A journey to understanding sustainability

by Katie Conlon, Ph.D, Nelis Global Core Team Member

Sept. 27, 2020

The tipping point in my life that got me interested in sustainability was in my mid-20s. I had just finished my undergraduate and had been living a wanton, sun-kissed, leisurely life at the beach and in the music and party scene in San Diego. It was a fast-paced life of fun, entertainment, and endless things to do. I was happy — or at least I thought I was — and didn’t question too much about the world. But then, things drastically changed.

After college I decided to join the Peace Corps. The Corps chooses a placement for volunteers, and I found myself living in the small town of Gao, Mali on the edge of the Sahara in West Africa. It was literally like being picked up and dropped off on another planet — I don’t think one could pick a location further in geography or culture from San Diego. But as soon as I arrived, instead of being shell-shocked by the situation, I set about learning what I needed to adapt to these new circumstances. I had to get used to wearing long pants and covering my head in +100 degree weather; I had to get used to riding a bike in sand (Gao only had 6 paved roads at the time, the rest were sand). I had to learn French to then learn the local language of Songhai. I had to learn how to eat with my hands. Taking a shower was not just ‘turning on the tap,’ but filling up a bucket from the well and carrying it to the showering place. I needed to learn what times of day I could be out to run errands so I wouldn’t get heat stroke. I had to learn patience, as most meetings were conditional (carry a book around to not get bored). Getting ready for bed meant setting up my sleeping pad on my mud roof. All of these new tasks made me feel like a child again, I had to unlearn certain things that I had been used to, and then relearn how to do them in the local context.

But the biggest shift in my awareness over these years in the desert, was how my life was in direct contact with nature. I slept outside every night under the stars, no tent, under one of the darkest and clearest night skies in the world; and woke up every day with sunrise over the Niger River. I learned how to make thatch huts with my neighbors. I grew herbs and veggies in my garden to supplement my diet and share with my neighbors. I learned how to read footprints in the sand. I became attuned to subtle changes in nature. I had no internet access; so no social media to whittle away the time. In the heat of the day, I spent most of my afternoons sitting under my grass awning, listening to the birds and the kids playing in the river, with the sweet smell of mint wafting over from my garden, and literally pondering existence. How can this one earth have so many different ways of being?

In the city, I never had time for all of this, and as a result I never felt so integral with nature. City life does its best to separate us from all that is living — pave over the earth with concrete, chase away the animals, drone out the birds. On lucky days I could see hippos in the Niger River; learn about the usage of locally-available medicinal plants; or learn about symbols that represent the constellations and indicate the ancient pathways for night navigation through the Sahara. Life in Gao was very much lived in a fine balance. The culture evolved around treading lightly on the earth so that people could be sustained; despite its harshness, the desert also provided. Like the word Ubuntu is ‘I am because you are,’ in the desert I realized for the first time that ‘I am because of the earth.’

But Mali wasn’t all serene moments — which is what prompted me to put my sustainability mindset in action. One of the things that I began to notice in Mali was the prevalence of plastic. In my neighborhood I would regularly go around and pick up pieces of trash on the streets, plastic bags stuck in trees, and my neighbors would look at me with curiosity. They didn’t quite yet connect the dots as to what this relatively new material was doing to the local environment. But, I could see how this centuries old culture, built on self-sufficiency, was quickly falling victim to the allure of throw-aways.

Fast forward 15 years, and I have used my experiences to propel me into the field of environmental stewardship, specifically focusing on plastic awareness and reduction. From my time in Mali, I realized that I had the calling to organize my life around serving the bigger picture and working towards a more humane, sustainable world. Over the last several years I have been based between Sri Lanka and India, where I research the social and ecological impacts of plastics, and strategize how communities can approach these challenges. Living a life of meaning, rather than a life geared towards monetary accumulation, might sound challenging to some, but it has actually allowed for the path to unfold before me. Paulo Coelho says in The Alchemist, “When you want something, all the universe conspires to help you achieve it.” I have been fortunate to have been supported in my sustainability work and journey, being awarded fellowships from the University of Notre Dame; the National Science Foundation; and Fulbright as more and more people are realizing the plight of our shared environment and the need to act swiftly. Moreover, through the years it has been the network of sustainability practitioners around the globe that has continued to motivate and inspire me, as exemplified in the NELIS Network.

Currently, I have the support of a National Geographic Explorer Grant, for a project researching and documenting plastic reduction strategies for the Himalayan region (North India, Bhutan, and Nepal). This is a dynamic project that focuses on community-led solutions, and a love for the incredible landscape at the world’s third pole, the Himalayas. The project was supposed to start spring 2020, but due to Covid has been delayed.

The Covid situation shines a light on just how important sustainability is for our world. Globalization brings the whole world together, and makes us equally dependent and vulnerable together. We have the world at our fingertips through international trade and virtual worlds, but the majority of urban-dwellers live in worlds of separation from nature. The most important lessons we need to learn come from being patient towards the earth. My sustainability dream of the future is that we live in a world where everyone feels innately connected to the planet, and therefore makes daily decisions in harmony with the natural world. Instead of living lives as if human beings are separate, we realize that we are equally a part of this integral, whole earth, and from this — just as in the desert — everything else will thrive.

NELIS(Next Leaders’ Initiative for Sustainability)is a local2global platform of and for young sustainability leaders