The Green Path

In her book, Mindfully Green, Stephanie Kaza argues that environmentalism must be about more than the personal actions we take or the public policies we support. To be truly transformative, it must change the way we see ourselves, our world, and the relationship between the two.

Illustration by Tomi Um

To be truly transformative, it must change the way we see ourselves, our world, and the relationship between the two. In short, it must be a spiritual path.

At times it can seem like we are making little progress on environmental problems. Over and over I hear these questions: What can one person do? What should I do?

My answers have come a long way from the early eco-enthusiasm of the 1960s. We felt sure we could save everything if people only knew how much was at stake. Today we face environmental concerns with more awareness, recognizing the political, economic, and social constraints that limit our actions. The more we understand ecosystem complexities and human inequities, the more we realize how much effort it will take to turn the ship toward a sustainable future.

Truthfully, we can’t even begin to realize how much effort it will take. In the last few years there has been a deluge of books on the market and Internet websites offering “easy steps” to being green. People everywhere are wanting to do the right thing; there is a hunger for information and guidance. Most often the focus at this first stage of response is personal: What can I do to create a green lifestyle? How can I live in a more eco-friendly manner? The guidebooks point out ways to save energy, make wise food choices, and consider green products. These are important steps in the right direction; they offer a way to begin living with the Earth’s health in mind. But we will need to take this conversation much further if we are to truly address the state of the world today.

As I have spoken to audiences around the country, I have been struck by what could be called “green zeal,” an almost fervent sense of engagement with environmental concerns. People feel passionately about protecting rain forests and whales; they want everyone to know that polar bears and penguins are threatened. Behind the passion is a deeply felt need to do something right, to find a way to correct our past environmental errors. Almost no point on the globe is free of human influence now; we have left our mark in virtually all the world’s ecosystems. People today feel the sorrow of these thoughtless actions in the past—the once-expansive forests so diminished, the native peoples decimated. There is a great well of shame and grief wanting relief from the painful consequences of our own shortsighted actions. This manifests as a need for healing, for making life changes that will take us in a kinder direction, one that can sustain our own lives as well as the rest of life on Earth.

Our anxiety over an uncertain future has become particularly acute with the new understanding that climate change will affect us all. We have the sense that global support systems are lurching out of control, that things have gone too far that we may already be in serious danger. Climate advocates are urging government leaders to invest in a green vision for a more hopeful future. Businesses are making energy and waste audits to cut costs and improve long-term economic viability. Voters are calling for a “green jobs” economy to help us make the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Green zeal is necessary to change our ways quickly, to meet environmental goals that would be impossible without global cooperation.

In the midst of so much greening activity, many people are making significant changes to their lives, taking up what I’ve come to call the “green practice path.” They are changing their lightbulbs, taking the bus, insulating their homes, serving on community boards, and passing along green values to their children. From what I’ve observed, these efforts are based in much deeper motivation than home improvement. People are thinking deeply about what matters to them and taking their actions seriously. I believe they are bringing their best ethical and spiritual attention to environmental concerns and trying to match their actions to their moral principles.

People come to green practice from many walks of life and are taking initiative in many different arenas. Green zeal is turning up in every corner of the Earth. Thousands of people are living their own inspiring stories as they find a way to share their green ethics on behalf of a more peaceful and genuinely happy world. There is no single green path; the path is determined by individual experience, local needs, and personal motivation. The green path is, by and large, a secular practice, open to all who feel the call. It seems to me to reflect what the Dalai Lama calls an “ethics for the new millennium,” an ethics built on compassion, restraint, and acceptance of universal responsibility for the well-being of the Earth.

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 ofsuccess 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 exciting 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.

This is how a person enters the next stage of the path of practice. You may not have planned on it. You may find yourself surprised by your own growing convictions. Or you may be wondering how to become a more effective advocate for the environment. As a professor I am invited to be part of such wonderings, as students come to me considering graduate school or midcareer professionals ask about switching fields. Each person arrives in my office carrying a bundle of questions and possible options. They want to think out loud with someone and find something that matches their yearning. I ask them what has brought them this far on the path, and then I try to gauge what level of commitment they imagine for themselves. I listen while they share what they have been thinking about, no matter how tentative their vision. They have come for encouragement, to hear someone say, “Keep going, yes, you can do more.” It is clear they want a wider engagement with environmental concerns in their personal or professional lives, or maybe even both.

Taking up this phase of deeper commitment involves several significant inner processes that inform each other. When the green critique penetrates further into your life, you may need to rethink personal priorities. Every day and every hour we are making choices that reflect our current priorities. We choose to invest our time, energy, money, and relationships in certain things over others. Rethinking priorities means examining our current patterns and seeing if they really reflect what matters most to us. If environmental concerns come to occupy more of your everyday thoughts and activities, then it makes sense to move them more into the forefront of your activities. For example, you might learn enough about eating local foods to decide to grow some food of your own. This then means investing in a garden plot and in tools, seeds, soil

amendments, compost box, and so on. It also requires an investment of your own precious and limited time. As you share the fruits and vegetables of your labors with others, success generates its own momentum and your investment pays off.

Rethinking priorities leads naturally to the second process of personal assessment. From those early stages of beginner’s mind, you now have accumulated new skills and knowledge and likely have developed ethical stances in the areas where you have some understanding. So you ask yourself: What do I know? What can I actually do? What more do I need to be helpful on another level? It can be very helpful to talk this through with someone who can be a witness to your personal growth as a concerned Earth citizen. As much as you see what you have gained thus far, it will be obvious that there is much more to learn. It is not possible to do it all, no matter how concerned you are. You are only one person with a finite number of hours to give to Earth care. So you must make some strategic choices to guide your next steps. For some people, what is appropriate is more education and professional development to prepare for full-time work in an environmental field. This is a common motivation for seeking a graduate degree. Others may need a change of location, a geographical move to bring them closer to a hub of environmental activity, such as Washington, D.C., or one of the rising centers of sustainability, such as Portland, Oregon. Still others may want a major change in lifestyle or more spiritual training to support deeper environmental work.

When you come to take environmental work seriously, you realize you are doing it on behalf of all beings, not just for your own well-being. Looking at the Big Picture means understanding the nature of the current threats, seeing who the political players are, finding the initiatives that make the most sense in the long run. It also means really trying to apply global principles of justice and sustainability. We cannot do effective environmental work without taking up the roles of race, class, gender, power, and privilege in perpetuating environmental damage and inequity.

In the last few years the global conversation has shifted to focus on the impacts of climate change. All other environmental work seems to be subsumed or compared to the call to “do something” about climate change. Many of us find ourselves falling short in knowledge or skill to respond to this call and perplexed at how to shift personal priorities. Reflecting on the Big Picture of climate change, peak oil, and the exploding demand for resources is very unsettling. It is a time of great foment, with many ideas surfacing, many big conversations at play that will affect all of us. We are all being invited into this second stage of the practice path, with no time to waste.

Taking up the Path

For some people, certainly not all, there will be a third stage of the green practice path. At this point the practice becomes a “lifeway.” In Native American traditions, people speak of everyday practice and culture fused into a way of life, something practiced by the whole community. The lifeway includes ethics, spirituality, social mores, and a deeply tested way of doing things that makes sense. A lifeway is not a religion; it is not something you can adopt or be baptized into. A lifeway is also not an identity, in the sense of ethnic or political identity. A lifeway is a way of being in the world that carries strong intention and shared wisdom. People who follow a shared lifeway help each other develop this wisdom and the strength to persevere under duress.

To introduce my class to this idea of lifeway, I invite my friend Amy Seidel to visit as a colleague and role model. Amy is the director of Teal Farm, a demonstration site in northern Vermont for living sustainably in the future. Each year she gives us a progress report on developments at the farm. Plantings have been designed with a warming climate in mind; the system of solar and micro-hydro sources is set up to feed energy back into the grid. In the main house there are facilities for bulk food preservation and storage.

I have walked around the site with Amy, marveling at the care and foresight shown in so many details. Amy describes the vision of living close to the land on what it produces. She grounds this vision solidly in ecological principles, looking clear-eyed at a warming planet. She doesn’t exhort the students; she just shares what she knows about sustainable practices and how to plan for a green future. It is obvious that she is extending an invitation to the green lifeway to everyone in the room. Afterward the students come down and mob her with questions, eager to learn more.

If you find you are revising your priorities to reflect your environmental concerns and seeking out friendships that support your environmental priorities, you may see that something significant has shifted in your depth of commitment. Thinking about the Earth is no longer something you do now and then; it has become a way of life. Non-harming and systems thinking have become second nature to you. In every situation you look for the green alternative that makes the most environmental sense. Because this is a way of life, you feel morally obliged to look at every aspect of your food choices, your buying patterns, your energy use, your civic contributions to greening your community.

There is no single lifeway to hold up conveniently as a gold standard. You do not necessarily have to be a vegan or vegetarian, or live off-grid or in a green-built house, or have a job influencing environmental policy. You do not have to drive a hybrid car, grow a garden, or wear organic clothing. What marks the green lifeway is not specific choices but depth of commitment and intention. The person in this stage of the practice path takes it very seriously, questioning the impacts of their actions in all that they do. This process of ethical reflection is fueled by a deep and abiding love for the well-being of life on Earth.

From this perspective, any aspect of human activity is open to ethical reflection and incorporation into a green lifeway. In new and inspiring ways, people are carrying this process forward into uncharted territory. Churches and temples are trying to green their sanctuaries as part of their congregational lifeway. Universities are looking for ways to green not only their curricula but also their buildings. A local green parenting store opened up recently on our downtown pedestrian marketplace. Green marriages have come into fashion to support couples committed to caring for the Earth in all they do. And there is now a green burial movement in the United States which considers the environmental ethics of our choices in dealing with the dead.

But let me repeat again, lifeway is not lifestyle. It is not about personal choice as a green consumer or the perfecting of green virtue. A lifeway is informed by the wisdom and experience of others and is nourished by building community with others on the green practice path. These may be friends, colleagues, family members, or role models from afar. “Community” may not necessarily mean neighborhood; people following this path find each other across the continent and globe. We encourage each other, we lean on each other, and we build on each other’s strengths and experiments. When there are setbacks or frustrations, as in the last eight years of the U.S. presidential administration’s leadership, we look to others in Europe, India, Australia, and beyond to keep the momentum going and the practice path strong. Experimental communities in places such as Auroville, India, model visions of the future where practicing a green lifeway is backed by infrastructure as well as intention.

Some time ago I came to the realization that no matter how committed I was to a green lifeway, this work would not be completed in my lifetime. The forests would not all grow back, the energy grids would not all go solar, the roads would not all have bike lanes before I left this world. At the time I thought that was discouraging, but mostly it was deeply sobering. It led me to see that it is very important that I pass the green spark on to the next generation. Young people need to be mentored and encouraged to explore the green path of practice. They need support, opportunities, friends, and a multigenerational community of practice partners. The vision I carry of a healthy and life-sustaining Earth will take some time to accomplish. It is a cross-generational and cross-cultural project. We don’t know how long we must invest in this path of practice. A very important part of following the green lifeway is inviting younger people along, showing them it is possible to nurture the green heart and live a life of conscious intention.

How Then Shall We Live?

In today’s world, the pace of change seems to accelerate exponentially year to year. It is not easy to take the time to reflect on our actions, assess priorities, set intention, and build community. Mostly we fall short of our green hopes and ideals. Sometimes the rate of destruction seems to be speeding up right before our eyes. But it is also true that the rate of learning—the spread of information and new ways of doing things—is faster than we ever could have imagined ten or twenty years ago. Yes, people and nations vary considerably in their commitment to the new sustainability practices. But the overall momentum toward the green practice path is accelerating and headed in the right direction, urged on now by the most pressing matter of climate change.

I know only some pieces of what will be required in taking up these challenges. But I do know we need each others’ voices and hearts as we deliberate about how to proceed. The green practice path will be fraught with difficulty; the obstacles are everywhere. We need to understand that these very obstacles are the path. We will all be called to deepen our green commitment to be ready for the complexities, the impossibilities, the world as we can’t yet imagine it—both terrible and beautiful in its unfolding.

Excerpted from Mindfully Green: A Personal and Spiritual Guide to Whole Earth Thinking, by Stephanie Kaza. © 2008 Stephanie Kaza. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications.