I have never participated in an activist protest. I have never initiated an environmental campaign. I do not grow my own food or only shop locally. Heck, I don’t even own Birkenstocks. Yet, because I major in Environmental Studies, many people take me as an environmentalist. While that may or may not be true, I definitely am not the hippie environmentalist stereotype people like to assume I must be.
More often than not, when anyone outside of the university setting hears my major, they 1. Jump to tell me their own opinion about some environmental issue they disagree with and 2. Warn me that I could be more successful inside an office than that environmentalist dude with the long beard and sandals is up there in that tree.
What they do not take the time to learn is that just because I study the environment does not mean I am pro-environment no matter what that means for society. Looking through my blog it is easy to at first assume I am an environmentalist - the page is green, the content is all related to environmental issues. Yet, I argue that the keystone pipeline should be built and that there are pros to nuclear power. Ideally we would not need a pipeline for oil and ideally we would rely only on renewable energy but I know that we do not live in a utopia. I understand that there is a balance between development and the environment and that compromises must be made. Yes I love trees and yes I believe that our decisions must factor in environmental impacts but does that automatically make me one of the stereotypical environmentalist types?
An Environmentalist is commonly defined as an advocate of environmentalism. So to understand why the environmentalist title carries a negative connotation and stereotypes, we must first look at the components of environmentalism and a history of the environmental movement.
The modern day environmental movement began in the early 1960s. Publications like “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson and an image of the earth from space portrayed the fragility of Earth and sparked human concern for the environment. Disasters including the Santa Barbara oil spill and Three Mile Island augmented environmental awareness and catalyzed environmentalism – “advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment.” The First Earth Day was held on April 22nd, 1970 and within 10 years, 27 laws designed to protect the environment passed, hundreds of administrative regulations were implemented (Kubasek), and public concern and awareness for environmental issues grew.
During the 70s and 80s, new environmental groups and activists emerged. Reform groups focused on an equal distribution of environmental harms and benefits. Lifestyle activists changed their own ways through organic farming, car share programs, vegan eating, etc. Radical protestors called for a complete change of the system and utilized more extreme tactics.
As compared to reformer demands that called for changes within the existing political system through meaningful involvement and participation in designing policy, radical demands questioned power structures and focused more on violence against people and nature. These activists were known for starting campaigns that often spun out of control and led to arrests, fines, and jail times. Due to fanatical protests rather than media-friendly, non-violent campaigns, radicals often lost respect more quickly. Yet, radical actions were often more memorable and these extreme environmentalists stole media attention.
While supporters of environmentalism are thus by definition environmentalists, the title of environmentalist carries a negative connotation and negative stereotypes. Perhaps this is because the word “environmentalist” brings to mind those radical individuals who participate in extreme actions to save the environment – like tying themselves to trees, setting fire to GMO fields, and other ecotage/eco-terrorism acts. The environmentalist stereotypes perhaps persist due to media portrayal of the vegan, tye-dye wearing hippies who outwardly worship the environment. Some stereotypes include:
Save the environment at ANY cost:
Literally Hug Trees - Tie yourself to a tree so it won't be cut down and don’t let go even when the chain saw comes out…all while wearing tie-dye:
Take your love for the environment to the extreme and use in-your-face tactics to make sure everyone knows what you believe:
And my favorite of all the stereotypes…rock the good old Birkenstocks, with tie-dyed socks:
I support environmentalism – “an interest in or the study of the environment, in order to protect it from damage by human activities” - so I guess that makes me, by strict definition, an environmentalist. As environmental studies field continues to grow, perhaps students will help debunk the stereotypes and redefine the environmentalist.