Just what is an environmentalist?


Is everyone who favors protecting the  environment an environmentalist?

Or is environmentalist a divisive word, one out of favor even with some people with a strong conservation ethic?

Journalists often value an economy of expression. They strive — or at least should — for the precise word when summarizing complex issues.

I got to thinking about this after a Great Lakes Echo reader took issue with a recent headline: Environmentalists worry that proposed Lake Ontario wind farm threatens wildlife.

Someone identifying themselves as I heart wetlands commented:

 “Can we please all stop using the term ‘Environmentalist’ for every person or group that has an opinion on a resource?? I wish reporters would come up with more descriptive and accurate terms to use in their stories. The term really has no meaning any more. Why not say ‘wildlife advocates’ or ‘citizens concerned about wildlife?’  The term ‘environmentalist’ has been a term for a long time used by ‘non-environmentalists’ to stoke suspicion about and pigeon-hole the ‘environmentalists’ into some leftist, radical group that is out to overthrow the government and economy while ruining all our lives on account of their protesting. It’s almost become a derogatory term, in my opinion. These days everyone from Dow and Shell to the small farmer concerned about GMO’s and water quality are considered ‘environmentalists.’ So can we please come up with more accurate ways to describe the subjects of these stories?”

I’m fascinated by this comment because words — precise words — are critical tools of the journalist’s trade. What’s more, there is a fair chance that I wrote that headline. If I did, I’m sure that it never occurred to me that the interpretation of “environmentalist” was so narrow as to pigeon hole it as “some leftist, radical group that is out to overthrow the government and economy…”

Of course journalists can be guilty of missing nuance by painting issues with broad strokes. It’s a casualty of limited newshole, limited reporting time and perhaps more significantly, limited reader attention spans. We have to catch you quickly before you click the next item or turn the next page. That balance is tricky. And of course it is particularly a problem with headline writers with even more limited space.

Still, I figured environmentalist was a term broad enough to encompass groups as diverse as hunters, sandal-wearing granola-crunchers, economists gauging the true costs of production, moms who fish, dads who recycle, lawyers battling regulatory reforms.

How best can you characterize people worried about wind farm impacts on wildlife? In the first line of that story we called them “people worried about birds and wildlife.”

That’s kind of an awkward phrase for a headline, but it’s one that I heart wetlands in another comment says is an improvement.

Still, aren’t such people environmentalists?

I heart wetlands doesn’t think so:

“What exactly is an “enviro” or an “environmentalist?” Why can’t we say “citizens” or “concerned citizens?” Its just annoying to see every natural resource related article starting out with a headline with contentious and divisive language — it’s always “THE ENVIROS.” ugh. I just would like to see some less divisive language in environmental reporting.”

Actually, I don’t care if the language is divisive as long as it’s accurate. But is it? Let’s look at it from another angle.

Say we’re writing about a controversial mining proposal. If a group opposes the measure because it perceives an environmental threat, we’ll typically label them environmentalists.

And the other side? Well, consider someone in that group who favors the mine’s job potential and economic impact. Let’s assume that person is convinced that the mine can be operated at no risk to the environment. Let’s also assume that same person recycles, picks up litter, pulls invasive weeds and donates to local land preservation efforts.

Is that person an environmentalist?

Or look at the windmill/wildlife conflict story. Would not the advocates of the windmills characterize themselves as clean energy environmentalists?

Labels are convenient for quickly communicating ideas. And journalists are always looking for ways to do that. It’s a tricky task when you also want to communicate nuance, precision, truth.

Inevitably something gives.

I’m not going to come to a resolution on the use of environmentalist now. But as always, Echo readers made me think. So thanks for that.

Meanwhile, I sure would like to hear more from others.

Are we using environmentalist too simplistically? Is it a divisive term? Is it a convenient but misleading shorthand?

And if so, what is an efficient yet accurate way of describing what we have been calling environmentalists?

You know, one that fits into a headline.


13 thoughts on “Just what is an environmentalist?

  1. “What really annoys me is the promiscuous use of the term ‘sustainable’….”

    How true. Whenever I hear a developer talk about “sustainable development”, I figure that he really means that he hopes to be able to develop forever.

  2. We’re all supposed to be environmentalists. Nature can survive without us, we can’t survive without nature.

  3. Important issues – thank you. There is a revised currency of legitimacy + righteous radicalism in the newly implemented term ‘ecocide’ (Polly Higgins) – inspired, perhaps, by Raphael Lemkin’s term ‘genocide’. What really annoys me is the promiscuous use of the term ‘sustainable’….

  4. “All important events in the world – whether admirable or monstrous – are always spearheaded in the realm of words,” said the late Czech author, playwright, political activist, and statesman Vaclav Havel.

    Placing a title with the word “Environmental or such” is a personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that the writers action has motive or significance at all, or that the word communicates nothing to anyone. The words we title an article is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message.

  5. Dear David,

    Thank you for taking this topic up for discussion! I’m glad I was able to contribute to such a thought-provoking discussion about it too! I brought it up because I have very close family and friends that are very much conservative in political beliefs, or so they feel, so I am exposed to many diverse opinions regularly, including Fox News occasionally, Rush Limbaugh, which I might not otherwise listen to or see of my own volition. But it has been interesting because it’s been the exposure to those other voices that’s allowed me to really see how “everyone else” sees “environmentalists” and “what we do” – and it is frequently used as a negative term.

    It can also be, probably of the history of the term “environmentalist,” a fairly exclusionary term – it shouldn’t be that way, but because of the way that labels work this seems very much to be the case. Here’s a funny thing that happened to me recently to illustrate this. I went to visit my grandparents recently – my 83 year old scotch drinking, New York Times reading, former owners of a New York Stock Exchange company, country-club living conservative grantparents. They were reading the paper and were lambasting the ridiculousness of Earth Day and saying that they were going to go shopping and consume to celebrate the event. I told them that in spite of themselves, that they were good environmentalists – they give to the Humane Society and helped rescue and fix abandoned kittens, they recycle everything, cook dinners at home, they don’t drive much and if they go anywhere they go together, and my grandpa does’t even have air conditioning in his car. They were speechless because they didn’t see any connection to the way they were living their lives and how they could be grouped as “environmentalists,” but begrudgingly accepted that they were too good environmentalists. That particular event was an eye opener for them and me. If we want to change the world we need to get everyone on board and we need to make it inclusionary – not just some who believe in a particular political viewpoint, though unfortunately, the term “environmentalist” does have political implications, especially with older adults. It’s generally seen as a leftist movement with extreme ideas, even though in reality both sides have championed environmentalism (e.g. Nixon and the CAA, etc).

    My point with that comment was that if my grandparents read that article in the NY Times and it was titled “Environmentalists were opposed to wind farms” they would not know what to think – because aren’t environmentalists supposed to support renewable energy? They should be on the same side. That means that they can’t work together. It would also be another case of the unfortunately common translation of “environmentalists” into “environmentalists stopping progress or causing undue economic harm.” Maybe if the title said “wildlife advocates” (which have the same literary footprint) – the folks that don’t necessarily see themselves as “environmentalists” might stop and take a harder look. It also might help integrate “environmentalism” into mainstream a little better.

    Thank you again for the very interesting discussion! :)

  6. I just had this discussion on a friend’s Facebook page. I suggest that the term “environmentalist” has been peverted into a radical, “wacky environmentalist” concept. Environmentalist has become so politicized that it’s true meaning is lost. I also suggest that another term, or maybe movement, is long overdue to emphasize the adverse impact of environmental contamination on human health. Some in the corporate world care less about protecting the environment. They MIGHT care about protecting their own health. To protect human health, we must protect all of life, be it plants, frogs, deer, or people, as life is inter-connected. Sort of a top of the food chain down concept but the bottom up concept is not working. More and more of our environment is destroyed each moment in the name of progress. Progress is killing us.

    David, take the I Heart Wetlands discussion to some focus group sessions, the author is right. Include a wide range of personalities in your groups. The results would be very interesting.

  7. I can tell you there’s no money in being an “activist” I did’nt know what that was when we started this quest (restoration of native fish populations) I have been attacked and branded by the “salmon stakeholders” as a conspirasy nut, only want my way, my fish, etc… everything but the facts regarding the problem.
    Truth is salmon need to have a disclaimer attached, Warning salmon will require the sacrifice of the natural freshwater environment. salmon will also increase mercury and pollution levels in the spawning areas. Do not attempt to talk common sense to a “salmon stakeholoder” as this will resultin a waste of time! etc… You could fill a page. Environmentalist, Ain’t so bad.

  8. I always figured that anyone who needed to breath the air, drink water and eat food was an environmentalist, since all these things are part of the environment. Where does that leave the “others”?

  9. As Harold wrote, the word has unfortunately been hijacked and perverted, just as the word “liberal” has. It also suggests some radical, extreme “other.” It’s not ordinary, decent people like you and me who oppose fracking because they want safe well water and they don’t want flames coming out of their fracking faucets. No, it’s those wacky “environmentalists.”

  10. Ignorant, self-serving–yet very cunning–people have managed to turn the word “environmentalist” into a pejorative term. They have demeaned the word “liberal”, and have misconstrued the meaning of “conservative”. They thrive on divisive politics and tend to paint everything as either black or white. They feel that they are totally right and others are totally wrong. There is no room for compromise. They figure, perhaps rightly so, that with enough money and control of the media, that their ideas will prevail. It’s all part of the dumbing-down of America, since they term the educated as “elitists”, eerily reminiscent of the mindset, sans genocide, of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

    Yes, the word “environmentalist” is largely used in a pejorative fashion, meant to cast aspersions that it’s just a few of “those” people, a minority who don’t care about the things in life which really matter. It’s best to fight back, to challenge misguided notions. If asked, am I an environmentalist? I answer: Of course! I care about the environment–it’s the conservative thing to do. But I still avoid using of the word, since its connotation has been besmirched.

    And unfortunately, for the moment, I know of no term which is preferable. That is still a challenge.

  11. The NRA (National Republican Army) uses the word ‘environmentalist’ in the most derogatory terms possible since they are now openly the private militia mercenaries of the big polluter industries and their Koch Super PACs. The NRA no longer represents the hunters that are environmentalist to protect the wildlife habitats, clean waters, and public trust lands. Michigan Sportsman support the 2nd Amendment, but are dropping their NRA memberships. Responsible sportsmen are proud to be known as environmentalist and conservationist fighting corrupt NRA Republicans while we work on our DU wetland projects, and the DNR-DEQ restoration projects.

  12. It’s an interesting discussion. The terms environmentalist or environmentalism – as pejoratives – have been overused by all sides to frame any concern for environmental impacts. I suspect that, as Mr. Poulson points out, succinctness may be partially to blame.

    Brevity and focus is important for headlines; however it is also critical for bumper stickers. It seems that the attention span for so many in our society has declined to what will fit on a bumper sticker – and still be legible from seven car-lengths back, while traveling at 70 miles per hour. Consider “Tweets”, which politicians seem to be using constantly: It is tough to convey complex ideas accurately, distilled down to 140 characters or less.

    Has this “intellectual shorthand” become a tool for dumbing America down, allowing thoughtful and circumspect individuals to easily be cast aside or marginalized simply by the application of a label?

  13. David-
    I’ve been studying and working on environmental issues since 1991, and I noticed the phenomenon of using “environmentalist” as a pejorative term a long time ago. At one point, I was in an interview for an environmental advocacy job (one that frequently stirred controversy as a way of raising awareness) where I found it necessary to distinguish that I saw myself as more of a conservationist, as opposed to an environmentalist. I tend to agree that the term environmentalist connotes more of a radical, less compromising agenda, along the lines of Earth First! or Green Peace. Whether this is right or wrong in terms of a dictionary definition, I generally agree with the point made by I heart wetlands.

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