By Caira Clark
When someone asks me what I studied at university, my answer almost immediately reveals my values: I studied environmental sustainability.
Reusable water bottles and compact fluorescent lightbulbs, farmers markets and public transit, vegetarianism and secondhand stores are some of the first things that come to mind. But my degree is more than that. It is a reminder that I know about human impacts on the natural world and that this knowledge requires action. In my life post-graduation, though, committing to action and prioritizing these values is more challenging than I ever thought it could be.
I didn’t arrive at university knowing what I would study. Instead, I slipped into my degree after my first year, during which I took courses that weren’t offered in my small-town high school. My parents are very self-sufficient — I often say they have an aversion to grass because their yard is an enormous vegetable garden and orchard — and that influenced me while I was growing up. There are many photographs of my sister and me holding giant zucchinis or helping to make bread. Through my parents, I also became involved with environmental organizations in my community. So at university, after one class in environmental sustainability, I was hooked.
While earning my degree, I lived within walking distance of school and had access to public transportation by simply purchasing an inexpensive bus pass. My university provided free vegan meals for everyone, three times a week, as part of our student fees. I lived close to a grocery store with a bulk section, close to secondhand stores and close to stores that stocked local produce and products. I often had time during the day to travel to neighborhoods with more sustainable options if I couldn’t find what I wanted nearby. But my scholarships gave me financial stability, and I felt comfortable paying a little bit extra for more expensive but still environmentally friendly options nearer to me from time to time.
“Committing to action and prioritizing these values is more challenging than I ever thought it could be.”
Now that I’m no longer in school, I’m faced with new obstacles to maintaining a sustainable lifestyle.
Short-term jobs are the first challenge. While I look for something more permanent and save for graduate school, temporary work is a necessity — work that unfortunately is not always in the environmental sector.
Retail jobs, for example, are associated with consumerism, a complex subject for an environmentalist. If I sell new items every day, my personal energy reductions and waste reductions seem very small in comparison to the new consumption I am fueling. Then again, these products would be sold anyway — if I didn’t have the job, someone else would simply take my place. I have applied for some of these retail jobs, but luckily, so far I have been employed in other sectors.
Having short-term jobs and saving for school also mean that I am faced head-on with the privilege associated with environmentalism. It is a concept I learned about at university: being environmentally friendly is easier if you are wealthy. Certainly reducing my environmental impacts has saved me some money — shopping for used clothing, buying in bulk and walking instead of driving have all helped me hold on to some cash — but often environmentally friendly practices require more time, access and financial resources than I have. This is another challenge.
Now, I live on a tight budget with room only for necessities. I live in a new apartment in a neighborhood where rent is lower and services are fewer than in my old neighbourhood. Considering the less-frequent bus schedules and the time I spend on transit to and from work, I don’t always have time to travel to access better options or even always have the time to cook. And I don’t have money to spend on the more expensive sustainable choices nearby.
“Sometimes I just can’t be as green as I would like to be.”
Sometimes, environmentalism feels like a chore — or altogether out of reach. That really bothers me. I have been taught that I can always do more, that individual impacts matter, and that time and money are not excuses. Everyone can be green. Well, sometimes I just can’t be as green as I would like to be. But I’m coming to terms with that.
My environmental sustainability degree is not a contract. To me it represents a commitment to our planet, but that doesn’t mean I have to struggle to maintain environmental perfection. I am not an Instagram poster child for the zero-waste movement or a vegan YouTuber with many thousands of followers, nor do I want to be (though even they are allowed to face challenges and make mistakes). Instead, I am a person who makes choices every day based on my knowledge and my circumstances. I try my best, and the best I can do now is strive to make personal choices that benefit me, my community and the environment. I can try to learn more and to do more, but at any given moment, I can only use what’s available to me.
For now, I do know that the next time I need groceries, I can create a meal plan so that I don’t buy unnecessary food; I can mend rips in my clothing; I can borrow from the library rather than buying new books. I can celebrate these achievements and recognize that through these actions, I am living my values.
In the future, I hope that I will have more time, access and money — nothing extravagant, but enough of these resources to make it possible for me to further reduce my environmental impacts. But even if I don’t, I can continue to make conscious choices.
No matter what, every day, I’ll be doing something — living what I value as much as possible. This thought calms me.
I will always do what I can.
Caira Clark is a freelance writer and fisheries biologist in Halifax, Nova Scotia.