At Aspen Ideas Festival, a search for ‘environmental identity’

A personal connection to nature helps drive climate solutions, land stewardship

Interviewer Gadi Schwartz, National Park Service Director Chuck Sams and conservationist Kris Tompkins participate in a "This Land is Your Land" conversation during the Aspen Ideas Festival on Tuesday, June 28, 2022.
Leigh Vogel/Aspen Ideas Festival

What’s your environmental identity?

Not a question you hear every day. Or ever, really. When climate anxiety psychologist Thomas Doherty proposed it during a “Climate Change and You” conversation at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Monday — then asked audience members to raise their hands if they’d been asked that question before — there weren’t exactly a lot of hands in the air. 

But it is a question we should start asking ourselves and each other, Doherty suggested, especially as we navigate anxiety about climate change and look to solve the ecological impacts of a warming world. Both topics were at the crux of “Climate Change and You,” which also featured sustainability scientist and climate communicator Alaina Wood and moderator Gadi Schwartz from NBC News.

There are some traditional coping guidance and stress reduction involved in Doherty’s practice, but “underneath that is building this environmental identity, recovering our sense of our values and our self, because that’s ultimately the strength,” he said. 

The process starts with thinking about where we grew up, what our parents were like, what books we read or movies we watched or places we traveled. Just like gender identity or cultural identity, everyone has a climate identity, Doherty said.

And, as Wood pointed out, thinking about our connection with the natural world can be part of the motivation to care for it, too. She grew up in the Appalachian mountains in Tennessee and still lives there, and said that the role that mountains play in her life is a driving force behind her career as a sustainability scientist. 

“Those mountains are a huge part of my life: I wake up in the morning, I see them, I hike there, I pick up litter there, I just want to protect them,” Wood said. “That’s why I’m a scientist, in fact.”

“Humans are not disconnected from nature, we are a part of nature,” she added later, toward the end of the conversation. “And once that clicked in my head, I was like, ‘That’s why I care, and that’s why I do what I do.’” 

The same theme kept coming up in conversations throughout this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival that were centered on climate change, conservation, the natural world, outdoors and recreation and all of the above. 

On Sunday afternoon, in a conversation about America’s relationship with the outdoors, comedian and civic educator Baratunde Thurston spoke with “1A” host Jenn White about how our landscapes shape who we are. 

In the United States, where the landscapes of the outdoors are “as diverse as people,” Thurston suggested we might stand to learn a lot about one another by learning about our environments.

It’s a lot like when you meet someone’s parents and see why they are who they are — but in this case, the a-ha moment comes from connecting outdoors with people in Idaho, or North Carolina, or Tangier Island, Virginia, he said. Thurston has now spent time in all of those places, and several others, as the host of a new PBS show “The Great Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston.”

“The environment shapes us as much as our parents, probably equal, maybe more, depending on the distribution of the recipe that makes us,” he added. “And that’s a beautiful thing to witness, and it’s a good reminder because we’ve done so much effective separation of ourselves from the outdoors.”

It is possible to get back to that connection, Thurston believes. Photographer Pete McBride thinks so too, and he believes that listening to the silence of nature can foster that connection.

“Silence can be a way to connect us back to these places and remind us that nature actually has a lot to say,” McBride said during a Monday afternoon talk on “Seeing Silence: The Beauty of the World’s Most Natural Places” with conservationist Kris Tompkins. 

Tompkins asserts that it will take time, though, for that connection to foster a larger-scale change in our relationship with our climate and our ecosystem. Hope, she believes, must be earned — that it must be an active word, not one that abdicates responsibility. 

“Am I hopeful for this century?” she said at the “Seeing Silence” talk. “I think it’s really tough. I don’t think anyone in here disagrees with that. 

“I’m more optimistic, as (Norwegian philosopher) Arne Naess was, for the next century,” she added. “Because people who come out of the strife that we (have seemed) to inch closer toward over the last two decades — they will have returned to this understanding, I think, that we do depend on nature, we do depend on one another to survive.”

That concept of environmental identity came back around Tuesday evening, too, at a “This Land is Your Land” discussion on protecting wild spaces with Tompkins and National Park Service Director Chuck Sams. 

Schwartz, who was the moderator of the Tuesday discussion as well, asked each of the speakers what their environmental identities were and found in the answers a call for stewardship.

Tompkins, who has played an instrumental role in the conservation of millions of acres of land through Tompkins Conservation, grew up on her great-grandfather’s ranch in California, where she spent plenty of time outdoors but didn’t necessarily associate that with “nature.” It wasn’t until her mid-20s, emerging from the world of climbing and ski racing, that she said she “began to understand the beauty of nature and also the front end of the degradation of nature.”

“Through (climber, environmentalist and Patagonia founder) Yvon Chouinard and other friends, I began to really realize that unlike my family, who didn’t see things this way, that there was a whole world out there that I belonged to and fell in love with,” Tompkins said. 

Sams is the first Native American director of the National Park Service; he is Cayuse and Walla Walla and is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. His environmental identity was shaped by his “creation story,” he said, and that in turn shapes a vision for stewardship.

“I was told that when I got my eyesight from eagle, I got my skin from elk, I got my veins from the plant people, I got my hearing from the owl, so these gifts that were given by the flora and fauna (were) what made me a human being,” Sams said. 

Sams also found a connection in his upbringing in the foothills of the blue mountains in Eastern Oregon, where “you played from the time the sun was up until it went down,” he said.

“Our creation story tells us that we must keep our promise to be the stewards of the flora and fauna, that we must not do it just for ourselves but we must do it for seven generations from now,” Sams said. “Basically, we only have a lease on the property as it exists today, and our job is to improve it over time, not to destroy it, ensuring that my children and grandchildren and children yet born will have those same resources when they join.”