What It's Like To Be An Environmental Studies Major During The Climate Crisis

February 4, 2021

I have been an environmentalist my entire life. That means different things for different people, but like all environmentalists, I tried to be kind to the Earth. I watched nature documentaries to educate myself about the world around me. I was kind to animals. I went hiking. I composted and recycled. I wasn’t a science kid by any means though. I was an artist, and ran in circles that complemented that. I was terrible at chemistry and very technical science classes, and I hated math. My plans for the future had nothing to do with science, but I respected it. I just felt like I would treat the planet well and those on it, but pursue artistic feats and leave science behind in the required classes for high school.

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We always picked berries as a family growing up on Fidalgo Island, WA

Enter Donald Trump.

My whole life I had assumed people understood that climate change was irrefutable, and I had faith that people would therefore do something about it. I had faith that the scientific community was full, thriving, and able to accomplish great things. I had faith in them, and I was content chasing solely artistic accomplishments myself, while cheering them on. When Donald Trump took office though, that completely changed, and a horrifying realization seeped into my skin. The president of my country didn’t believe in climate change, wasn’t going to do a thing about it, was going to harm the planet, and there were plenty of people who voted for him. My entire view of the human race, and of our fight against climate change, changed. It wasn’t an issue we were fixing. It was an issue we were still causing.

Terrified and disgusted, I looked into what exactly was happening to my one and only livable planet. I looked into the stats behind our poisoned air, the hole in our atmosphere, the amount of plastic in our seas, the rates at which fellow animals were going extinct, and the temperature comparison to that of livable human centuries. I watched documentaries about biodiversity, habitat destruction, pollution, water scarcity, and other struggles in the mix. I turned on news alerts on my phone for environmental news, and paid attention to patterns I saw. The more I learned, the more bleak and disgusting the reality became. Why wasn’t I hearing more about this? Why wasn’t this the main story on every news outlet every night? Why did I have to spend so long educating myself about this, rather than learning back in high school?

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I was a vegetarian who walked everywhere

I started living as best I could, based on evidence. I didn’t feel like there was much else I could do. After learning about the deaths among marine life caused by plastic straws, I started refusing straws. After watching a documentary about the damage being done to the water systems by the fashion industry, I started thrifting. After learning about the deforestation and pollution caused by the meat industry, I went vegetarian. When I learned about problems that were new to me, I did my best to not contribute to them. Eventually I decided to combine my love of writing with my love of nature by taking an internship as an environmental writer for a nonprofit. I learned so much during that time through my research for the articles I was writing, and I also learned how to lobby and communicate as a private citizen with law makers on behalf of the environment. It was so rewarding, and it was a wakeup call to me that there were places for me in the environmental realm, professionally.

When I decided to go back to school and attend college, I made a big decision. I decided that on top of studying writing, as I had always dreamed, I would also study environmentalism. I had never thought I would do something involving science, but I couldn’t be on the sidelines. I decided to double major.

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About a day or two into my first semester of classes, something became extremely clear. Climate change isn’t an issue or an inconvenience. It’s an emergency.

I was floored by the evidence and statistics presented to me by my professors (all experts in their field) and renowned guest speakers. I thought I had learned a lot outside of school about the planet, but this was a whole new level. The urgency was never downplayed, or sugar-coated, as many documentaries do for the sake of the viewers. Every single one of them made it very clear that we are in the homestretch here, and that if we don’t do something, the consequences will be irreversible. Every single one of them said to limit or eliminate animal products from your diet, as it’s the biggest thing an individual can do for the planet in terms of limiting damage done to it. Every single one of them said to try to make or mend things, or buy them used before buying something brand new. So I adopted a vegan diet and lifestyle that winter, and soon after I started living as close to zero waste as possible. Some of it took adjusting to, but it was clearly the right thing to do if I cared at all about the planet. 

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In the field for my environmental program with my professor, who previously worked with the Smithsonian

I watched most of my fellow classmates make similar choices, and while it was heartening to see that, it was absolutely maddening to see students in other majors and people around the world not even blink an eye about the emergency. How did people not know what was happening? How did people continue to use plastic, eat dairy, and vote for people who actively harm our planet? I started posting on social media about the issues to educate my followers. I figured if only a few people read and considered what I said, it would be worthwhile. I helped over a dozen people switch to a vegan diet, and more than that switch to living as zero waste as they had access to. I made sure to preach that it’s not about perfection, but it is about trying, but I still made one thing very clear—this Earth’s ability to sustain us is finite, and we must stop living as if that’s not the case.

I’ve read more books than I can count about this subject, and I’ve sat in hundreds of lectures about it as well. I’ve researched independently, and I’ve picked the brain of experts. There is no other reality than the fact that we are destroying our livable Earth, and that while it can go on without us, we cannot go on without it. People think that’s still up for debate, but those people are generally the ones who haven’t done research or studied this in school.

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My partner and I try to walk as much as possible

We all need this planet, and it can’t be a few people pulling all the weight, which is how it often feels as an environmental student. Most days I feel as though I’m over here with scientists, experts, and students trying my best to do less damage to the planet, while the rest of the world ridicules or ignores the efforts. So often those who eat meat will criticize me by saying that since it’s impossible to live perfectly, and since we’ll always be harming animals, there’s no point in being vegan. So often those who don’t attempt to reduce their waste will say I’m not making a difference at all and there’s no point in what I’m doing since not everyone will do it. It’s maddening as someone who’s literally studying the fact that it does make a difference, and who hears from experts virtually every day about why it’s important to live the way I do. It’s maddening to hear people basically tell me that my degree is worthless since what I’m studying doesn’t exist. It’s maddening to hear people who haven’t studied this try to tell me that I don’t know what I’m talking about, or that they know better. So I keep watching as people who have access to less harmful food and resources choose to keep harming the planet, and not make an effort.

As of this year, we are nine years away from the tipping point with this emergency. In other words, in less than a decade, our choices will be irreversible and our blue planet won’t hospitable anymore. Knowing that is frightening every day, and it’s beyond hurtful to see people actively choose to ignore this fate and contribute toward my planet’s demise. I have a sense of urgency when I speak about climate issues, because I know it’s urgent, and while I love to see influencers and regular people carry around canvas tote bags, environmental students and professionals everywhere would much rather see them editing their diets and speaking with as much urgency as we do. Don’t simply say “Skip a straw” or “Save the Earth” and call it a day. Talk about the issues at hand, and do it with at least a little intensity. These aren’t casual topics or simply slogans to put on shirts. This is a crisis, and people are dying already from it. If you care about the ocean and are skipping straws because of it, great, but it makes no sense to try to save fish by skipping straws but then eating the fish. While it’s fun to call ourselves “hippies” and do little token things for the planet every so often, it’s completely skipping over the entire point and issue. This is a war against our habitat. This is killing people, and it’s something we all need to take more seriously. It can be done with fun eco-switches, sure, but it needs to be understood that this isn’t a hobby. Caring for the Earth and studying climate change isn’t a hobby. It’s a necessity.

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Pre-COVID I went to a lot of protests

I didn’t go into environmental studies for fun. I did it because I wanted to do my part for my planet. I wanted to be equipped with as much knowledge as possible, and I do my best to make the knowledge I have digestible and accessible for those who follow me online or are in my life. I have tough conversations about the planet, and why it’s vital that we all do our best to care for it. I argue with those who don’t “believe” in climate change; I call my government reps weekly about the environment; I email companies monthly about why they need to treat the planet better; I post about science and human decency toward the world; and I share ways that everyone can participate in saving the planet. I’m not perfect, and I don’t have access to every possible way to live in harmony with the land (I don’t live on my own land with a big garden, and I don’t have a way to travel abroad without flying when the pandemic isn’t happening), but I try to make up for those shortcomings in ways that my degree have taught me work (like buying carbon offsets, eating as local as possible after doing something more damaging to the environment, etc.). Again, this isn’t about perfection, and people being imperfect isn’t what drives environmental students crazy. What drives us crazy is seeing that even during a climate emergency, people will continually refuse to do anything about it. When you make choices that harm my planet, you are harming me. You are bringing about our own extinction, and at that point it doesn’t matter if you think you recycle or think of yourself as an environmentalist. Your choices speak louder than all of that, and as an environmental student and professional, I see that. We in the environmental community see that, and it keeps us up at night. We aren’t angry and frustrated right now because people aren’t perfectly living in harmony with the planet. We are furious that people aren’t even trying.

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I wear hand-me-downs, use zero-waste makeup, don’t eat animal products, and among other things I’m trying my best. That’s all environmental students and professionals want from people.

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Photo: Emily Iris Degn

Emily Iris Degn
Emily Iris Degn is a multilingual travel and freelance writer, editor, professional artist, model, and published poet. She is from the San Juan Islands, but currently lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her incredible partner and dozens of plant babies. She is also an ecofeminist activist, and works to focus her professional work on those issues. You can find her in many spaces on Instagram: @emilyirisdegn @wildearthgoods @happyvegansfeed @emfallstoearth @emilydegnart OR at Em Falls to Earth.

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