I recently asked some elementary school students to illustrate what the Earth would look like in 50 years. Among their interpretations emerged a striking image: an earth divided in two. One side colored in the vibrant blues and greens of life, with solar panels lining rooftops and lush trees bearing smiley faces. The other doused in the fiery red of climate catastrophe, punctuated by dark pools of pollution and death. The students showed me their drawings, and then asked me what mine might look like.
I confess that my mind works like those fifth graders. My musings on the future of our planet teeter between such polar images of abject poverty or mutual flourishing. It is hard to imagine a plausible middle ground.
I think like this because I hear two narratives explaining the way of the world. While one is filled with inspiring climate stories, ambitious carbon neutrality goals and new commitments to fossil fuel divestment and the other consists of oil spills, greenwashing campaigns and rampant deforestation.
When things are leaping ahead while simultaneously lagging behind, how can we make sense of it all? We know the Earth is suffering, but if she were to undergo a health check, would the doctor pronounce her state as terminal, or is she on the road to a slow recovery? Are our efforts triaging or curing? Are we at the defining moment of our time yet? How close are we to saving the world, or are we not even close enough to say?
During my gap year, I’ve attempted to grasp at some answers. I’ve researched environmental policy in a towering office building, shoveled buffalo manure at a permaculture farm, led young children on outdoor holiday camps, developed a proposal to invest in art-based environmental education, served customers at a zero-waste grocery store and organized an environmental leadership program for secondary students. And as president of the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, I’ve kept our environmental community and our advocacy going through a new online terrain.
I thought that, like sampling a cheese platter, by taking small bites out of various career opportunities, I would be able to cross off the ones I disliked. Maybe I’d end up with an array of options for my future in environmental-related work. I envisioned returning to university with peace of mind, knowing that I’d found a fulfilling career path to dive into after graduation.
But as it turns out, I like all the cheeses. I saw how impact can take many forms: a set of polished policy recommendations, a middle-aged shopper learning about zero-waste for the first time, a five-year-old clutching a DIY propagated planter on her way home, determined to see her Chinese oregano take root.
To me, all of this work is impactful and necessary. So what do I choose? I cannot decide. I want to do it all but even if I could, I fear that it still wouldn’t be enough. As 2050 nears, the deadline to meet our climate goals encroaches on us. Yet there’s still so much to be done.
Sometimes, I wish there was a real-time progress bar showing how far left there is to go to avert climate disaster. Then I start to question the ultimate goal of the environmental movement. Is it suffice to prevent catastrophe, or should we be aiming for a future that is as just and equitable as it is clean and habitable? The answer is … yes, we should. Pursuing such a virtuous goal only adds to the challenge, though it offers a beacon of hope: regardless of how interdisciplinary and accomplished a person you are, it is literally impossible to go it alone.
We need everyone, and I mean everyone, to value sustainability in their lives. That is the only way forward to a better future for all within our limited time frame. Whether your “cause” is economic equality, anti-racism, gender equality, healthcare or criminal justice, sustainability belongs in your vision — just as social justice is inalienable to our goals. To apply sustainability as a decision-making framework is simply to make deliberate choices to improve the wellbeing of people and the environment, for our relationship with the Earth is a reflection of our relationships with each other. Treat the environment with respect and a spirit of reciprocity. We can apply this same model to repair and regenerate our ways of living with each other. At the end of the day, resilient communities can only thrive on a healthy planet. And honestly, who doesn’t like nature?
I told the students that I don’t think our collective outcomes will look like burning down in flames or bathing in rainbows. Realistically, the future will look like the best and worst of both worlds. There will be disaster, and there will be joy. Isolation and community. Pain and affluence. The contradictions will only become more extreme as the weather does. Some of the people I’ve met this year have been fighting for climate justice since the very first Earth Day back in 1970. I’ve found that the most impactful people aren’t necessarily the ones counting the most tangible successes in their work, but those with the conviction to keep going, 51 years later. They have sustained their hope through networks of like-minded people, from which emerge a vision larger than what any individual can possibly attain on their own. Seek those communities, visit a green space together, dream big. These are the first steps we can all take for a better future.