How an environmental creative tries to live sustainably: Eco-friendly accommodations, rest and appreciating nature

Leah Thomas takes readers through a week in her life

(Washington Post illustration; Leah Thomas; iStock)

Climate Diaries is a series that sheds light on what an average week — the good, bad, easy and hard — is like for people who are trying to live a more climate-conscious lifestyle. Climate Diaries aims to show a transparent and honest reflection of what people face while on this journey.

Meet our diarist

Name: Leah Thomas

Location: Santa Barbara

Age: 27

I’m an environmental creative and author of “The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet.” I sort of stumbled into the world of environmentalism. I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian initially because I’ve always been fascinated by animals, but I started to gravitate toward ecosystems ecology and sustainability, formally studying environmental science and policy in school. I also followed the example of members of my family, who were always really thrifty and encouraged my love for nature. My maternal grandma took me to the thrift store often, and she really made use of everything, like reusing bags and containers. She had a beautiful garden outside, as did my paternal grandmother and great grandmother. I think all of that rubbed off on me and inspired me more than I realized.

In my everyday life, I try my best to live intentionally, always considering the impact my decisions have on people and the planet, but also embracing nuance and imperfection. In the past, I was very strict and hard on myself with sustainable choices, but I realized shame-based motivation did not work well for me or my overall well-being. Instead, offering myself grace and doing my best helps a lot. I try to use eco-friendly cleaning products and beauty products, recycle and compost, thrift clothing or buy sustainably. The thing I most often do is buy from local stores that sell sustainably made, local artisan products. I also founded an environmental nonprofit, Intersectional Environmentalist, and it gives me a great sense of joy to work with them each week. I also think of sustainability as more than what I buy; it’s also how I sustain myself, my relationships and my community. Am I resting or nurturing healthy friendships? Am I resting enough so I can sustain myself? When I feel I’m personally living sustainably, I feel happier, and it’s much easier to stay motivated to protect the planet in little everyday decisions.

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Day 1

Today was all about planning for a trip — my book “babymoon,” or the last time I’ll have a getaway before the release of my first book. I’m taking a trip to Portugal for about two weeks, with a stop in Amsterdam. Traveling is something I’ve struggled with as someone who cares for the planet, like many of us do. In the past, I have received comments on Instagram shaming me for traveling by plane; I don’t blame them, but there is nuance. I used to really restrict myself and my choices because I wanted to be a perfect environmentalist, and I couldn’t justify my desire to explore when the carbon offsets of plane travel are enormous. But after experiencing a lot of burnout in 2020 and 2021, I decided to commit to going on more adventures and exploring around the world when I can, or even just discovering my neighborhood by taking long walks. Finding a sense of awe in nature and around the world reminds me why I care for the earth, because there are such amazing sites and natural spaces and cultures worth protecting globally. When I only focus on research, writing, content creation and environmental education, I lose sense of what inspired me to care for the earth in the first place.

So today was spent packing and preparing. I reflected on how to travel internationally with consideration for people and planet and how I can be an environmentalist while also allowing myself some grace, as I think all of us should. Traveling during a pandemic and while sustainable air travel is still several innovations away is a difficult decision to make and one I don’t take lightly. To try my best to live consciously on the go I make sure to: pack reusables, bring thrifted and sustainably made items, buy from local vendors and artisans, stay at eco-friendly accommodations that conserve water, reduce waste or are built with natural materials, and avoid buying things I might throw away shortly after. I also use a debit card that gives 1 percent back to environmental organizations.

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Day 2

Today was about being in flight and arriving. I left for Amsterdam late Saturday and arrived in the Netherlands after an exhausting 10-hour flight. I stayed awake during the flight, with my mind wrapped around the reality that my first book comes out in about a month. I’m excited, but as a first time writer, there is some stress and anxiety. To tune my brain out, I started a new show called “Two Weeks To Live” that I really enjoyed.

I adore the Netherlands; once in an interview I was asked what I imagined the perfect sustainable future to look like and I said, “Amsterdam.” The city is designed so well, very clean and sustainable: Many people opt for bikes instead of cars, there is less pollution, public transportation is abundant, and you don’t see much waste while walking around! It’s easier to live consciously when an entire town and culture embraces it. Being there makes me imagine what better systems in the United States could look like if sustainable living were truly accessible and easy for everyone, instead of something people have to go out of their way to do or pay a lot to participate in. For example, if biking and public transportation were safer and more efficient, I think many people in California would choose that instead of a personal car.

It was storming and dark when I arrived, which was a stark contrast from the bright and sunny southern California town I live in. I realized the weather definitely has an impact on my mood. I feel so much happier when the sun is out; I like the rain in small doses, but foggy skies I could go without.

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Day 3

The sun came out today, which made for a beautiful walk around the city. I had brunch with my friend Jeanne, founder of sustainable fashion brand Zazi Vintage, which uses nontoxic dyes and repurposes materials. I also grabbed coffee with the founder of a new platform at the intersection of Palestinian art, culture and sustainability. It was nice to be traveling solo but have a network of people blossoming in a new city. That’s the beauty of the eco-conscious community: There are people everywhere all around the world, with their own unique takes on how they live in ways that have less harmful impacts on the planet, and I always learn something new.

Today, I received a DM from someone who said they were disappointed that I traveled by plane because of the negative environmental impact of emissions. I chatted with them and let them know how traveling helped me feel connected to the earth and that I hope more sustainable methods of international travel become accessible soon. There’s nuance to everything, and I came to terms with the fact that it’s okay for people to have different values surrounding what is acceptable to them and what is not. I do at times feel pressure to restrict myself even more, but I don’t want to do so to people-please, because that wouldn’t be living in alignment with my values at the end of the day. However there is a balance of genuinely listening to feedback and reflecting on it and holding myself accountable without making excuses. I can offer myself grace, while also not overlooking how airplane travel does emit a lot of pollution and making changes to reduce my impact. Traveling is not a necessity, especially for vacation and not for work, and in many ways is inaccessible and a luxury, so it’s something I think about often.

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Day 4

I left around 5 a.m. for an early flight from Rotterdam to Faro, Portugal, where I’ll travel with a friend for the next two weeks. Since Portugal is one of the warmer places in Europe, I decided to come on over to check it out during the off season. Faro is a remote town in the Algarve region, and I drove up a hill to a magnificent farming community. Since things are very spread out in Portugal and I was staying in rural towns, driving was the best option as opposed to the biking and public transportation in Amsterdam. I grew up in the Midwest and was once a park ranger in a rural town in Kansas for three months, so I feel comfortable in places like this. It reminded me a lot of California but felt more quiet, with very few people in Faro most places I went — even the beach.

I was greeted by the groundskeeper at Casas da Serra Tavira, a collection of Portuguese minimalist-style homes designed on a hillside overlooking the town, which I found on Airbnb. It turns out one of the creators is an environmental policy analyst, which made me feel right at home. The groundskeeper gave us a tour in Portuguese, and I tried my best to follow along with smiles; it’s a bit similar to Spanish, so I understood many things. I realized I brought way too many clothing items after hauling my large suitcase up the hill. I struggle with wishing I was more of a minimalist. I have a lot of thrifted items, but really could do with less.

I sat in the sun to recharge and lay around a lot. Feeling the sun on my skin helps me to stay connected with nature and gives me an appreciation for the earth. After one rainy day in Amsterdam, I felt so grateful for the sun.

Day 5

Today was my second day and first full day in Faro. I woke up to the sound of a local cat meowing. I went outside and gave her a bit of cheese after brewing some morning tea. I’d gone into town to pick up some basics like bread and fruit, and honestly, the bread was so much fresher and tastier than the bread back home, which I usually get from a local grocery store. I’m not sure why; perhaps it was made locally.

Being in this little farming community reminded me a lot about sustainable farming. Just seeing the small farms — versus the huge confined animal feeding lots and larger-scale farms of the United States that use a lot of pesticides — and the intention many farmers put into their food here showed me clearly that another world for agriculture is possible. I once lived in a rural farming community in Kansas and spoke with farmers about how they wished more people supported small farms and how they are losing money to larger farms. In Portugal, I really liked how the local grocery stores supported their nearby small farms.

Today, I also started to feel reality creeping in: My first book as a published author at 27 is about to come out. I have a list of responsibilities that I’m grateful to do, like over 40 virtual and in-person speaking engagements about environmental justice, but at times it feels daunting. I tried to soak up the sun and put my computer away for a bit and curled up next to a fire to distract myself.

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Day 6

Last day in Faro. I went for a walk along the mountainside of the little farming town. During my days up in the hills I barely ever saw another person, which was such a stark contrast from my days spent working in Los Angeles, where the streets are crowded and the air is filled with smog, car exhaust and pollution. I walked past another little farm and heard cows mooing; I stood up as high as I could to get a glimpse of their cute faces and started to fantasize about having a farm one day. I often think about getting away from the city and learning how to live off the land, which has less environmental impacts than large-scale agriculture and I think would bring me a lot of peace and serenity.

As I walked next to the road on my way back to the house I was staying at, I spotted an orange tree off to the side. I hopped over the highway barricade (which was terribly small, so it was relatively easy) and picked some oranges with my friend. The abundance of oranges in rural Portugal was a sweet sight that made me think of how much better the world would be if we let the land do its thing and grow abundantly, instead of always extracting from the earth and building on top of it. The oranges were wild orange trees off the small road, and it was really cool seeing them growing in this small town. The peace and quiet was just what I needed to reconnect with the earth before one of the biggest months of my life.

To end the day at sunset, I sat on a ledge on the corner of the house with my feet dangling off the side and just observed the hillside again. I tried to take a picture in my mind so I’d always remember, but then I must admit I took out my phone and snapped a few as well! I’m maybe not as “off the grid” as many environmentalists are; my phone is often always nearby.

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Day 7

Today was an exciting day because I left Faro to adventure to a treehouse about four hours away in a town up north off the beaten path. The trip required going up a side of a mountain, and I stopped on the way there to look at the hill below on the way to the treehouse. This trip I felt very content and really focused on observing the nature around me. It’s wild how much you miss when you’re so preoccupied on your phone or not fully present. The thriving trees in the remote town were skinny and tall, but still a luscious deep forest green, so unlike any forests I’d seen in California. I spent some time looking for crystals and beautiful rocks on the ground and found a beautiful white quartz to add to my collection at home.

The treehouse was on the side of the mountain, hidden within the trees with the most serene view. Again, I could hear cows mooing off in the distance at a farm down below, and again, I was greeted by a sweet cat and also a lovely dog that lived on the property. This was my first time staying in a treehouse, and I admired the wooden design and how the house fit so nicely in the tree. I used a pulley lever on the side of the tree to haul my bags up to the top, and there was a compost toilet built in the tree and a small kitchen. This was my first time staying in a treehouse and it was pretty high up, but a really great size. The compost toilet was really unique; it had wood shavings to top off waste instead of flushing. I ended the night with a cup of tea, staring up at the stars, feeling content.

I started to realize how much I needed a break. I was burned out, as many of us are after the past two years. I often find myself trying to give as many talks as I can, do every project I can, meet with as many students as I can, learn about climate science and read up on every topic I can so I can stay in the know — but oftentimes I don’t really leave a lot of room for rest and relaxation. The stakes are so high when it comes to the climate crisis, and I sometimes view resting as trivial and travel as an unneeded luxury given the circumstances of the world. During the pandemic, I started off as unemployed and furloughed, and I completely dedicated my life to trying to write a book and founding an educational environmental nonprofit. I really didn’t take breaks or stop to look up and appreciate the world around me or the community I’ve been able to find. My time away helped me feel ready to come back to reality feeling recharged and also having a bit more nuance in making sure I don’t lose track of caring for myself as I try to care for the planet and finding restful adventures when I can to ground me.