Simran's students install solar panels.
Photo: Kristina Beverlin
In celebration of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, Simran Sethi finds herself taking a cold, hard look at what being an "environmentalist" means—it's a commitment that will take you far beyond just changing your shopping habits.
At the beginning of every academic semester, I ask my students if they've enrolled in my classes to "learn the answers." Eager to please, most of them nod their heads. Yes, they are here to learn the answers. And then I say, "I am here to help you ask really good questions. The answers, you will discover for yourself."

I say the same to you, dear readers, on the cusp of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. In spring of 1970, 20 million people from all over the country showed their support for the planet by engaging in environmental teach-ins modeled after the peace teach-ins against the Vietnam War. They sat in high school gymnasiums, public parks and places of worship. And they set the stage for groundbreaking legislation: the Clean Air Act of 1970, dedicated to protecting and improving air quality; the Clean Water Act of 1972, which regulated the amount of pollutants discharged into our water and preserved the quality of our surface waters; and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, designed to conserve plants and animals in danger of dwindling or disappearing.

Today, every one of those legislative victories is under threat. Carcinogens flood our waters while polluting industries compromise our air. The species in danger of disappearing are low-income communities of color and other communities that lack political and economic clout—the places where our most toxic industries are located. These areas have been renamed after the havoc they wreak: "Cancer Alley" in the river parishes of Louisiana and "Asthma Town" in Huntington Park, Los Angeles.

This year, when you embrace the day and embark on efforts to "go green," I humbly request that you go beyond reducing, reusing and recycling to redefining what this movement means to you. Being environmentally friendly is about more than buying different stuff—it's about understanding the relationship we have with our environment and with each other. It's about acknowledging that, while we don't all have equal access to natural resources—as detailed in my environmental justice series The Good Fight—we all want clean water, safe air and good soil. We all want our children to be healthy and our communities to be safe. The public perception that "blue states" care more about the environment than "red states" do, and the rich care more than the poor, is false. We know this: No one political party, no one socio-economic group, no one race or gender has a monopoly on caring for the planet and each other.

For the past handful of years, I've hopped onto your television screen and detailed small changes you can make to help save the planet. And, over the past six months, I've done much the same in this Web series. Small changes are important first steps but can't be the only steps we take. We do not get to check Mother Earth off the list once we've dropped off our recycling, weather-stripped and swapped out our water bottles for reusable ones. Everything we care about exists within our ecosystem. If we disregard or damage it, all that we hold dear is at risk.

This year, I am celebrating Earth Day in a new way: by retreating into nature to redefine my commitment to environmentalism, getting quiet and asking myself, "What change do I wish to see—and what role can I play in making it manifest?" I am not satisfied with green for a select few. I know this movement has to be about green for all. In order to bring more people into the conversation, we have to understand what we really care about and what we are willing to sacrifice to achieve greater buy-in and consensus.

We cannot do this deep and important work from a place of depletion. That is why taking time away is essential and can take the shape of something as simple as a walk down the block or a visit to the ocean. I have spent many years talking about resource depletion, but rarely consider the need to replenish my own inner resources. When I am in nature, I remember my place in the order of things. I remember I have everything I need to answer my own questions—and I trust those answers.

My journalism students and I recently traveled from Kansas to California and worked with energy nonprofit GRID Alternatives to install solar panels on low-income housing—recognizing that the people who most need energy savings are least able to afford them. For me, making sure other people can green their homes is just as important as greening my own place. And teaching a class of 12 students the importance of this is just as significant as preaching to millions.

You do not have to be on The Oprah Winfrey Show, you do not have to have a blog, and you do not have to be a professor to teach and inspire others. All you have to do is open yourself up to what you care about and let your actions reflect those cares. When you do this, the lines blur. You see that our deepest concerns are shared and that we can and must work together to creatively solve our most pressing problems.

Reduce, reuse, recycle, redefine, retreat, revive, restore, repair, relate, reimagine...repeat.

Happy Earth Day,


Simran Sethi is an award-winning journalist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications. For more information on Sethi, visit and follow her on Twitter @simransethi.

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