Were you swayed by a slow trickle of devastating facts and figures? Or can you trace your environmentalism to one major turning point? Although I grew up hearing about the three Rs and my parents were thrifty enough to make us tear paper napkins in half at dinner, I wasn’t particularly concerned until one incident in my last year at UC Santa Cruz.
UCSC is one of the more flamboyantly liberal universities in California, set in the redwoods at the foot of the Pacific Ocean. I had been leaning further to the left for a few years, but when I got to Santa Cruz, where it was trendy to be obnoxiously vegan, to ‘show love for Iraq,’ and to attend pot-filled student rallies, I did what any habitual misfit would do: I went the other way. In quiet rebellion against the militant treehuggers on campus, I didn’t go vegetarian, as I’d always intended to do once I left home. I didn’t shop at the student co-op. I sneered at overzealous idealism.
Anyway. I was taking an astronomy class on man’s exploration of the solar system. The topic that day was Venus. In a darkened lecture hall, my professor, in his cute Australian accent, explained that Venus and Earth had started off as virtual twins. Venus was a litle too close to the sun. The extra heat evaporated what might have been water oceans and turned them into thick clouds that created a strong greenhouse effect. Venus is now a ball of superheated, dense, poisonous gases over a rocky surface.
I walked out of that lecture hall, blinking in the bright sunshine. It was a characteristically beautiful day: on the horizon, clear blue skies with fluffy white clouds flowed seamlessly into the blue gray of the Pacific Ocean. I watched clouds glide silently across the sky the entire bus ride home and realized, for the first time, how extraordinarily, improbably, against-all-odds lucky we and everything else on Earth were to be here at all. I thought of Venus’s desolate, pocked surface and sulfuric acid rains and was amazed at the deep blue of the sky and harmless water vapor clouds that I had taken for granted every year of my life before then. For the first time ever, I felt truly grateful to be alive.
That day was when it all started. It took another few years for me to go totally vegetarian, the support of a boyfriend and now spouse who had made this journey a few years earlier, and the death of my best friend to open up the emotional space that I needed to really, truly give a damn about the Earth. Even on my most pessimistic days in which I am convinced we’re screwed, there’s still something about seeing blue skies and cottony clouds that makes me feel astonished and humbled to be a steward of this planet that beat the odds.
So, it’s your turn now. What was your environmental epiphany?