About Me — Cameron Catanzano
Aspiring Environmental Lawyer Exploring Art’s Role Taking on Climate Change
I come from a family of surfers, hikers, and campers. In other words, my childhood is littered with memories of exploring national parks and road-tripping across the desert beaches of Baja California.
But, these trips were always about more than exercise or a shared appreciation for scenic views. Spending time outdoors would eventually become a central part of my identity and even shape my philosophy for what it means to be a human being on planet earth.
My family might not have been aware of it, but their interactions with nature carried unspoken lessons, serving as the foundation for my own aspirations. When we went to the beach, my stepdad would walk along the shore and pick up bits and pieces of trash as he went along. There was nothing grand about it. He even seemed casual, like picking up trash was just an effortless part of every stroll along the sand.
To this day I’ve never heard him mention the habit, and he definitely never gave us some sit down about how important it is to pick up trash, but he didn’t need to say anything. I refined a message out of those beach days and I’ve never shaken it off, “Grown-ups pick up trash when they go to the beach because grown-ups take care of the environment.”
I felt pride in my chest the first time I decided to follow the habit and pick up trash along the sand. It was like I was walking into a new position in the family, and an even bigger position in the larger community. I felt like I was becoming a man.
Several years later, I’m still in the habit of picking up little bits of trash while I walk along the beach or hike a trail. I even came back from a half-hour of snorkeling one time with velcro pockets full of plastic, and my family got such a kick out of it that they started calling me “the Lorax”.
It’s rather simple, but years of picking up trash taught me another significant lesson: “believing” we should respect our environment is one thing, what matters is that you actually do something about it.
This (of course) brings me to the massive environmentalist elephant that’s been in the room since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
As you’re probably well aware, climate change is an existential threat to our way of life and to human existence itself. Unfortunately, we often separate climate change off into an isolated category of “environmental problems”, completely distinct from all other issues of social justice and economics.
But this dichotomy is horribly mistaken. The unavoidable truth is that we all live within a beautifully interdependent ecosystem containing each of the plants, animals, mountains, buildings, and people that make planet earth. Knowing this turns climate change into something much more than just an “environmental problem.”
Many of our darkest societal wounds will only deepen and crack under the strain of an off-balance ecosystem, and we have little hope of resolving other injustices if we don’t also restore our land, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and adapt our entire society to mitigate the detrimental effects of rising temperatures. Climate change is a racial justice problem, it’s a public health problem, and it’s an economic problem.
Still, there’s much more than just a practical connection between issues of climate change and social justice. There’s a philosophical connection here, moving from traditional concepts of human ethics out toward the natural world.
When talking about animals, rivers, and mountains, West African theologian Mercy Amba Oduyoye challenges us to see “neighbours” in our environment,
“… Our environment is full of unacknowledged neighbours, all who are in need of survival, healing, or affirmation and call for our understanding and practice. We know who our neighbour is. The challenge is how to live as neighbours …” (Oduyoye, 2004).
Famous environmentalist Aldo Leopold condensed this idea years ago into one term, “the land ethic”. Describing it in A Sand County Almanac, he said,
“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land… In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” (Leopold, 1949).
Leopold never actually went on to define exactly what he thought our “land ethic” should be, but he knew we needed something to fill the gap. If we want to create a change here we first need to articulate the ideals with which we want to relate to the land.
We need to think as deeply about our relationship with the land as we do about our relationship with other people. We need something to strive towards.
So, why am I planning on attending law school next year?
I grew up in Southern California during the age of Obama. It was a bubble, supported by the lofty assumption of inevitable, but it all fell apart the night Donald Trump was elected president.
When it was finally, unavoidably, clear he would win, I laid on the ground and stared existentially at the ceiling. A lot went through my mind that night, but one thing was certain; It was the moment I realized things aren’t set on some unstoppable direct path to progress.
I can’t sit back and assume other people would figure it out for me. I need to personally fight for justice. Other people will join the fight, but that’s no excuse for me to sit this one out. To quote the great Aldo Leopold one last time,
“We shall never achieve harmony with the land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations, the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.” (Leopold, 1993).
Not everything will go as planned, and many of our victories will be partial, but that’s never a reason to stop fighting.
This is where law school comes in. At its core, the law is that human invention reflecting our ever-dynamic relationships while simultaneously allowing us the opportunity to step back, decide what those relationships ought to be, and drive society toward those goals.
There have always been movements within the legal system towards greater justice. Who could forget the role lawyers played in the civil rights movement? But there is also a particular opportunity here to fight against climate change.
Our laws might seem to focus on human relationships, but the legal system also addresses our ecological relationships. Just think of the countless laws written regarding animals, water, and wildlands. Is there any better profession to actively fight climate change?
I love to write about climate change (that’s why I’m here after all) and Medium publications like Climate Conscious play a vital role in the fight for environmental justice, but blogging is only one half of this battle. This fight also requires a thousand behind the scenes material changes, and the letters J.D. open a person up to influence those things.
In a very practical sense, I’m applying to law schools for the same reason I pick up trash: I have a personal responsibility to take care of our environment, and I don’t take that responsibility lightly.
Links to My Work
If you got to the end of this and thought, “This guy seems cool. I wonder what else he has to say?” then worry no more. I’ve included a few links below to some of my top Medium stories.
- Art and the Emotions of Climate Change
- Hollywood Needs Better Climate Change Narratives
- ‘Wilderness and the American Mind’: An Intellectual History of Our Relationship with Nature
- We Need to Meet Climate Change with Art
Leopold, A. (1949). A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches here and there. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Leopold, A. (1993). Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold. London: Oxford University Press.
Oduyoye, M. A. (2004). Beads and strands: Reflections of an African Woman on Christianity in Africa. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.