I love the water and the sky, but I love the lighthouse too.

I believe that we are a part of the environment, not outside it, however much we try to remove ourselves from it; it contains us and is within us, though we may deny it. Arne Naess (1995) and Bill Devall (1996) describe an expansion of the self beyond the bounds of the individual body and into the natural world—a recognition of the ‘ecological self’.  Bill Devall explains, “No moral exhortation or dogmatic statement of environmental ethics is necessary to show care for other beings—including rivers or mountains—if our self in this broad and deep sense embraces the other being,” (Devall, 1996, p. 105).  That is what I am—an ecological self.

My understanding of my ecological self goes beyond the conventional label of ‘environmentalist’.  Calling myself an environmentalist is a choice that I can make—today I am an environmentalist, tomorrow I am a theorist, next Tuesday I will be an numismatist[1].  But my ecological self is a part of me, and is not something that will go away if I choose to give it another name. It might suffer if I ignore it, or blossom if I tend to it, but it will always be there. And if I am truly living in accord with my ecological self, I will not be able to act against the environment, because I would be acting against myself. It is easy to fall into the trap of feeling guilty because I am not an environmentalist, and the actions I take to try to assuage that do not seem to help.  The benefits I reap by encouraging my ecological self, however, are ones that I continue to feel long after.

If you’ve made it this far, you hopefully have a better understanding of why I make some of the choices I make in life. There are a lot of things that would be very difficult, maybe impossible, for me to give up, such as seeing my family at least twice a year, which currently necessitates long drives or flying (though I’m trying to get everyone to move to the same state eventually). But I try to do the things I can do, consider my impact for the things I can’t do, and actively choose, rather than ignoring the environmental consequences of my lifestyle. That doesn’t fit my own definition of ‘environmentalist’ (because that’s what it boils down to–how you personally define the word ‘environmentalist’), so I don’t think I am one. But what do you think?  Do I fit your definition of an environmentalist ?  Do you?

Till next time!

[1] Someone who collects coins or medals. It was really hard to find an appropriate word that ended in “-ist”–a lot of them are professions that I am not qualified for (allergist), or are not things that I would want to be (catastrophist)!   Now that I think about it though, I performed a monologue once by Oscar Wilde that referred to being a ‘bimetalist‘–I should have used that!

Tides for Friday, February 8th, 2013, Beaufort, NC:

High: 5:59 AM, 3.65 ft

Low: 12:16 PM, -0.34 ft

High: 6:17 PM, 3.05 ft

From NOAA Tide Predictions



Devall, Bill. “The Ecological Self.” The Deep Ecology Movement: A First Anthology. Ed. Alan Drengson and Yuichi Inoue. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1995. Pages 101-123. Print.

Naess, Arne. “Self-Realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World.” The Deep Ecology Movement: A First Anthology. Ed. Alan Drengson and Yuichi Inoue. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1995. Pages 13-30. Print.



  1. Jane Dietterich
    Feb 11, 2013

    Interesting essay, Sarah.
    We think you’re an environmentalist but it’s always good to question yourself.
    Loved the photo of the lighthouse!

    • Sarah
      Feb 12, 2013

      Thanks! I think my view of environmentalism changes greatly based on the definition being used, and it’s one of those terms whose definition seems to depend on who is talking about it!

      I love that view, and hope to get to visit again sometime soon–maybe we can make a trip of it this summer!

  2. Stu Iler
    Feb 12, 2013

    Great post! I also feel that my ‘ecological self’ goes beyond the conventional definition of ‘environmentalist,’ and I think you’ve highlighted some interesting and important distinctions between what we believe, how we see ourselves, and what we ultimately decide to do.

    • Sarah
      Feb 12, 2013

      Thank you!

      It’s an interesting question, and our in-class discussion after we turned in our essays showed that there is a lot of personal variety in our definitions, and particularly in how we apply those definitions (calling someone else an environmentalist may have a totally different personal connotation than when you call yourself an environmentalist). It’s definitely something I’m going to be thinking about as I go through life!

      • Stu Iler
        Feb 12, 2013

        Absolutely– and it’s something that I’m sure I’ll continue to think about as well!


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