I am running the ground alone by the ground.
I know this because I had to calculate my ecological footprint for my environmental studies class last Thursday. As a reference, an ecological footprint is a measure of an individual’s personal impact on the environment: a comparison between the demand that is made on the Earth’s natural resources and what the Earth is able to supply. To determine mine, I answered questions about my food intake (how many processed or animal products I consume), what type of home I live in, my modes of transportation, how often I buy new clothes or appliances, etc.
At the end of the survey, the results page appeared and he presented me with the statement, “If everyone lived like you, we would need 5.3 lands.”
Ah jeez. I moved on to the next statement. “If everyone lived like you, on March 9 we would have used as much of nature as the Earth can renew in an entire year.”
“Oh, come on,” I announced verbally. It could seriously be the only reason we are in a sixth mass extinction right now.
I then went to the answer questions for the task, where I was asked how I could improve my footprint, more specifically, how I could “be the change”. I sat back down and reflected on my past week, trying to identify the moments when I had closed the future of nature.
As I reflected, I realized that while my ecological footprint was across the roof, my actual footprint was possibly higher; my activity app measured 18,000 steps the other day. During the first week of classes, I was so overwhelmed that I called my mother crying from the floor of my bedroom. The conversation brought no huge idea to improve my ecological footprint, just proof that the Earth and I were in fierce competition for levels of exhaustion: I have been energetically and socially berthed from the pandemic.
“It’s hard,” I panicked. “I don’t know how to take regular classes. I have to walk to my classes. I have to figure out where to walk between them when I don’t have time to immerse myself in a huge task, but I also have too much time to eat a snack. Then I go home and come back all day to eat. And, of course, I have to interact with everyone while I do it. ”
“You’re not adapted to normal life,” my mother told me. “You’ll get there.”
Continuing to reflect on my week, I thought of my first day of play as Michigan Wolverine: entering the Big House, chills rising in my arms as I watched the sea of students, cheerful and cheerful, all happy to debut for two years of hibernation. That night I was again exhausted from such a surreal, but too stimulating day.
I guess I could have skipped the hot dog halfway through the day? Do you avoid animal food? I laughed to myself when I imagined my graduate student instructor reading my answer that I would be “changing” by boycotting the stadium meat.
The reality was that I had no idea how to fix my ecological footprint. I had no idea how to navigate normal life on campus and here I was, trying to cough up ideas about how it could “be change”. Although he was unable to find a legitimate way to improve life on Earth, he had identified a pattern of overstimulation and fatigue.
This week, one hundred percent of my effort has been focused on trying to figure out which floor of which library is a good place to do my work, how many of the words the teacher should describe as he throws into the priceless abyss, and whether I have time to stop home for dinner or go straight to dance practice before going out to spend the night. I may be second in name, but I feel like a freshman in mind and body. And I’m not the only one.
My friends and I joke that we are like astronauts who came back from space with poorly equipped bones and muscles to handle the pressure of gravity. It’s a strange concept: having to “catch up” to a “normal” life, struggling with what is supposed to be “an average day.” I, along with my entire age group, and perhaps even my entire student body, realize that I didn’t know what I was missing while I was missing it. I came back as a social human who functioned without even knowing it.
Being weird at school where I spent a year of my life is weird. I knew the University of Michigan was a “big school,” but I didn’t understand its immensity until I went to Festifall last week. My intentions included adding a club to my repertoire; maybe something would help me contribute to the community, to “be the change”. I walked in fear, contemplating the number of people, the diversity of students, their styles, conversations, initiatives, interests. I walked and walked, read material in the booths, and analyzed the Diag buzz. Overwhelmed, I didn’t add any clubs. Suddenly, those who already belonged were enough. I sympathized with the Earth as I left, unable to provide all the personal resources I felt demanded. I needed to listen to the needs of my own body and mind.
But I am well aware that now is not the best time to focus on oneself. Over the past month or so, there has been a deadly hurricane, abortion ban, continued Taliban chaos, wildfires and more. I usually like to stay up to date, learn about current events, and collaborate charitably wherever I can, whether it involves reading the New York Times at night or FaceTiming to my family to talk about confusing details. I like being able to understand problems and their players and engage in conversations with friends or in classes. I like to be informed.
But right now I don’t have the ability to do that. I don’t know nearly enough about any of these events how I should do it. In full transparency, I can say I know they happened and that’s it. My conscience doesn’t look right – I feel civically irresponsible. Not to mention, I’m apparently also eliminating the environment.
Keeping up to date with the news, staying politically and globally educated, helping to cause importance, and of course, staying relatively environmentally friendly requires a concerted effort, regardless of the time period or what happens in the world. But as college students today, we are expected to be up to date with the world beyond ourselves, while re-learning real life here in Ann Arbor. I wonder if it is acceptable to suspend a semester to join a new organization or if it is irresponsible to know less about the present. Is it lazy not to have the ability to figure out how to improve the ecological footprint?
Generally speaking, I don’t think anyone has the privilege of firing life and problems out of their personal bubble. He is careless and self-centered. But I also have a small voice (which I’m afraid to let go of) that says right now, focusing on myself is okay. It’s okay if I analyze the news when I can, hold conversations when possible, and make a sincere contribution to improving our environment at a later date. I have to get my foot right before I can shape my footprint. This means that, at least for a while, I may not have to stick to the same standards as before the pandemic. Maybe I don’t need to “be the change,” at least right now.
This slightly discouraging, but nevertheless inevitable, truth probably goes for all aspects of life: the bar that was reached in 2019 is, at least for now, lower. We should be easy on ourselves. We should lower our expectations of what we can and need to do.
Right now, “I will be the change,” making sure I balance my academics, social life, extracurriculars, and downtime in a healthy way. I’ll take things out of my plate that bring me closer to feeling too overwhelmed. I will approach my teammates and talk about the difficulty of this adjustment that they may be too nervous to express outwardly, thinking they are the only ones struggling. I will write this piece admitting that I am not as active or political or active as before, as being or knowing that I should be. I will get there soon enough. Soon I will really work on “being the change”.
First, I need to figure out how to “be”.
Contact correspondent Lilly Dickman can be contacted at [email protected]