Eco Identity Struggles: A candid look at reluctant environmental action

Last summer, I began taking classes to become a Florida Master Naturalist. As a lifelong environmentalist, my goal was to learn more about the natural world in Florida, and I’ve ended up becoming a science communicator and conservation ecologist in the process. From July to March, I was immersed in the Florida outdoors, learning about its flora and fauna, its habitats, and how to take action regarding its conservation issues and more. 

Ellie in a graduation cap and gown, holding a pin she earned from completing the Florida Master Naturalist Program coursework

This education culminated in me expanding a final project from one of my classes into a 40-minute presentation that I gave at the annual conference of the League of Environmental Educators in Florida. The project is called Hope for Florida, and it uses the interpretation method I first learned from Jane Goodall to encourage conservation by sharing past success stories—the idea being that if we saved an ecosystem, plant, or animal once, we can use the hope that gives us to do it again now.

And yet, for a few weeks now, I have felt hopeless about the environment, and frustrated that environmentalism has to be part of my identity. I agonize over doing everything in the most sustainable way, and I envy people who don’t think about the environment.

As a verbal processor, I decided to finally sit down and write a journal entry to sort through my feelings, but upon finishing, I decided to make a few minor tweaks and share it here on my website.

Ellie holding a journal with portals into a polluted world and a greener world | individual sustainability

What my life looks like

My life has shifted a bit since last summer, although it has stayed the same in many regards. I’m involved in environmental education at a state park as well as ecology/entomology research in a national forest. In my free time, I enjoy exploring nature, being in and on the water, making art, and consuming stories and information. I’m definitely a homebody, but I spend a lot of time with my partner, and I do see friends and family every so often. I try to make sure every element of my life is as sustainable as possible, and I am always doing my best to learn more about nature, sustainability, social issues, and the world around me.

That maybe sounds like a pretty full life already, but to me, it doesn’t feel like enough because it feels like I have the privilege of all this knowledge about how to make the world a better place, and I’m not using it properly. 

What my life *should* look like

It’s cheesy, but I think about the line from National Treasure where Nicolas Cage’s character “translates” a line from the Declaration of Independence into modern vernacular: “If there’s something wrong, those who have the ability to take action have the responsibility to take action.”

Independence Hall in Philadelphia | "Those who have the ability to take action have the responsibility to take action."

I feel like I should be using my knowledge to be constantly educating others—putting out blog posts, making social media content, getting work published in journals, giving more presentations to the public, etc. I already do many of those things very sporadically, but I feel like I’m not successful at it because I don’t do any of them consistently.

But these things do feel important to me, because even though my reach isn’t particularly far, with only a handful of social media followers and blog readers, I do seem to have a big impact, as I’ve had an incredible number of people tell me that I was the person who inspired them to care more about sustainability/conservation/nature. So this is why I feel that it is my responsibility to do these things.

While I try not to use my ADHD as a crutch or an excuse, I do feel like a lot of my struggles come from my adhd brain: I am constantly coming up with ideas, but I lack the executive function, discipline, and consistency to bring many of them to fruition.

The reality is that I have a lot of ideas that I think are truly worth the effort, but I simply don’t have the time to put into every single idea.

Often I end up faced with decision paralysis because I’m unable to prioritize, and then I don’t end up working on any of those ideas (or I spontaneously start a new idea/project that will soon be abandoned).

Some of the ideas that I really wish I could put appropriate effort into are: 

  • Writing regularly on this website (I have ideas for so many different types of posts I’d like to publish)
  • Breathing more life into my Hope for Florida Project
  • Posting on social media about all the nature and conservation things I’ve been learning (I actually started writing out several different social media series—a manatee series, a series about plastics, a series about Florida’s different habitats and natural history, and more)
  • Writing for other publications
  • Presenting to the public (libraries, nature centers, schools, etc)
  • I also have two HUGE projects that I haven’t started yet and likely wouldn’t even be able to start for a few more years, and I don’t want to try to flesh out those ideas before I figure out how to balance everything else in my life

But burnout…

The problem is that I feel really burnt out on nature and conservation/sustainability topics right now. 

With some of my chronic health issues, I’m not able to get out and explore nature for very long in the summer because I get fainting spells from the heat. In all honesty, most of my nature “adventures” for the next several months are going to involve my apartment complex’s pool and occasionally the beach. This makes me feel like a failure and a fraud because I am not out in the environment I’m advocating to protect.

Me swimming in the spring at Wekiwa Spring State Park

And speaking of protecting the environment, I’m tired of that too. Sustainability and conservation is NOT my hobby. Art and nature are my hobbies, and I’d rather spend most of my time on creative projects or with cool animals instead of trying to convince people to care about protecting the disappearing and exploited habitats that we literally can’t survive without.

I want to live in a world where sustainability is built into our systems and is just the default option.

I want to buy my plastic-free hand soap without wondering the best way to make a video about it that might reach the most people on social media to convince them to adopt plastic-free lifestyle changes. In fact, I just want to be able to buy plastic-free hand soap without having to do tons and tons of research to figure out the best option and see through the greenwashing. I want plastic-free hand soap to be the only kind of hand-soap that is sold so that we can all make that sustainable choice without even having to think about it.

Two hands holding a clump of wet sand that is shaped like a heart

Do my individual actions matter?

I think a lot of other environmentalists have hit this point, and I suspect that’s the reason why in recent years, there has been a shift. Instead of pushing for us all to do our best to reduce our environmental impact, many environmentalists rolled back some of their eco lifestyle changes and shifted to complaining about how companies and the elite are causing the worst of the environmental issues, so that’s a “them” problem.

In other words, I feel like the sentiment is very much along the lines of “I’m barely causing that much of an impact on that environment, especially compared to governments and corporations and billionaires, so why should I go to the trouble of making changes in my life?”

My initial argument to this is that we should live in alignment with our beliefs, even if we feel that our actions are relatively small compared to the change that’s needed. Maybe it’s a big jump, but to me, I think that “I want to be eco, but it won’t make much of a difference, so I’ll wait until changes are made at a bigger level before I live a low-impact life” doesn’t sound far off from “I don’t believe in slavery, but not owning slaves won’t outlaw slavery on a large scale, so I’ll keep my slave until it’s illegal to do so.

Overflowing trash at a Hong Kong recycling bin station

Furthermore, I always argue that there’s no such thing as individual action. Unless you have zero contact whatsoever with anybody else on this planet, your individual actions do not exist in a vacuum and will almost certainly lead to somebody else taking action too.

A statistic that stuck out to me from Jonathan Safran Foer’s book We Are the Weather is that our “individual actions” usually inspire, on average, 6 or 8 other people (I forget which number it is and don’t have the book with me). And then of course each of those people will inspire 6+ more people, and those people will inspire more, and so on. And I’m lucky enough that I know my reach is significantly larger than that. My actions do make a difference, because my actions usually become our actions.

And when we citizens are inspired to get involved, the following actions can lead to lasting system-wide change:

  • Voting for sustainable policies and policy makers.
  • Communicating with our elected officials to make our priorities known.
  • Boycotting unsustainable companies or products.
  • Voting with our money for sustainable companies or products.
  • Learning as much as we can from reputable sources, especially about local issues.
  • Educating others with what we’ve learned.

So I know with certainty that I can make a difference, and my belief system dictates that I put forth the correct effort to reduce suffering in the world. If nobody does anything, the future of our world is dire. Environmental exploitation is worsening by the minute, and our fellow humans are already suffering. Throughout the world, including many place that I’ve lived and the state I reside in now, human rights are being stripped away, and the people we share this planet with are suffering. 

Quote by Jostein Gaarder that says “Acting responsibly is not a matter of strengthening our reason but of deepening our feelings for the welfare of others.” | Take action

However, I know I need to find a middle way. I can’t single-handedly solve every single problem, and if I give up everything that makes my life easy, then I won’t be at my most productive. On the other hand, taking the easiest path every single time doesn’t align with my beliefs. The world is not moving fast enough in the right direction, and if I have the ability to help, then I have the responsibility to help.

At this time, I don’t think I have the answer for what that means for me.


This summer, I want to figure out what that middle way is for me. How can I fulfill my personal happiness while also feeling like I’m doing my part to reduce suffering in the world?

What can I do to recharge my energy so that I have the mental bandwidth to make phone calls and send emails to my elected officials (and encourage others to do the same)?

Which projects that I’ve started are worth putting in the correct effort, and what steps do I need to take in order to bring them to fruition?

What knowledge and skills do I need to acquire in order to be my best self?

Ellie holding a book by Jane Goodall called "Hope for Animals and Their World"

What do you think? Do you relate to any of the above? Let me know in the comments below!

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