When I was five years old, my parents packed up our house near downtown Sacramento, Calif., and drove north. Following Highway 101, we passed through the so-called “redwood curtain,” driving through the stands of towering primeval redwood trees. On the twisty, sometimes two-lane road, my mom’s house plants rattled around in the back of our Honda Civic.
Our new house could hardly be called that. It was an old wooden cabin perched on a bluff facing west, with three miles of mountains between it and the vast blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The cabin was the only remotely livable building (the other two being true shacks) on the 80-acre property my parents purchased, a land forested by fir, cedar and spruce and dotted with wildflower-filled meadows. The nearest town was several miles at the bottom of the mountain, housing barely over a thousand residents.
It was because my parents relocated us here in the early years of my life that I grew up close to nature, and that I feel such a strong connection to the environment still. Over the years and after studying environmental science and social issues in college, I’ve realized what a privilege such an experience was and is. But I didn’t know how lucky I was at the time.
Despite the beauty of its natural scenery, the living conditions were less than ideal for the modern middle-class American family. My parents planned to build a larger, eco-friendly house, but it wasn’t completed yet, so we had to live in the cabin until their passion project was finished.
The gravel driveway didn’t come right up to the cabin, so it required a walk of a few minutes from the parking area to the cabin. At night, it was terrifying to navigate the pitch darkness of the path via flashlight while owl hoots and coyote howls sounded distant.
There were no power lines in sight, so my dad, an engineer, set up a solar array to supply electricity to the cabin. Even so, my mom could not run her hair-dryer for very long in the morning lest we run out of electricity. We also did not have enough power to run a laundry drying machine, so we hung up our clothes on lines with little wooden clips. My dad felled trees and chopped firewood for the wood-burning stove, which served as the sole source of heat and doubled as a cooking appliance. We didn’t have a gas stove, and our refrigerator was a simple mini-fridge similar to those found in hotel rooms. Sometimes we would run out of hot water and be forced to take an ice-cold shower. And the toilet — well suffice it to say, taking the bucket out was a chore my mom and I refused to do.
My parents decided to abandon their jobs in the city and sell the nice house they owned for this. Most families in their right minds wouldn’t live like this unless they had to. We didn’t have to — my dad was an engineer and my mom was a lawyer — but we chose to.
When my dad was a child, he helped his grandpa run a small cattle ranch in the mountains, which provided him inspiring experiences with the wilderness. As an adult, my dad’s career as an engineer, working in the automobile and nuclear waste disposal industries, led him to the realization that the consumptive, resource-extracting lifestyle propagated by modern human society is not sustainable. These influences gave him the idea to move to a remote property and attempt an eco-friendly lifestyle. My mom, a passionate environmentalist, agreed.
Living off-grid with solar power helps to remove the carbon footprint of fossil-fueled electricity. Burning wood for heat, while not carbon-neutral, is offset by planting trees and nurturing the surrounding forest. Drinking filtered water from the natural spring, pumped and heated by solar, removes the carbon impact of transporting and heating that water through non-sustainable means. Gathering wild plants and gardening on the property, which my dad has cultivated over the years, eliminates the freezing and transportation of those foods and gas used on trips to the grocery store.
As I look back on it now, living like this for the formative years of my life made a profound impact on me. Not only was I surrounded by nature and forced to deal with its intricacies every day, but my parents also taught me about why it mattered.
My mother began working in the Humboldt County, Calif. district attorney’s environmental protection unit, meaning she often dealt with cases of poaching, illegal logging and environmental pollution. She explained why these were important: The law is sometimes the only thing protecting animals and nature from the exploitative activities of humans. My father began his own solar business, helping people set up solar power systems for their houses and businesses. He explained the concept of sustainable energy to me. Like plants, we can harness the power of the sun, wind and water to create electricity in place of sources that create waste and contribute to environmental pollution.
As a result, I was already a passionate environmentalist as a child. I would speak openly about environmental issues like climate change to my peers, not knowing to keep my mouth shut about such things, making me a bit of an outcast on the small rural town’s playground.
At the time, living the way we did felt like a burden at many times during my childhood. I rarely had friends over because they would be shocked at our living conditions, and I would be embarrassed at the end of it all. It was difficult to go places simply because of the distance. As many children would, I sometimes found myself wishing we lived in the city with all of its metropolitan appeal instead of in the middle of nowhere.
Yet now a college student, I couldn’t be more grateful. I am finishing my Bachelor of Science in LSA’s Program in the Environment, a choice motivated by my unique upbringing. Entering college, I knew I wanted to study both the science and social elements of the environment. Such a field of study came naturally to me, and I credit this to my parents not only for providing me with a childhood environment that exposed me to nature but also for instilling my love and respect for it.
I feel glad to have had such experiences and values imparted to me by my parents, but I also know that it is not merely luck that made this environmentalist lifestyle possible for my family. It is also a result of privilege. With the benefit of being white and well-educated, my parents were able to reach middle-class status and become wealthy enough to buy a large, beautiful property with the intention of building a house on it. They first became knowledgeable about and interested in environmentalism as a result of their education. They were able to spend their time, energy and money dedicated to environmentalism, something many American families cannot do due to social and economic barriers.
The concept of environmental injustice has come about due to the reality that environmental burdens such as pollution are disproportionately distributed to communities of color or poor areas, whereas environmental benefits such as clean natural areas like parks are more often granted to whiter and richer communities. In these conditions, the ability to practice environmentalism can be a privilege.
For example, public officials have constructed highways in ways that disproportionately segregate Black communities from whiter parts of cities, making it harder to access everything from grocery stores to adequate healthcare services. Being forced to live in close proximity to highways, a source of air pollution, can be a severe health hazard. Another example of environmental injustice is the Enbridge Line 3 crude oil pipeline, which the company plans to rebuild crossing Indigenous territories, including those of the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Chippewa). The pipeline poses a risk to the bodies of water and wetlands which are used for growing rice and fishing.
In addition to targeting specific communities, government failures to respond to environmental pollution when it occurs can also be an example of environmental injustice, as demonstrated by the water crisis in Flint, Mich. When people, especially children, don’t have access to clean air and water, health outcomes can be injurious and even deadly.
Such injustices impact the opportunity for those people to live in harmony with the environment like I was able to do. I benefited from my parents’ privilege, which in turn became mine. I grew up surrounded by nature, despite the minor inconveniences we experienced living in the cabin in the years before our house was finished being built. We chose those inconveniences, whereas other people in America and all over the world don’t have a choice.
Access to pristine nature as a child can not only be a matter of one’s health, it can also impact one’s appreciation of the environment and environmental issues. Such experiences can greatly impact one’s conception of the world and their priorities as an adult.
The relationship that is formed with one’s environment as a child is dependent upon whether that environment is a place of beauty and health or whether it is one of toxicity and danger. When you have the means to view the environment as a sanctuary rather than a threat that you must face, you can more easily cultivate a symbiotic connection with it and reflect more on your individual impact. And through my luck, privilege and a mixture of both, I am forever grateful for my ability to view Earth this way.
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