It’s Not Always About You – or – Environmental Gratitude in my Work and Life

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By Eric P. Nelson

Having recently emerged from the holiday season that now runs from the day my Jack-O-Lantern takes up its position on the compost pile to the day my Christmas tree gets tossed onto the grim-faced Jack-O-Lantern, I feel rather drained from all the sentiments of gratitude and goodwill that I have both expressed and received during this extended season. They’re genuine, mostly, and seem appropriate at the time, but I’ve now shifted into New England-style winter survival mode, and quite prefer it after a long season of excess.

Recently, I read an article about “environmental gratitude.” The term was new to me, but after I read the article I realized I had discovered what motivates and guides me at work, and in many aspects of my life. Environmental gratitude was defined as, “a finely tuned propensity to notice and feel grateful for one’s surroundings on a regular basis, which generates pervasive attitudes of concern for planetary welfare and commitment to contribute ecological benefits to the extent of one’s ability.” It’s a bit dense to digest, but the article goes on to describe the phrase in simpler terms.

Unlike the gratitude one may feel during the holidays, environmental gratitude is not beholden to particular benefactors, does not require mutual intentionality (Thank you for that 2,000-calorie holiday meal!). Instead, simply recognizing and appreciating the very existence of the natural world and your connection to it can instill a sense of gratitude that can, in turn, influence your general attitude about protecting nature and motivate you to take action.

This has happened to me over the course of my life, and it’s how I approach my work at EPA, at least most days. No thanks sought, or needed, from those living things in the watery world that hopefully benefit from my actions. In truth, though, I do get thanked through my interactions with the natural world. And while I’ve seen nature in some of its most impressive forms, I’m just as enchanted by brief encounters close to home: a passing glimpse of a hawk flying through Boston Common; a hummingbird pausing on a branch above my shed; crows calling, winter quiet in snowy woods; a pungent whiff of exposed mudflat on a lonely beach; the jewel-like stars overhead at my bus stop on a clear, dark winter morning; the iridescent beetle that landed oh so briefly on the back of my wife’s neck. Such encounters are everywhere for all those who care to take notice. And to me, they matter.

The article, “Environmental Gratitude and Ecological Action,” by Richard Matthews, was featured on the website.

About the author: Eric Nelson works in the Ocean and Coastal Protection Unit of EPA New England in Boston, but prefers being underwater with the fishes. He lives in a cape on Cape Cod with his wife and two daughters, and likes pesto on anything.

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