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What is your environmental impact?

When I was in college, we were assigned an “impact study” in my Intro to Human Geography class. Our task was to collect information on ourselves for 3 days: How much water we used, how far we traveled and by what means, what foods we ate, what items we purchased, etc. We were then asked to write an essay in which we analyzed the data, and attempted to answer the question: What sort of impact do you have on your environment?

Sweet, I thought when we received the assignment. I can't wait to win.

Like with many things in that phase of my life, I approached the assignment competitively. I wanted to prove my worth as a human being by proving that I was the most: the most thoughtful, the most aware, the most reflective… In this case, I wanted to show my professor that I had already thought all this through, and that I was already the most conscientious 20-year-old the world had ever seen. I set out, not to gather information and inquire with an open mind, but to prove that my environmental impact was the most impressively tiny he’d ever seen.

(It’s hilarious, in retrospect: A growing, young woman, still trying to figure out how to expand into herself, wanting to prove that her impact on the world was almost insignificant. A lot to unpack there...)

I wrote, proudly, about how I did not have a car, and thus, did not contribute to fossil fuel emission. (Side-note: I also lived on campus at the time, and had no need to drive anywhere.) I wrote, smugly, about how I was a vegan and did not eat anything that came from a factory farm; therefore I did not contribute to animal-based agricultural runoff or pollution. (Side-note: I still consumed Morningstar veggie burgers, soy milk, and Tofurky dogs; also, I was hungry and tired all the time.) I wrote, with a whole lot of self-satisfaction, about all the ways that I felt I had almost no impact on my environment. I expected the professor to be highly impressed.

My heart sank when I saw that he had not used my paper as a chance to congratulate me on being so impressively insignificant, but instead, as a learning opportunity. Seriously, where did he get the nerve?!

“What about the energy and packaging that goes into a factory-made veggie burger?” he wrote gently in the margins of my paper. “What about the pavement or concrete you walk or bike on? Or even the grass that you step on, as you walk?”

Seriously? I thought as I read his comments. Here I am, having made all the right choices and you’re saying that I have to think even more??

Then I read his final comments: “It’s clear that you’ve thought about many of your choices, and that is commendable. But I encourage you to consider the idea that, whatever you eat, whatever you do, your living on this earth will have an impact.”

I considered this for a moment, then saw that I had still received an A-, so I wouldn’t sweat it too hard. Maybe I’m just ahead of my time, I thought, then tucked the paper away and went back to throwing banana peels at my ceiling fan (a game my roommate and I invented, called “Bananarang”).

A few years later, I was gifted a book called The Vegetarian Myth - a sure sign that my food proselytizing had gotten out of hand. I read it, mostly to humor the friend who had given it to me, but then read something that sounded familiar: “I wanted to believe that my life - my physical existence - was possible without killing, without death. It’s not. No life is.” Then this: “We aren’t above [other living things], just one among many… I had to accept death before I could take my place.”

I realized that I did not want to accept death. I did not want to accept the fact that, no matter how hard I tried not to have an environmental impact, I inevitably would. And the great irony is that, by not wanting to accept death and destruction as part of life, I was not really living.

What if, instead of trying to have the “least amount of impact” on my environment, I focused on impacting the world for the better? What if, instead of obsessing over doing the “right” thing, I allowed myself the grace to try what truly felt right and good, and then to try again if I failed? What if, instead of taking up as little space as I could, I allowed myself to expand and grow?

Because here’s the thing: We all have an impact on our environments - natural, social, spiritual, etc. To deny this reality, or to try not to have an impact is not only dishonest; it is harmful. If we do not allow ourselves to take up the space and resources that we actually need in order to thrive, then we will forever be malnourished.

My hope for you as we approach the dawn of a new year, is that you remember that you do have an impact, and that your impact is often larger and more important than you know. My hope is that you believe that you not only deserve to stay technically alive, but that you deserve to live well - that, in order to nourish the world, you must be nourished first.

As usual, 'twas Lizzo who said it best: “If I’m shinin’, everybody gonna shine.” So go on, now. Do what you need to do to be your shiniest, brightest, most nourished, and most expansive self. The world needs you, and you need you.

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