Volume 1: Editor’s Note — Environmental Identity and Professional Choices

Welcome to Whole Terrain

Emerson Blake, Editor

“There is a common story among us.” These words begin one of the essays in the inaugural issue of Whole Terrain. Indeed, for those of us who have chosen the environmental profession – whether that profession be education, resource management, science, advocacy, administration, or communications – we do share a story. It is a story of a decision to work for the earth, of finding the means to create the change we all believe must occur, and of the considerable challenges we face in our work and lives. It is a story of the responsibility for the environment we all feel, and ultimately, a story of whether our response to that feeling is successful.

Whole Terrain is about this common story. These essays celebrate our practice and the people who work to create a new balance between humans and nature. Polls show that three-quarters of Americans consider themselves “environmentalists,” but many fewer have chosen the environment as the basis of their professions. Likewise, a great array of publications address nature, the environment, natural resources, and the environmental crisis. Among these, Whole Terrain is dedicated to reflection on environmental practice, and to the people who work to find solutions to environmental problems.

Our decision to become environmental professionals is unique because it comes not from self-interest or financial motivation, but from a sense of connection to the earth, a sense of duty, or even a sense of despair. Our personal and professional identities are closely related, and the lack of distinction between them can provide us with both great satisfaction and considerable confusion. Because of the nature of environmental crises, our challenges are unique as well. Our ideas often meet considerable resistance, and our values can be poorly understood. The organizations we work for are often resource poor. We must accept the necessity of compromise, yet we know that change cannot wait indefinitely. On the whole, the lofty goal of our profession can be overwhelming.

Whole Terrain is an invitation to explore the meaning of our profession and respond to its challenges. Here we may share our thoughts on the skills and philosophy needed to succeed in our work. We may acknowledge frustrations and fears, and explore the means of maintaining our values in the face of opposition. We may seek clarity in the relationship between our personal and professional lives. We may take the time to step back, question ourselves, and engage in healthy self-criticism. Having done this, we can then return with new perspectives and new visions that will help us reach our common goal: a healthy relationship between humanity and the earth.

All of the essays in this issue are grounded in reflection. Whether they are about the professional or personal skills needed to succeed, or some integration of the two, they demonstrate the awareness – the mindfulness – we need to practice if we are to successfully reach our goals. Why reflection serves as an essential element of successful environmental work is demonstrated in Mitchell Thomashow’s article, “Towards Mindful Environmental Practice.” Our profession is full of challenges to our values, over-commitment, professional obsession, and despair in the face of destruction. “Under these circumstances,” he writes, “it is vital that as environmental professionals, we are capable of articulating and projecting our core values about nature. By doing so, our reasons for becoming environmentalists remain clear in the face of challenging and difficult situations.” He then presents an educational strategy he uses in helping students develop the “environmental identity” they will refer to during the course of their careers and lives. This identity, gained through an understanding of their formative experiences with nature, their relationship to other species and the material world, and their sense of place, provides the basis of professional practice and guides them to “right livelihood.”

The term “environmental professional” is used generically, but there is, of course, no single “environmental profession.” Abe Bernstein’s article considers the range of environmental professions, their relationship to the environmental movement, and how they fit and work together. He identifies the essential similarity of the environmental professions as a ”concern for resolution of problems that lie at the interface between people and their physical and biological environment.” But instead of dwelling on their similarities, he addresses the diversity of the environmental professions. He calls on us to broaden our definition of environmental work to include fields such as environmental engineering, hydrogeology, and health care, and to consider the impact this new definition might have on our effort to care for the environment.

This diversity within the environmental profession results in a spectrum of values. Despite the common story we might have, we don’t necessarily have common agendas, common visions, or even a common language. Sparks can fly when different ideas about the ways that change should take place confront each other – sometimes at the expense of the broader goals we all share. Alexandra Dawson’s article about the discomfort that many environmental professionals feel in their interactions with lawyers demonstrates how an understanding of values, background, language, and style can allow environmental professionals of different stripes to concentrate on their common cause.

The environmental profession is about change. Shelley Berman’s article on educating children for social responsibility addresses the problem of activating a population that has become accustomed to waiting rather than taking responsibility. “Educators,” he writes, “must inspire young people to hold a positive vision of the future – to believe that we can do better, live better, be kinder, and be fairer.” His article also demonstrates that the goals of the environmental profession have much in common with those of several other professions, and asks us to consider the integration that could take place – or must take place – to reach these common goals.

Despite the gains of the environmental movement, considerable destruction continues to go on around us. We can find ourselves overwhelmed by this destruction, and by the amount of work that still needs to occur. It’s not hard to succumb to what some call the “doomsday syndrome,” in which our goals simply appear unattainable. Fred Taylor takes on this issue in his essay, “Beyond the End of Nature,” and provides some guidance for maintaining hope in the face of so much loss. In response to Bill McKibben’s book, The End of Nature, he shows how loss and destruction do not necessarily lead to despair, but instead can become the impetus for a new way of thinking.

John Carroll encourages us to question our entire approach to the ecological crisis in his essay, “Ecology and Moral Choice.” No environmental problems, he asserts, will be solved as long as we use conventional solutions, and he even projects that many of these solutions will result only in further problems, many of which will be “worse than the original problem we set out to solve – a cogent reminder of the interconnectedness of things and events; in other words, ecology writ large.” He calls on us to recognize the bias, prejudice, and intellectual arrogance that not only has created our problems, but prevents us from seeing solutions as well.

There are bound to be both highlights and hard lessons for those who strive to re-create ecological consciousness. In “Moving Towards the Light,” planner Peter Ryner considers his 20 years in the environmental profession and some of the lessons and experiences he has had along the way. “Resource management,” he says, “is mostly about people. If left alone, the resources can quite nicely take care of themselves. Therefore, to preserve or wisely use resources, one must change the behavior of people.” He considers the professional realities of long hours, prematurely abandoned projects, and dysfunctional organizations, and the importance of honesty, continued learning, and taking care of oneself.

Hope – which is critical in a profession as risky as this one – springs from faith. Yet the dominant religious paradigm that many of us grew up with has been indicted by many as the root of the ecological crisis. What many people might turn to for hope is cut off. But as historian Lynn White pointed out in his famous article that drew attention to the relationship between religion and ecology, “Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be religious, whether we call it that or not.” Connie Lasher outlines the relationship between our identity as environmental professionals and our spirituality, and the ways in which this relationship can empower and enrich our work. Environmentalists, she writes, “may gain insight from spiritual traditions in that they teach us about the dialectic of pain and beauty. They teach us a comprehension of hope that sustains us in our work.”

Aldo Leopold wrote, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” At the time he wrote that, it may have been true: the environmental community was not yet fully formed, and its members were largely alone in a society that had yet to perceive the need for environmental reform. Today, however, those with ecological educations are hardly alone; there is a large community of environmentalists, and a distinct community of people who work professionally with the environment. Perhaps the modern day penalty of an ecological education is that one becomes charged with the responsibility of finding answers.

Gary Snyder’s passage, from which Whole Terrain takes its name, is about the role that stepping away from the trail plays in finding those answers. Whole Terrain is that step away from the trail. By venturing off the trail, we are able to gain new perspectives, think freely, and safely question ourselves. We then return to the trail with new knowledge, clarity, and commitment.