The cornerstone of environmentalism

Forest McKenzie

Writing this column for the first time, it is important that I address the cornerstone of my environmental philosophy and what I consider to be the most important concept in understanding our environment. I hope that this will serve both as an introduction and as a conclusion to my writing in The Lawrentian, because it is essentially all that you need to know. This grand yet incredibly complex and interesting topic that I speak of is ecology.
Traditionally defined, ecology is the scientific study of interrelationships involving organisms and their environments. The contemporary use of the word “ecology” such as in “The Ecology of Commerce,” a book by Paul Hawken, or “the ecology of justice,” a term used by Tuesday’s convocation speaker, Jennifer Baumgardner, alludes to the same element of necessary interconnectedness, but this usage is somewhat freed from the extensive testing and revision of scientific method. In other words, the core of ecology requires thinking deeply about connections.
At Lawrence, we are all experienced in this practice. With our liberal arts education, we are prepared for a myriad of jobs because we understand fundamental connections between the arts, sciences and humanities. I am sure many of you have seamlessly applied your understanding of one subject to a seemingly disparate situation. In recognizing this, and just flipping through a course catalog, it is evident that we are sustained intellectually by an academic ecosystem.
We formulate theories and models in the classroom that showcase our ability to be ecologists. Once you see yourself as an ecologist in some capacity, it is time to step it up and look for deep connections in everything that you do.
Each of our decisions affects something and does not exist in a vacuum. For every action, there is a reaction. This may seem like a simple concept at first, but I would suggest completing an activity that I have adapted from my freshman ENST 150 class to get thinking about this: 1) pick out any object 2) think about how it came to be in front of you 3) think about what it is doing right now 4) think about its future. I am sure there are many who could turn this into an endless activity.
However, it is important to notice the complexity in this exercise and where the energy and resources are in the system. What keeps the system going – in other words, what sustains it?
Depending on what your object was, it may or may not have been sustainable. If you chose a Styrofoam cup, you most likely ended the exercise with the object in a landfill, or another place of rest.
This would be termed a “cradle to death” scenario. However, if you chose a plant, you probably ended with a circular model that, in its simplest terms, shows growth, reproduction, death, decomposition, and a new beginning of something else. This is the ideal scenario of “cradle to cradle” or sustainability. A great place to see this in action is the illustrated “The Story of Stuff” by Annie Leonard, at
Now, why do these illustrations matter?
They matter because humans are increasingly playing a huge role in these systems, and by doing so, are affected by these systems directly and indirectly. For example, the destruction of wetlands has directly affected the water quality and storm resilience of many “developing/developed” urban areas in the United States.
On the other hand, the effects of climate change are not restricted to countries that emit the most greenhouse gases, but these tend to promote disease, famine and death in countries with very little industrial infrastructure to emit carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas.
So, the best way to lessen our adverse impact on the environment and thereby lessen the adverse impact on us is to think ecologically. When you buy something, you are indicating your approval of how it was produced and shipped to be in front of you and where it might go after you are done with it. In this way, you can be politically active everyday by thinking ecologically and “voting” for products that are more sustainable.
The greatest opportunity to understand the ecology of a system, however, is by putting yourself in it. The best example of this on campus is SLUG. Producing your own food in the garden and then enjoying it at Downer could be a more energizing and possibly more enlightening experience than reading this article.
If you are afraid of the dirt and caddisflies, I suggest reading Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life,” and I think you will get the idea. The main point is to think deeply about how your choices affect the environment and how that, in turn, affects human beings. In my mind, this means being an environmentalist and certainly being an ecologist.
Remember that you have great ability to change the world because you already do, with each decision in your daily life. And, living in such a globalized world means these choices do matter, whether directly or indirectly.
We can think ecologically and change how we learn, how we consume, how we “waste,” how we communicate and generally how we participate and live our lives on this planet. In the words of Paul Hawken: “What a great time to be alive.