The meaning of the terminology behind the modern environmental movement – recycling, environmentalist, and going green – has changed significantly throughout my lifetime, or at least during the years that I’ve been paying some amount of attention.

When I was in elementary school, my classmates and I made a video about composting. Using little-kid-speak, we described all the different foods and ways that you could integrate compost into your home, and how it was a great complement to the recycling that we were already doing at school. We even made up a little song for the background music…I think it went something like, “compost, nuh, nuh, nuh, compost.” My more vocally talented friends ended the video with an acapella chorus of Smash Mouth’s “Walking on the Sun.”

At that time, I was interested in helping the environment, but “going green” felt more like a trend I wanted to hop on rather than an important step in mitigating the human-caused changes to our planet. “Reduce, reuse, recycle,” was a fun tagline, but I didn’t really understand what it meant. I didn’t know about the increasing amount of plastic that was entering our oceans each day, or how pollution from sewage and industrial runoff was creating widespread “dead zones,” caused by a lack of oxygen in the water.

This continued throughout middle school and high school, as I took part in Earth Day cleanups and joined environmental clubs along with many of my fellow students. It wasn’t until college, though, that the issues gained more weight and I began to recognize that I had a real role and responsibility in helping our planet, or at least learning about the problems the planet was facing in more detail.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized just how much my current outlook has evolved from my childhood opinion that “going green” was cool. The motivation comes from the same place, but the ideas I had as a kid – that by recycling and taking shorter showers, we could solve everything – have changed so much. The question is, was that realization a result of my own increased awareness or a change in the messaging associated with “going green”? I think it’s a bit of both.

Today, “going green” isn’t a cool trend. It’s a necessary lifestyle, but it involves a lot more than recycling and taking shorter showers. Climate change is such a weighty and complex subject, and the successful future of environmental conservation requires global recognition of that fact. Nevertheless, the language used around climate change should be simple enough that it feels as doable as “going green” while also communicating the larger context of how our oceans, ecosystems, and daily lives are changing.

When I was in elementary school, recycling a paper or creating a video about compost made me feel like I could solve all the world’s problems. Though that’s become even less true over time, that feeling of possibility is something that it’s important to carry over into the actions we take to mitigate climate change and protect our oceans today.

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