There's No One Path to Becoming a 'Climate Person'

Lifestyle environmentalism is essential but nuanced.

fruit and vegetable scraps

Johner Images / Getty Images

Amy Westervelt: “I usually end up with a stinky dirty mess."
Mary Annaïse Heglar: “Listeners have heard me talk about abandoning a bin full of worms underneath a bridge."

The transcript above is a snippet of a conversation between the climate journalists behind the "Real Hot Take" podcast. For two people who have done more than most to further our understanding of the climate crisis, this made for a refreshing intro to the recent election-focused episode. Admittedly, it was part of a promo message for their sponsor, the electric, countertop composting system Lomi. (You can check out Treehugger’s review of this reportedly excellent device here.)  

But composting commercialism aside, this was a reminder of something we discussed in our conversation with both Westervelt and Heglar back before they became part of the Crooked Media podcasting empire. Namely that it’s really important for us all to make the climate movement accessible to everybody. Here’s how Westervelt put it at the time: 

“I remember like when I started doing climate stories, I would worry every time I was meeting up with a climate person. Should I get a to-go cup? Should I do this, or do that? And that kind of barrier to entry is really unhelpful. I think people are really afraid of judgment.” 

Specifically though, what got me about the duo's recent discussion of composting was this: Our culture too often equates our ability to do something about climate with personal skills, abilities, or crafts that feel somewhat esoteric to your average person in the modern world.

As a person whose only skill in life is writing—fact check: I can actually make a mean curry too—I’ve sometimes gotten trapped into an inferiority complex by all these folks (sometimes fellow Treehugger contributors) who are making their own kimchi, building their own wooden campers, or are otherwise living that perfect Instagram-friendly green influencer life. This sense was reinforced for me recently when my friend and e-bike advocate Arleigh Greenwald proposed what I thought was a modest suggestion for the cycling community:

I was profoundly relieved by this advice, as I have literally never successfully fixed a flat—seriously, those patches always leak. I don’t ride long distances. I live in a city. And there are both bus routes and Ubers—and, to be honest, sidewalks—that I can use to get me home and/or find my way to a local bike shop. 

And yet the response to Greenwald’s tweet was telling. A huge number of people felt this was irresponsible, perhaps even dangerous, and that every cyclist should need to know this relatively simple skill. 

In some ways, I can understand this reaction. After all, one of the profoundly powerful things about bikes and e-bikes is that they are relatively democratic in terms of being easy to fix and maintain compared to the fancy expensive electric cars that are too often pushed as the pinnacle of sustainable mobility.

That said, the core point that I believe Greenwald and the "Hot Take" folks, are making is not that composting doesn’t matter or that bike maintenance skills are useless. But rather that these skills are not a prerequisite for considering yourself a "climate person."

In fact, as Westervelt and Heglar emphasized later in the aforementioned episode, the only prerequisite for being a climate person should be whether you eat food, drink water, and breathe air. (I am paraphrasing, but that’s what I took away from their discussion of climate in electoral politics.) 

I don’t necessarily think this means giving up on lifestyle environmentalism entirely. I do, after all, compost successfully myself. (My gardening skills are a different matter entirely.) And I do quite enjoy finding clever ways to reuse materials at home, or diving into interesting plant-based and/or meat-light recipes. But I do these things because I enjoy them and because they help in their own small way to lessen my footprint on the planet.

What I don’t do is lecture others on what they need to do in order to be an environmentalist. Except maybe vote, engage, and get involved in whatever way feels right to them.