Alumni Voice: Unsustainable Comfort

August 07, 2019

By Sam Reed, environmental science '17

As humans rapidly change the climate, eliminate entire species and consume more than ever, I can unequivocally say to student environmental leaders: You are needed. Your passion begets passion in others and is contagious — your voice guides the future of the Anthropocene. Do not be afraid to speak up for what you feel is right and challenge convention.

Reflecting on my time as a student leader within Ohio State’s sustainability community, my goal was to energize a small group of people about planetary stewardship in the hope that these individuals would instill passion in others. With the help of many students, predominantly those within Undergraduate Student Government’s Sustainability Committee and the campus Sustainability Council, we founded events like Time For Change Week and Seeds of Service, many of which seem to be well established within the campus fabric. Now, as the last group of students I worked with is a year from graduation, I am asked to consider the lessons Ohio State taught me.

With that, I am not writing to pat myself on the back. I write this piece to current and future student leaders of the environmental movement to describe what I did not do (oftentimes regrettably) and consequently what I have learned because of it.

First and foremost, I wish I had learned the words “I would like to acknowledge that the land we are meeting on today has long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst Indigenous peoples, specifically the Shawnee, Miami, Wyandot and Delaware Nations. I honor and respect the diverse Indigenous peoples connected to this territory on which we gather.(Ohio State Multicultural Center) — and said them before every sustainability event that I hosted. There are innumerable reasons why the original stewards of the land we inhabit should be recognized, but acknowledgement of traditional ecological knowledge should be a fundamental component of the sustainability community and curriculum at Ohio State (especially within natural resources programs). Students knowing that there are valid approaches to environmental stewardship outside of western practice both pays respect to those unjustly removed from their lands and allows for a more comprehensive view of sustainability, wherein humans are fundamentally tied to the environment and not distinct from “nature.”

Second, I wish I had not been hesitant to work with the activist community at Ohio State. Not only are these students fighting for those who are powerless and exploited, but they provide an incredibly valuable and jarring perspective on who is first to be hurt by environmental degradation. Justice is inextricably tied to sustainability, as the impacts of pollution and climate change are not equitably distributed by race or income. Speaking truth to power is not only courageous, but a reminder that collective action is necessary for environmental progress. Individual actions like recycling or installing solar panels are important for cultural and behavioral change but oftentimes are only possible for those who can afford the infrastructure and, more importantly, ignore the systemic drivers at the root of most environmental issues.

Finally, I wish I had practiced greater humility and willingness to listen to those around me. Not only do these traits make one a more amicable person (Granted, there is a certain irony in talking about humility and writing a blog post about oneself), but ensuring that people are heard is a means to unify. The environmental community is filled with people from different backgrounds and identities — this is our strength. We have a common cause and a wide variety of perspectives that need to be heard, which is reason for hope and excitement. Unfortunately, as previously noted, many critical voices in the environmental movement are marginalized due to sex or race — especially black, indigenous, and people of color. Progress will come when their voices are lifted, unobscured, and leading the movement.

In short, over the course of my undergraduate career I steered away from that which made me uncomfortable. I now realize that comfort is not a means to environmental change or personal growth. Comfort leads to complacency and isolation, as one is hesitant to initiate tense discussions or be around those with different ideas, identities and perspectives. Finding solutions to monumental issues like climate change will require a large table and many passion-driven debates, but there is no equitable progress otherwise. So, my recommendation to future student leaders is to instill passion and hope in others, but lead by example; listen to the unheard; and do not be comfortable with the status quo.

Sam Reed graduated from The Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources in 2017 and served as Undergraduate Student Government’s Director of Sustainability for three years. You may recognize him in the photo, above, meeting a friend from the Columbus Zoo at the 2016 Sustainability Fair during Time for Change Week. He is currently a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota progressing toward a PhD. He studies how disturbances like fire, insects and deer browse influence North American forests both now and in a climactically unstable future. He can be reached at reed0632@umn.edu.