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If we engage green living in more depth, it becomes an expression of our deepest moral values. The “work” of green living becomes less a chore and more a locus of ethical development. We conserve water not because we should be frugal but because we respect the Earth’s resources. This shift in thinking and understanding can be quite profound. The conversation moves from personal sacrifice to real consideration of the nature of our connection with the Earth. When we come to see ourselves as part of the great web of life, in relationship with all beings, we are naturally drawn to respond with compassion.

A Path of Practice

When people start out on the green path, environmental issues can feel like a separate world, something very much apart from their own lives. That sense of separation makes it harder to find a way to become part of the work in an effective and meaningful way. In a world of myriad environmental challenges, it is not always clear where to make a contribution. How do you know where to put your effort? How can you tell if your work is making a difference? As you look for a way to address what is disturbing to you about our planetary situation, it is important to keep asking such questions until the appropriate answers arrive.

You might wonder where exactly to apply the green principles we’ve discussed. Should you work with a nonprofit organization or a government agency? Should you get a new, more green job? Should you work locally, nationally, or internationally? Hardly ever does anyone survey all the possible options and then make a rational decision about “what is best.” There is too much going on; there is too much to know. This may seem overwhelming as you step onto the green path, but actually it is a good thing. We have come a very long way since the word “ecology” made its debut in the 1960s. In the twenty-first century, understanding ecology is central to sustaining life on Earth as we know it. There are many conversations, many opportunities, and many good causes at every possible scale of engagement. The key is finding the right “fit” with your knowledge, skills, interest, and values. It also helps if someone extends you a hand.

Being naive can be an advantage to the seeker. You approach any new topic of Earth-keeping with a fresh mind, a willing curiosity, and your own humble honesty about how little you know. This means you must turn to others to learn more, coming with open hands as a student. Everything you encounter has some value because you don’t yet know what will be useful. Beginner’s mind is a beautiful gift for those entering the stream or taking up a new phase of the work. By asking for help or information, you take small steps in building relationships with others doing this work. This is very important; it is too easy to become discouraged if you try to go it alone in facing environmental issues. Forging connections with others makes it seem possible to do the work; those with experience are a testimony of success to surviving the challenges.

For some, the call or invitation comes first from the natural world itself. In my own formative years in environmental work I lived on the edge of a wild area near the University of California in Santa Cruz. I would often go for walks among the coast live oaks on the grassy terraces or down to the dark canyon of the redwood-lined creek. During the long and emotionally demanding process of completing my graduate studies, I took my unshaped questions to the land, letting my feet guide me as I walked. I learned to respond to the pulls in different directions, not knowing where I would end up, trusting the process for its own wisdom. Sometimes I would find myself climbing an oak on the mesa for the big view of ocean and sky. Sometimes I would crawl close to a small spring nestled in moss, feeding the creek drop by drop. I found answers through listening closely, waiting for insight that made sense in a way I could recognize.

Some find the call arising from conversations with friends or from watching a stirring film. A neighbor tells you about her community garden plot; a colleague explains his house insulation project. After the widespread showing of Al Gore’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, many people suddenly felt called to take up the challenge of climate change. For some, the response is quiet and personal, an inner reflection or reckoning: It’s time, I must do something. For others, the process of taking up the green path is social and full of excited possibility, like the coming together of thousands of students involved in the Focus the Nation actions on climate. The sheer social momentum of so much inspiring activity can galvanize a crowd to new levels of green commitment.

This seeking or calling process generates a need to know more, to see who’s doing what, to get your bearings in an unfamiliar universe. These days it is not hard to develop a basic working knowledge of ecological principles and to learn about key areas of concern where people are engaged as citizens and professionals. Information is quite accessible on the Internet or in introductory books or environmental magazines. Many environmental groups welcome volunteers interested in broadening their knowledge base by working with others who know more. It can be tempting to want to study until you feel you know enough to take action. But if you get bogged down with information overload, it might undermine the forward momentum you are trying to generate. To counter this hazard, you should keep an eye on what I call your “juice meter.” Which topics and issues generate energy for you? When do you notice your enthusiasm barometer going up? These moments offer important feedback in the learning process; they tell you what to pursue and what to leave for others to pursue. You don’t even need to know why something is exciting, you just need to follow that thread to the next step.

In any given problem-solving arena, the question will arise: What is effective action? This is another way of asking: What can I actually do? How can I be effective, given who and what I know now? How can my work have some impact? These are important questions that should always be kept nearby in evaluating your potential to contribute, which, of course, is constantly changing. The newcomer to any environmental topic has a thousand ideas of “what people should do” to “save the environment.” The good news is that most of these ideas are already in progress somewhere. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel; you just need to find people who are already acting on your good ideas and join them. Chances are that they will already have assessed the options for effective action and will have developed initiatives that fit the current situation. People with more knowledge and experience, whether they are with the Sierra Club or the Department of Environmental Conservation or the local recycling center, have already given these matters quite a bit of thought.

The most important aspect in the early stages of the green practice path is to find what is personally satisfying and meaningful. Without this, you won’t continue the work. It is also crucial to make some friends in the process. Without friends, you will feel isolated and lonely and the work won’t be as much fun. People don’t usually think of environmental practice as “fun,” but if you are spending time with good people and sharing a sense of purpose you are having a good time helping to create a more sustainable world. Whether you take up this work in your family setting or as a volunteer, in school or downtown, it is all useful. It is all part of the process of shifting the social paradigm toward active care for the place where you live, the place you call home. Your early experiences with green practice often set the direction for where the path leads you next, which may be further into the fray.

Deepening the Practice

Being a beginner with any environmental topic, by definition, cannot last. The more you know about the environment, the less you can rest in blissful ignorance. It is too disturbing. The more you know about climate change, threatened species, energy needs, and human impact, the more concern you are likely to feel. The more time you spend in beautiful natural areas, the more you find out about the physical and political threats to their well-being. The more you understand about social inequity and environmental injustice, the harder it is to see your own actions in isolation. Environmental knowledge can be a double-edged sword: learning more about the world’s suffering often generates alarm and emotional distress. At the same time that very knowledge can galvanize you to take action and put that knowledge to work to alleviate suffering.

As a beginner you may have ventured into environmental work in a single arena such as food and diet or caring about a personally significant place. Your shift to green thinking may have come from a single bout of intense commitment or smaller explorations at a gradual pace. If you stay on the green practice path, your range of interests and concerns will expand. If your interest has been sparked through organic foods, you might want to learn more about eating local. If you are concerned about the health impacts of pesticides, you might want to learn more about hormone disrupters. At some point you realize you are asking the green question more and more often: What is the environmental impact of this product? Of this housing development? Of this zoning policy? You realize you are no longer living in a bubble, as if your actions had no impact anywhere. You know they do. Your environmental innocence is gone.

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