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How I Went to Kenya, and Had to Re-Learn How to Be an Environmentalist

Adapting to life in Kenya means adapting to an environment where it is harder to be a good environmentalist.

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It’s hard not to consider this constitutional affirmation of environmentalism next to the perpetual battles fought, for example, against the US Environmental Protection Agency. Though the agency was founded by a Republican administration in 1970, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s campaign platform calls for abolishing the agency. It’s an idea that’s echoed in a bill introduced this month by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), which would merge the EPA with the Department of Energy, though the two agencies have very different functions. The bill has 15 co-sponsors.


What I’m going to bring back with me when I return to the US is a deflated pride. Having the gift of an alternative vantage on individual environmentalism punctures the assumptions I brought with me. In the US, it’s easy to be lulled into “checklist environmentalism.” Use LCD lightbulbs. Don’t litter. Recycle. Compost. Take the train. Bring your own cloth bag to the market. And indeed, these choices matter: let’s you and I take joy in them.

But what I’m realizing is that in some ways, the items on the American environmental checklist are arbitrary. It might have included any number of other choices that are hardly mainstream yet: Reduce, reuse and recycle even the things that aren’t “officially” recyclable. Wash clothes by hand. Let clothes air-dry, in or outside the house. Eliminate nearly all electrical appliances, and/or the amount of time each day you depend on them. Support the public park system and integrate visits to parks into the ordinary rhythm of your life. Affirm environmental protections into the basic law of the land.

Friends, we have much to do.

Anna Clark's writing has appeared in The American Prospect , Utne Reader , Hobart, and Writers' Journal , among other publications. She is the editor of the literary and social justice Web site, Isak.

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