Confronting your humanity: An environmental perspective


Jemi Chew, Reporter

There is something surreal about watching your teacher pound an infiltrometer into the ground with a sledgehammer (rather comically) in sub zero degree weather while the average, non-crazy person walks by and casts a not-so-subtle look of judgment.

Kenton Sena, lecturer at Lewis Honors College and teacher who whacked a piece of metal for science, later told me that he hoped more people would stop and ask what our class was doing – maybe it would become a lovely teaching moment.

Unfortunately, my classmates and I were left with incredulous looks and a random guy in a car asking us if we were treasure hunters.

After making my fifth crop circle on the ground (the infiltrometer leaves circle shaped markings in the dirt) but failing to actually get the infiltrometer deep enough to measure the rate of water infiltration into the soil (much to the very controlled, hidden disappointment of Sena), part of me could not help but laugh.

I attribute most of it to insanity caused by shame, exhaustion and freezing weather. But, a very sane and reasonable question popped up in my mind – is this all even worth it?

Our HON 152 class project, which involves planting native species of plants along University Drive in order to address stormwater runoff causing channel erosion, counts towards required service-learning hours. I wondered if I would be willing to work for hours in the cold because I believed in its cause, not because of a grade.

There is debate about all the different aspects of environmentalism, and for good reason. It is complicated. But benefits, drawbacks, stakeholders and arguments about the intersectionality of all three aside, environmentalism forces you to confront your humanity.

Saving the environment is a big, broad term. So big that almost everyone knows about climate change, or the plastic bags that sea turtles are eating, or natural disasters that are increasing in frequency. So broad that it probably seems like something for governments, corporations, scientists and more to solve. Everyone knows why it matters – this is where we live, and this is where future generations will live.

But it is hard to believe that what we do actually matters. When arguing for change it is hard to ignore that saving the environment is a luxury that not everyone can afford. And any environmental action, within an individual’s ability, often feels like a drop in the ocean.

Are you willing, despite knowing all your limits, to still try?

That is what it means to confront your humanity – environmentalism puts into perspective your place, and role, in the vast web of life.

“Nobody really thinks about the materials that we use and how long it takes to get them. No one thinks about how long it took to construct Lewis and the resources that were taken from the earth to build it. Or how long it took to grow the grass that they trample on everyday,” Olivia Fugate, a student taking Sena’s HON 152 class, said. “Once you have a better perspective of that, that widens your perception.”

And yet, almost paradoxically, environmentalism also emphasizes the power of an individual.

Fugate believes that every individual’s action for the environment counts, no matter how small.

“Nothing large comes out of nowhere,” said Fugate. “It’s the same as building stairs, take one step at a time and it’s those things that do add up.”

Mac Hall, a UK alumni and project engineer at Third Rock Consultants, says that a lot of small projects together will have a domino effect resulting in a big impact on the environment.

“A 10 by 12 foot rain garden, which is much smaller than the one you guys are doing on the University Drive (class project), can filter 30 thousand gallons of water a year. That’s no small amount,” Hall said.

Any action for the environment has an impact – that is how much power you have.

“Leading and guiding people into the connectivity of their world is extremely important.” Shari Dutton, staff horticulturist, said. “Education is extremely important for these restoration areas, for the public to have an appreciation and a love for what happens next.”

So where should you start?

Sena starts within his communities.

“I live in Lexington, Kentucky. I work at UK, I’m going to make it a more beautiful and healthy place throughout my lifetime,” Sena said. “I frankly don’t care whether that fixes the plastic, the pacific garbage patch or climate change, or any of those big issues – that’s not within my ability or power to affect. But it is within my power to care for my place, and my neighbors, in small and specific ways.”

This mentality is what inspired Sena to start the class project. While riding his bike along University Drive, his usual route to work, he saw an ecological problem that was within his power to fix. And this action will have an impact towards beautifying UK’s campus and preventing runoff, which causes pollution in our waterways.

“Stewardship is common sense,” Hall said. “If you don’t want to take care of what you have, that’s on you.”