Thursday, 28 June 2012

I'm an Environmentalist.

This is not a rant. I am writing on behalf of the hundreds who call themselves students of Environmental Studies; environmentalists, if you will. 

You see, we’ve been placed into a box – like many other folks pursuing certain academic things – and that box can be very limiting in terms of image and portrayal of this discipline, leading to more than a few prejudgements from those on the outside. I want to set the record straight. Right here, right now. There’s probably a lot of inaccuracies or - and I hate to use this word - ‘labels’ attached to us Environmental Studies students, but this is just a short list of the ideas other people have had about me during my four years in university. 

1)    I’m a hippy

Nothing against hippies, I’m just not one. On the contrary, identifying yourself as a ‘hippy’ is nothing to be ashamed about; hippies have pulled the human rights wagon further than most groups. At the height of the American Counterculture Movement during the 1960’s, these folks worked on having an incredibly positive impact in many places. If it weren’t for the ‘hippies’,  LGBTQ Rights, freedom of speech, anti-war campaigns and environmentalism wouldn’t be close to what we know and have today. 

And I wasn’t part of any of that. So please, stop calling me a hippie, and read a history book, or better yet watch Zeitgeist

2)    I am solely responsible for saving the world 

There’s a really scary word used by big businesses called externalities. It refers to the residual aspects of industry; the side effects of mining, lumber exports, building houses, global banking, etc. and, you probably guessed it, these externalities really mess things up. The damage caused by whatever means to create a product are often ignored because some people think that other interest groups will just take care of it.
According to this logic, I am part of this ‘other group’, solely because I will graduate in a year with a degree that flashes ‘here they come to save the dayyyyyyy!’ In rides the environmentalists on golden steeds, ready to fight for justice and make everything right again. It’s this kind of image that perpetuates thoughts like ‘somebody else will take care of this’ or rebuttals like ‘isn’t there people advocating for that already??’

Sometimes we ride in on golden crocodiles, too.
Take a good look back into history. The only time anything big and important ever got done, such as significant legislation enacted, human rights extended, wars ended, etc, it was because a multitude of people from a multitude of backgrounds came together over some commonality. Environmental Studies isn’t trying to breed a group of distinct individuals who will save the world from inevitable destruction, it is trying to create people who will bring more people together. So stop relying on me to fix everything. 

3)    I am going to work for Greenpeace/PITA

As I near the end of my time as an undergraduate student in university, I enter the realm of expectation I think all graduates-to-be transition into (whether we like it or not). It’s a period of your life when the apparent immaturity and carelessness of student life begins to fade and the adult you forms….As others may see it. Soon, a relentlessly annoying golden question will begin to crawl its way into your life: ‘So, what are you going to do with your (blank) degree after graduating?’

'Lets throw our hats to show how hopelessly unidirectional our lives are!'
I get it. Most people mean no harm with this question; it’s motivated by an unconscious desire to categorize and place you into a nice sounding career and/or lifestyle. You’ve just spent thousands of dollars and four years on a piece of paper, now do something with it. But it’s not that easy, and the answer, these days, won’t seem quite as sexy. In fact, there might not be an answer at all.

A large majority of my peers who have, or are about to, graduate university don’t have a very straightforward post-degree plan. Or if they do, it does not involve finding a permanent job and settling down. Contrary to this trend, I have literally had conversations with other people (sometimes other students) who have assumed I will end up working for Greenpeace when I graduate. Again, it’s that urge to find a poster child for every discipline, and then automatically tag the student to it. That way you won’t have to put any thought into the answer. Business majors have Pfizer, English majors will be teachers, and Fine Arts majors will be jobless (okay, maybe that last one is a tad bit accurate….). 

4)    I practice (inset random generic spiritual thing here)

Yoga. Meditation. Reiki. Tai Chi. Buddhism. Hoola Hooping. 

Whether I’ve practiced these things or not, it’s a bit unfair for one to assume that all Environmental Studies students know everything there is to know about vegetarianism or Jainism. It’s not like we synthesize every one of these activities by osmosis and default into Ghandi. I don’t even think I’d particularly like that. 

5)    I’m going to make you feel bad for eating that chicken. 

There is one thing I can say for sure about Environmental Studies students (at least the one’s at York), and that is there is much higher than average percentage of vegetarians in the program (I being one of them). It could be that a lot of the ideals we study foster this sense of stewardship, but then again it also gets challenged by many in our discipline at the same time. 

There’s this idea largely held by non-vegetarians that us herbivores make it our life mission to publicly shame others while they consume meat. What becomes misunderstood is that our dietary restrictions are for most of us veggies (and I hope I speak the truth on this) a personal choice. Meaning, it has nothing to do with your choices for eating meat. Meaning, you don’t have to ask us if we’re offended before you eat that leg of chicken. It’s okay, you can still be my friend.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Diagnosis: BUSHED

Have you ever started to read a book and, about three chapters in, realize that you are also playing the plot out in real life? Sometimes the right story will land in your hands and have important relevance to your life at that very moment. I have a habit of doing this.
Such was the case when, last April, I purchased Adventures in Solitude: What Not To Wear to a Nude Putluck and Other Stories from Desolation Sound by author and CBC Radio host Grant Lawrence. I figured it would be a good supplement to the trip I was about to take to the West, but wasn’t quite ready for how connected I would feel to Lawrence’s lifelong experiences in the remote Southern coastal destination of Desolation Sound. Now, I could probably write an entire post on how a dying breed of talk show hosts at CBC (Stuart McLean, George Stroumboulopoulos, Jian Ghomeshi) are carrying on the forgotten art of storytelling and proper interviews, but it’s safe to say that Grant Lawrence can be added to that list.
Lawrence’s award winning book stood out to me in one very poignant way: he framed his past at the Sound as both a physical and mental challenge, bringing to the forefront the idea that prolonged periods of isolation in sparsely populated areas can have serious psychological consequences. In fact, about half way through the book, Lawrence dives into the full details of what he refers to as ‘going bush’ (can you see the connections I’m drawing here?!?). According to the author, there are five stages of ‘going bush’: extreme loneliness; onset of depression; resentment; paranoia and eventually.....death. According to Lawrence, many individuals who lived in the Sound for years ended up committing suicide as a result of an inability to cope with ‘going bush’.
Exhibit A: Just another day in the bush.
 As I obviously have a tough time empathising with the final stage of ‘going bush’, I can certainly think of times while I was travelling that I experienced the other four to some degree. My other blog that I co-manage, Becoming Bushed, is dedicated to taking a humorous approach to the mental effects of living far away from anywhere, much like Lawrence does as he recounts his time at his father’s rustic cabin in Desolation Sound. All of this begs the question: should ‘going bush’ actually be considered a serious mental disorder?
My natural curiosity has led me to the internet, the source of all knowledge. Not surprisingly, it was difficult to find any dependable sources that would fully relate the idea of ‘going bush’ with a mental disorder, but I did find evidence of extreme isolation and social segregation which led to pre-existing mental health problems such as severe anxiety, manic depression and schizophrenia. Two major works on this topic are the books The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty First Century (J.Olds, 2009) and From Antarctica to Outer Space: Life in Isolation and Confinement (A. Harrison, 1991). The former conducted scientific research to conclude that ‘Surprising new studies tell a grim truth about social isolation: being disconnected diminishes happiness, health, and longevity; increases aggression; and correlates with increasing rates of violent crime.’ (Olds, pg. 24). The data can be scary, but coping mechanisms exist.
In a world where the vast majority of people are moving to densely populated areas, the plight of the lonely traveller may be more pushed aside than ever. It is easy to detach yourself from friends and family back home while pursuing solitude, but it can be unhealthy at the same time. I’ve learned over my years of semi-nomadic living that it is important to always stay in tune with life outside of your immediate reality. One great way to achieve this is to start a blog, communicate with loved ones frequently, or read the news every morning. Always keep yourself and your head in check when you’re in the bush, or the bush controls you.....