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.