How I Became a Bonafide Treehugger (and Other Musings on My Sustainability Journey), Part I

The origins of my propensity toward ‘being green’ should fairly be placed firmly in the lap of my parents.  Though I should really begin by saying that I REALLY DON’T LIKE a lot of the language around caring for and acting in tandem with the planet, it’s ecosystems, and its many beings.  Phrases like ‘steward of the earth’ are sufficiently paternalistic to turn my stomach, while the use of ‘being green’ in present society assumes that environmentalism is the other, ie. the human base state is a thoughtless, selfish existence, while I would argue that acting in a synergistic way with the planet is in fact much more deeply rooted in the human way of being.  But more on that later.

My parents were a certain caliber of environmentalist far before it was a common suburban thing to do.  I grew up eating wheat bread and actual vegetables and fruit with every meal- the plastic components of a Lunchable have never passed my lips- including and especially at school lunches.  No chocolate milk, no soda (until my brother was old enough to demand it, but such is the bane of being the first child), no sugary cereal.  While several friends of mine rebelled against similar dietary upbringings by becoming some of the most unhealthy eaters I know, I enjoyed or at least tolerated the regiment enough to take it on as my own upon reaching adulthood.

In addition to having healthy, whole food in the house, my parents bought Seventh Generation recycled toilet paper and cleaning products for everything that couldn’t be cleaned with just vinegar, baking soda, or Borax.  At the time all Seventh Generation meant to seven year old me was a fantastically comfortable, worn in t-shirt that apparently came free with a product at some point.  As I aged, however, and learned the history behind the Seventh Generation name, I was happily surprised by the progressive tendencies of my parents in the me-era that was the late 80s and early 90s ::this is where you give yourself a pat on the back for success in parenting, Mom::

My parents went on to purchase a Community Supported Agriculture share at the only farm anywhere near us in suburban Chicagoland, as well as wind power from the moment it became available on the energy bill.  They’re on their second hybrid Civic, and have installed a pair of sweet dual flush toilets, in spite of the fact that such a retrofit will never save money, only natural resources.  Though there are still many large limitations on my parents’ environmentalism while they still live in the suburbs (most particularly the dependence on a personal vehicle as pretty much the only viable form of transportation), they provided a fertile ground for a treehugger to grow.  And grow I did, into the fervent activism of high school that all started with becoming a vegetarian.


It started as an experiment.  Really.  I must have been in one of those bored 15 year old funks, because it was a week on a whim; I was an experimental vegetarian.  Then it stuck.  I cheated a couple of times in the first few months, for my mother’s muffaletta and a potroast made by my ordinarily kitchen disinclined brother, but by early sophomore year I was a fervently committed non-meat eater.  This was cemented by my relief after a friend gave a speech on factory farming that I didn’t eat such horribly mistreated animals.  But it didn’t stop there.  Relief turned into evangelism.  I became one of those vegetarians.  The insufferable kind.  The kind that pressure their parents and friends, the kind that are overly moralistic, the kind that turn meat eating into a crime on par with capital punishment.  This lasted pretty much through my freshman year of college, when thankfully I turned to other environmental evangelical pursuits.  But before I fly full speed into my college days, I must pay respects to the writing of Daniel Quinn and a little conference in Richmond, Indiana.

I first encountered Ishmael by Daniel Quinn through my high school sophomore year English class, but blessedly was not in the group that read it then and thus had any mystique ruined by adolescent academic analysis.  It took two more years for me to finally pick up the novel.  When I finally did, I was hooked.  Ishmael was RADICAL.  It looked far beyond the comparatively-minor-verging-on-bandaid-actions of my parents and me to question the very origins of human civilization and how we came to be in the state we’re in.

For those who haven’t had a chance to read this or one of the other novels in the trilogy by Quinn,The Story of B and My Ishmael being the other two, here’s a summary from Wikipedia (hate all you want on Wikipedia as a viable source of information- I support open source information sharing and while citing anything from Wikipedia for academic purposes is silly, it’s a marvelous way to learn basic info about almost anything):
“Ishmael is a 1992 philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn. It examines mythology, its effect on ethics, and how that relates to sustainability. The novel uses a style of Socratic dialogue to deconstruct the notion that humans are the end product, the pinnacle of biological evolution. It posits that human supremacy is a cultural myth, and asserts that modern civilization is enacting that myth.”
My single sentence summary of the novel?  Essentially Quinn posits that humanity has screwed ourselves since the Agricultural Revolution when we started trying to control the natural environment (ie. became Takers) rather than functioning as a piece of it (ie. Leavers).

As I said, I was hooked.  My high school self was on the verge of breakdown due to the stasis and apathy that was high school in suburbia, and the radical ideas of Ishmael were precisely the spark I needed to not lose hope.  Through the internet meandering that was still somewhat new in the early ’00s I discovered IshCon, an online community for discussing the ideas in Quinn’s novels and, most importantly, bringing people together for an annual conference in Richmond, Indiana.  Susan, my partner in activism and quirkiness through all the craziness of high school, and I borrowed my parents’ Civic and headed five hours East to join the conference.

Susan and I were the youngest participants by at least a couple of years, which allowed us to soak in the ideas and conversation rather than need to organize/participate/advocate as we so often had to as two of the very few activists at our 3,500 student high school.  And soak in we did.  We witnessed a remarkable coming together of two very disparate perspectives on the philosophies in Ishmael, an experience that I believe has shaped my love for connection between people and ideas ever since.  At least as far as the participants of the conference were concerned, Quinn’s ideas prompted two responses (that I am now going to oversimplify, so I hope the individuals that held these views will forgive me):

  • relearn survival skills because collapse of civilization is immanent, or
  • find a way to creatively convince the world that a dramatic societal change is essential to continued survival, because if we can teach people we just might save ourselves

These two camps had argued vigorously on the IshCon forums up until the conference, futilely attempting to convince each other that their perspective was the only one.  Within the physical space of the conference, however, and the multitude of skill shares and presentations both formal and informal, the two perspectives realized they needed each other because THE FUTURE IS UNKNOWN.  The survivalist group needed the creative teaching group to provide for them while society still existed, and the creative teaching group needed the survivalist group to, well, help them survive if collapse did indeed come to pass.  Though Susan and I were not deep enough into the culture of IshCon to personally feel this epiphany, witnessing it was enough to dramatically affect my major, activism, and vocational choices for the foreseeable future.

College sustainability to come in Part II, including my evolution into a retreat and conference junkie!

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