At the Aspen Ideas Festival, a quest for “environmental identity”


Interviewer Gadi Schwartz, National Park Service Director Chuck Sams and conservationist Kris Tompkins participate in a “This Land is Your Land” conversation during the Aspen Ideas Festival on Tuesday, June 28, 2022.

Leigh Vogel/Aspen Festival of Ideas

What is your environmental identity?

Not a question you hear every day. Or never, really. When climate anxiety psychologist Thomas Doherty offered it during a ‘Climate Change and You’ conversation at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Monday – then asked audience members to raise their hands if they’d ever been asked this question before – there weren’t exactly a lot of hands in the air.

But it’s a question we should start asking ourselves and ourselves, Doherty suggested, especially as we overcome anxiety about climate change and seek to address the ecological impacts of a changing world. warms up. Both topics were at the heart of “Climate Change and You,” which also featured sustainability expert and climate communicator Alaina Wood and NBC News moderator Gadi Schwartz.

There’s traditional coping advice and stress reduction involved in Doherty’s practice, but “beneath that is building this environmental identity, reclaiming our sense of our values ​​and ourselves, because that’s ultimately the strength,” he said.

The process begins by thinking about where we grew up, what our parents were like, the books we read or the movies we watched or the places we traveled. Much like gender identity or cultural identity, everyone has a climate identity, Doherty said.

And, as Wood pointed out, thinking about our connection to the natural world can also be part of the motivation to care for it. She grew up in the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee and still lives there, and said the role the mountains play in her life is a driving force in her career as a sustainability scientist.

“These mountains are an integral part of my life: I wake up in the morning, I see them, I walk there, I pick up trash there, I just want to protect them,” Wood said. “That’s why I’m a scientist, actually.”

“Humans are not disconnected from nature, we are part of nature,” she added later, near the end of the conversation. “And once that clicked in my head, I was like, ‘That’s why I care, and that’s why I do what I do. “”

The same theme continued to come up in conversations throughout this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival that centered around climate change, conservation, the natural world, the outdoors and recreation and all of the above.

Sunday afternoon, in a conversation about America’s relationship with the outdoors, comedian and civic educator Baratunde Thurston spoke with “1A” host Jenn White about how our landscapes shape who we are.

In the United States, where outdoor landscapes are “as diverse as people,” Thurston suggested we could learn a lot about each other by learning about our environments.

It’s kind of like when you meet someone’s parents and see why they are who they are – but in this case, the a-ha moment comes from connecting outside with people from Idaho, North Carolina or Tangier Island, Virginia, he said. Thurston has now spent time in all of these places, and several more, as the host of a new PBS show “The Great Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston.”

“The environment shapes us as much as our parents, probably equal, maybe more, depending on the distribution of the recipe that makes us,” he added. “And it’s a beautiful thing to see, and it’s a good reminder because we’ve done so much effective separation of ourselves from the outside.”

It is possible to return to this connection, believes Thurston. Photographer Pete McBride thinks so too, and he thinks listening to nature’s silence can foster that connection.

“Silence can be a way of reconnecting ourselves to these places and reminding ourselves that nature has a lot to say,” McBride said during a Monday afternoon talk on “Seeing the Silence: The Beauty of the Most of the world” with environmentalist Kris. Tomkins.

Tompkins says it will take time, however, for this connection to foster larger-scale change in our relationship with our climate and ecosystem. Hope, she thinks, must be earned – it must be an active word, not a word that abdicates responsibility.

“Am I hopeful for this century?” she said at the “Seeing Silence” conference. “I think it’s really difficult. I don’t think anyone here disagrees with that.

“I am more optimistic, as was (Norwegian philosopher) Arne Naess, for the next century,” she added. “Because the people coming out of the conflicts that we (seem to) be getting closer to over the last two decades – they will have come back to this understanding, I think, that we depend on nature, we depend on each other to survive.”

This concept of environmental identity also came up Tuesday night during a “This Land is Your Land” discussion about protecting wild spaces with Tompkins and National Park Service Director Chuck Sams.

Schwartz, who was also the moderator for Tuesday’s discussion, asked each of the speakers about their environmental identities and found the responses to be a call for stewardship.

Tompkins, who has been instrumental in conserving millions of acres of land through Tompkins Conservation, grew up on her great-grandfather’s ranch in California, where she spent a lot of time exterior but did not necessarily associate this with “nature”. It wasn’t until her mid-twenties, emerging from the world of climbing and ski racing, that she said she “began to understand the beauty of nature and also the beginning of the degradation of nature”.

“Thanks to Yvon Chouinard (climber, conservationist and founder of Patagonia) and other friends, I started to really realize that unlike my family, who didn’t see things that way, that there was a whole world out there that I belonged to and fell in love with,” Tompkins said.

Sams is the first Native American director of the National Park Service; he is Cayuse and Walla Walla and is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Its environmental identity has been shaped by its “creation story,” he said, and that in turn shapes a view of stewardship.

“I was told that when I got my eyesight from the eagle, I got my elk hide, I got my veins from the plant people, I got my hearing from the owl, so these gifts that were given by flora and fauna (were) what made me a human being,” Sams said.

Sams also found a connection to his upbringing in the foothills of eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains, where “you played from the time the sun came up until it went down,” said he declared.

“Our creation story tells us that we must keep our promise to be stewards of flora and fauna, that we must not do this just for ourselves, but we must do this for seven generations from right now,” Sams said. “Basically, we only have a lease on the property as it exists today, and our job is to improve it over time, not destroy it, ensuring that my children, grandchildren -children and unborn children have these same resources when they join. ”


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