We were flying. The water and waves beneath us were nothing but elements to speed us faster, and the shoreline quickly slipped away as our boat motor powered us forward. It was hard not to hold my arms out like a bird itself, but instead I held on tight to my seat as the wind whipped through my hair and my friends laughed around me. It was a beautiful summer Saturday, the weather was perfect, and we were having a blast.
I love a boat ride as much as anyone. We had slipped into the water from a Virginia Beach boat ramp, watching the gulls and terns make circles in the sky above us while the egrets and herons stabbed for fish along the banks of the salt marsh. We kept our speed low as we passed the homes and marinas that lined the water’s edge, only opening it up to full throttle when the water deepened and the signs said we could. There must be something deep within us humans that loves to go fast, which explains our obsession with sports cars, jets, and, of course, motorboats.
There was only one problem. I loved being out on a beautiful day, I loved being with my friends, I loved summer, but something was nagging at me, a small voice in the corner of my mind that has been growing louder and louder since I began my studies at the Nicholas School nearly a year ago. This little voice was reminding me that the engine that propelled us forward was burning fossil fuels, emitting CO2, and having an effect on the environment. Talk about a mental downer.
Aldo Leopold, a father of the conservation movement, once wrote that “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on the land is quite invisible to laymen.” These words have rung so true to me, especially when he continues by describing an ecologist as someone who “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.” Not exactly lighthearted material, but these are the words I think about if someone’s eyes glaze over when I talk about something “environmental” like recycling.
The more I learn about the environment, the more I am awed. The mechanisms for seed dispersal in the tropics, for water uptake in forest ecosystems, for bird migration across oceans; all are incredible feats that happen every day. I love taking a walk and thinking about the unseen dramas taking place within the stems of the bright flowers I see, or beneath a frost-covered tree branch. But, as Leopold points out, I also see the damage. I see homes built much too close to the shoreline; I see roads cutting across wilderness areas, threatening the species within; I see development extending its concrete fingers farther into natural ecosystems, creating waste water and pollution problems. Again, not lighthearted material.
When I say I didn’t see these things before my studies of ecology, I mean it. I was aware of the obvious of course – don’t litter, fossil fuels are bad, renewables are good – but I knew nothing of the details, the myriad ways in which global consumption and growth are threatening the environment. Now that I am aware, contributing to these things is almost painful. I carry recyclables around in my car until I find someplace to drop them off, I feel guilty when I purchase new clothes or “things” in general, I become frustrated when signs in the grocery store don’t tell me if the food I’m purchasing is grown locally (probably because it isn’t). And the fact that I drive a car with low MPG? Forget about it, drives me crazy. Yet in the current state of the world there are times I have to do all of these things.
So the question remains, how do I live in this world of wounds without forever depressing myself? If I sat in a dark room and never moved, I would be very environmentally friendly. But I would be missing out on life’s pleasures, like taking a boat ride to feel like I’m flying, or driving to a restaurant to meet up with friends, or buying a new dress just because putting it on it makes me feel good. Part of this year for me has been finding that correct balance so that I still feel like I’m doing my part for nature, but once in awhile I splurge. In effect, I’m treating my carbon emissions or my consumption like capital, conserving and saving when I can but letting go every so often as well.
I enjoyed the boat ride. We went home, hosed the boat off, and before I forgot, I bought a carbon credit from carbonfund.org in an attempt to offset the gasoline we had just used. Though it doesn’t erase carbon usage, at least it was something. I will continue to find my own balance, continue to learn, and continue to work towards a more sustainable future where we don’t have to worry about hurting the environment by using every day products or transportation. If some can’t see damages, then part of our job at the Nicholas School will be educating others not only to see it, but to take steps towards alleviating it as well!