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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.

Not an Environmentalist? You Have Lots of Company

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: activism, labels, language, environment, Keith Goetzman,

Melbourne World Environment Day 2011 protester 

I’m an environmentalist. There, I said it. Now why is it so hard for so many people to make this simple proclamation?

It’s not just clear-cutting, oil-drilling, emission-spewing right-wingers who reject the label. I’m constantly encountering well-meaning folks, even progressive and generally earth-friendly ones, who start sentences with “I’m no environmentalist, but …” or “I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist, but ….”

Now why is this?

Being an environmentalist, to me, simply means you care about the environment: maybe a little, maybe a lot. It doesn’t mean you place it above all else. It doesn’t mean you can’t still identify yourself as a Christian, a businessperson, a farmer, a parent, a queer, a golfer, a juggler—whatever. It doesn’t mean you’re an environmental activist or extremist, and it doesn’t mean you’ve been initiated at a Starbucks window-smashing workshop and accepted into the Anarchist Order of Tree Spikers.

I’ve come to learn that saying, “I’m no environmentalist, but … ” is a lot like saying, “I’m no racist, but … .”  When you hear it, you know that what follows will inevitably be support for an environmental stance.

The thing is, racism is inherently abhorrent to the rational mind. Environmentalism is not. The label has taken on a negative cast because the right wing has successfully demonized it, and by running away from it we allow the demonization to continue and even to deepen. We need more, not fewer, people willing to call themselves environmentalists. It’s hard for me to envision a habitable world, 100 years from now, in which the vast majority of people do not do so.

Ultimately, I take heart in the fact that when people say they’re not environmentalists, it often means they’re grappling with the issue of just what an environmentalist is—and they may suspect, deep in their hearts, that they are one. It often means that they’ve been complacent about environmental issues but have suddenly confronted one that demands their attention. It often means they’re trying to save face, because they’ve previously stereotyped environmentalists as unreasonable and now find themselves, much to their surprise, agreeing with them. Psych!

It doesn’t take much Googling to figure out what these non-environmentalists are all about. They’re about protecting the environment. Here are a few of my favorite statements from, well, whatever these people are:

I’m no environmentalist, but maybe we need to stop cutting down so many trees.

I’m no environmentalist, but … we don’t need any more development on the barrier islands along the coast of South Carolina or Georgia.

I’m no environmentalist whacko, but I do support those people who are down there in Albany protesting hydro-fracking.

I’m no environmentalist, but calling a place “Rolling Meadows” when it’s clearly a landfill seems slightly insulting to intelligent people.

I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist, but I am concerned about what we’re doing to the environment and what kind of environment will be left for our kids.

I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist. I am a swimmer who wants clean water, and a dad who wants his kids to grow up in a healthier world.

I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist, but recently I’ve become aware of something that may be linked to the environment and it concerns me greatly: breast cancer.

While I wouldn’t call myself an “environmentalist” or “tree hugger,” I am concerned with how we are trashing our environment, wasting precious resources and the disbelief of global warming.

I’ve got just one thing to say to all these perceptive though not entirely self-aware folks: Welcome to environmentalism. You’re going to do just fine. 

Image by Takver, licensed under Creative Commons. 

7/9/2011 11:44:02 PM

each one of us has a unique definition of environmentalism.but each of us is participating in our planets destruction.therefore we each have a personal responsibility to minimize the harm that's taking place.i believe that small things add up and indeed make a difference.these are often called the low hanging fruit,or replacing harmful habits with harmless ones.usually they only take caring and thought and action. lots of people that say they want a better cleaner planet still leave the gas station or starbuck's with a throw away coffee cup or water bottle or leave every darn store with throw-away plastic bags day after day after day. and so to me,if all the average people can,t or won't deal the easiest and really most essential changes then this sweet old earth hasn,t got a chance until it learns to spit this fowl tasting and ungrateful species out.

e.c. mueller
6/22/2011 4:55:32 PM

Have been an environmentalist for 40 + years and proud of it. We must now look at the reason for environmental problems. Guess what too many people.

david e mulvihill
6/17/2011 3:09:34 PM

All environmentalism is local. Some local is just a lot bigger than others.

6/17/2011 11:27:36 AM

I'm not an environmentalist because environmentalism frequently expresses goals I think are not well-founded in science but instead in mysticism, another form of religion. Too often environmentalists have bad economic or class foundations. They expect people to pay a significant premium for environmentally sound products when they have all they can do to afford their food and rent as is. today, only rich people can afford to be environmentally pure. And last, environmentalists tend to be anti-technology. The ideal environment they seem to advocate is roughly 1850s technology complete with rampant infections, communicable diseases, women dying in childbirth, and associated misery. Not my kind of future. I want one with environmentally sound jetpacks

tim gieseke
6/17/2011 10:32:29 AM

I'm not an environmentalist, but I am a ecocommercist. The realm of human sustainability resides in both economy and ecology. The term "environmentalist" does contain the connotation that one may exclude economical considerations in sustainability. An ecocommercist recognizes that the ecological externalities that are economy is not able to recognize, account and include is diminishing our economical potential.

jeffery biss
6/17/2011 9:46:34 AM

I tell everyone that I discuss an environmentally related topic with that I'm an environmentalist. For one, the environment is REAL and the economy is made up in our minds. We can change our behavior to align with reality but we cannot change reality. The reality is that nothing we do is sustainable, there are too many people using finite and dwindling resources and to solve our problems you need to be a realist and economists are incapable of that, unless they restrict themselves to an understanding of the human mind.

kari volkmann-carlsen
6/15/2011 3:07:59 PM

It’s not about the label, but the connotations that are associated with it. Too often, the environment is pitted against jobs and progress. That’s an unfortunate misconception, and one that has fueled many a political argument, even though nature is a nonpartisan issue. Nobody wants toxic lakes, poisonous food, or extinct wolves — but someone has to be an advocate in order to prevent these things from happening. Call it what you will.