I have lived near some of the largest cities on Earth, including Tokyo, New York City, Houston, and Miami. For my entire life, I was surrounded by a mass of humanity. I told my wife when we first met that I was a city boy, and I wanted to live in the concrete jungle.
In Tokyo, there is a peculiar orange tower that stands near the center of the city that is simply named Tokyo Tower. It looks like the Eiffel Tower but is painted safety cone orange. It is the second tallest structure in Japan. This odd sight is home to a great observation deck that offers unrivaled views of Tokyo and the surrounding area. Many of the buildings in Japan are not tall due to the earthquake risk, so Tokyo is very spread out but very flat. This stands in stark contrast with other Asian cities such as Hong Kong or Shanghai, which boast much taller, more traditional skyscraper skylines.
This makes Tokyo Tower’s observation deck attractive in that it is one of the highest points in the city, allowing visitors to peer out as far as the eye can see without any real obstruction. What I saw when I peered out from those glass windows over ten years ago was the epitome of urban sprawl. I would not be surprised if the view from Tokyo Tower has been featured in a textbook in conjunction with the topic.
As far as the eye could see, in every direction, the city spread out as a grey blob that consumed everything. The sprawl was only contained by some of nature’s most significant features, the Pacific Ocean and Mt. Fuji. Without those barriers, I feared the sprawl would continue forever. The most prominent feature of this endless city that spewed out before me was that it was entirely grey. It was not green, nor brown, nor blue like many things in nature tend to be when seen from above, it was a mass of unbroken grey.
While Tokyo is undoubtedly the most exceptional example of this phenomenon, similar ones play out all over the globe and house millions upon millions of people. Miami has the beach, but it is flanked on all sides by glittering towers of glass, steel, and human wealth. Houston sits on the Gulf of Mexico, but the space between the two is dominated by chemical refineries and miles of pipe, concrete, and rail. Cities tend to snuff out nature.
For me, it was hard to care about the rain forest when I hadn’t seen a tree that wasn’t potted in days. Plants were for flowers, or landscaping or creating a natural-looking border between two businesses or neighbors. They weren’t really for anything else, and if they weren’t doing that job admirably enough, they could be uprooted and replaced.
The idea of my car causing global warming was laughable when sitting in a solid block of thousands of other vehicles. I would hear people talking about climate change on my radio while I sat, completely stopped, in traffic on an eight-lane highway with countless other people and machines sitting idly around me pumping their exhaust out alongside my own.
It was easy to ignore the environment because it was out of sight. Environmentalists sounded trite and out of touch when they spoke. It wasn’t that I held any ill will towards the planet or the people living on it, it was just that in the face of overwhelming human presence the Earth felt small and far away.
That all changed when I finally moved out of the city and out into the country.
Living in the city for so long began to wear on me. It became exhausting and stressful. People were rarely kind. Everything was noisy or dangerous or both. The costs kept rising to the point where I was living on the knife’s edge, and for what? The allure of late nights, exotic restaurants and strangers, of living in great cities among great people began to fade quickly when my rent peaked north of 50% of my income. Instead, my wife and I decided to move to a rural community an hour outside of a medium-sized city, and our lives were changed forever.
The first thing I noticed after moving to the countryside was that it was quiet. I would hear cars that I couldn’t see because they were on the street two blocks over. The crunch of gravel under my wife’s tires could be heard from the couch in the living room. I could think. I could hear. My TV’s volume didn’t have to be set near max to listen to the conversations.
There were birds, so many birds with a variety of different squawks and cries that I had never heard before. Cows would moo in nearby fields, and donkeys would bray for their breakfasts near dawn. The world was noisy, just in a way, I was never able to listen to before.
The second thing I noticed was that I could see the stars at night. Constellations had never made sense to me growing up. I never saw Orion’s bow, only his belt and Taurus wasn’t a bull, just an idea. That was because I could never actually see them correctly, and once I could, they instantly made sense.
It was at that moment that I realized how small our planet is, how fragile it is, and how much of it is being consumed by people.
I began to worry that nearby construction might disturb the owl that hooted in the night. I was afraid that a lumbering truck might scare away the family of cardinals that lived on my porch. I saw a crow with an empty bag of chips and was appalled. I was able to truly see nature for the first time and our impact upon it.
I am not a crazy sign-waving, protesting sort of environmentalist. Those people are not helping the planet as much as they think they are. I began to see nature for what it was and began to see our impacts on what they were. There is only so much I can do as a single person, so I started to do them.
I became an environmentalist almost overnight. The kind that sees human impacts on the world around us and strives to reduce those things in my own life.
I recycle now. We had never really done that before. What was the point? Now I see that reusing material can help save habitats by reducing demand.
I try to buy things that are in season. If strawberries are ripe, strawberries it is. Eating in season reduces the amount of over the road trucking required to bring me my food, which in turn cuts down on gas demand and exhaust.
I do not order things online when I can help it. The idea of people running around in some fulfillment center to pull my stuff put it on a truck, maybe multiple trucks or heaven forbid a plane, just to get me some trinket or shiny object that caught my eye is downright horrifying to me now.
I try to avoid things with excessive amounts of packaging. Why does that stapler need to be encased in two layers of plastic and a layer of paper? It doesn’t. The packaging is another reason I try to avoid online ordering; even the smallest things come in a fortress of paper and plastic, which serves no purpose other than to be thrown away after we tear them open.
My wife and I ate a lot of take out in the city. It was more comfortable and, in some cases cheaper, than actually going to the grocery store, fighting the crowds, and the lines to come home with overpriced produce and other goods. Take out has a ton of packaging as well. Like a lot. A burger would come in a Styrofoam container, which was shrink-wrapped and placed in a paper bag. If you ordered two and got two paper bags, they would put the pair of them into a larger plastic bag.
I know it is not much. Some people think that jet setting around the globe yelling at people that the world is ending does more good than my recycling. I disagree.
Movements are made up of many individuals doing something. Actions speak louder than words. I would take more people recycling or using less packaging or littering less over some grand lip service to carbon emissions, any day. If everyone looked at their own lives and took simple, common sense, actions to help reduce their environmental footprint, things would get better over time.
I used to not care about the environment much. Now I do. Now I see it more fully. I am striving daily to do things in my power to control how I affect the world around me.
Drive less, order less, litter less, recycle more, spend more time outside, look at the stars, listen to the birds, repurpose old things, donate instead of trash, shop second hand, pay attention to the living creatures, pay attention to the little things. These are the things I do now. I don’t know if that makes me a good environmentalist, but I think being any environmentalist is better than whatever I was before.