The Problem with Environmentalists

| 11/10/2008 4:33:03 PM

Tags: environment, environmentalists, environmentalism,

Grass Seeds

I would describe myself as a committed environmentalist. It’s my passion and my work. I’ve covered our deepening environmental crisis as a journalist for 30 years and now I run magazines and Web sites dedicated to raising human awareness of environmental issues. My wife and I raise much of our own food on our little organic farm and we supply organic food to lots of other local families. Environmentalism is my passion, my career, my chief avocation.

I’ve watched the environmental “movement,” if you will, grow from a radical, tie-dyed clique into a mainstream global consensus. I don’t think we, as environmentalists, can take much credit for that however.

We have, for the last 30 years, been among society’s least effective leaders and least pleasurable companions. In his 2006 essay, “Beyond Hope,” Derrick Jensen claims that the most common words he hears spoken by environmentalists,everywhere,are “We’re fucked.”[1] He exaggerates, but he has a point.

Our attitudes reek of Puritanism. We are, often, dour, strict and humorless. We’re judgmental. Behind most of life’s simple pleasures we see unnecessary consumption, which we ridicule. Because humanity is responsible for environmental problems we are, ipso facto, all sinners and we find little joy in being human. We portray the giant global corporations as occult covens, and we burn their representatives in effigy in our own reenactments of the Salem witch trials. When our neighbors seem too moderate or abstract for our tastes — as the Quakers did to New England’s 17th-century Puritans — we whip them out of the colony, at least figuratively, and we’re not above discussing executions. (The Puritan authorities hanged four Quakers for their religious beliefs in Boston between 1659 and 1661.)

To say the least, we’re no fun a lot of the time.

leisha jack_1
4/14/2009 1:27:36 AM

Need cheering up! (see link below) Some believe, that the way humans think is fundamentally flawed and that this flawed thinking is caused through Anthropocentrism (or human centeredness). The world’s most prominent Philosophers from the major universities are talking about humans and the environment and this issue of Anthropocentrism. According to history when the great philosophers talk like this, it has always been a prelude for change in human thinking. Go to the following link and listen to the podcast on Deep Ecology (Philosophy in the mountains - Arne Naess):- Arne Ness was perhaps the world’s most famous environmental activist and philosopher, he recently passed away unfortunately. He was quite a character, full of fun and a very quirky and playful. I found this podcast very positive and motivating. It really gets to the heart of what is wrong with human thinking and therefore their behaviour. Keep up the battle everyone, it is now or never. The more we do and say the more the herd will follow. It’s like turning the Titanic, once the momentum kicks in, it will move quickly. For anyone who thinks that isn’t a very helpful analogy, remember, the experts say, that the reason the Titanic hit the iceberg was because they slammed it into reverse to slow it down. If they had gone up to full speed it would have turned much faster and missed completely!

meibao nee
4/13/2009 8:14:24 PM

I have been guilty of being a holier-than-thou environmentalist and found it didn't work. I turned my children into avid consumers, wasteful spendthrifts. This was in the 70's and 80's when they were growing up and I was buying organic, recycling, and lecturing on corporate greed. So, sadly, my three children do just the opposite. Today, I understand that environmental consciousness is each person's discovery and choice. I can only live the way that makes me feel good, i.e., use less, don't buy new, boycott China, buy local and organic, have my farm animals and gardens, make my own yogurt, cheese, grow my own meat, and do wild fermentation. When I share my food with friends, I'm sharing the fruits of my labor without the commentary. They taste the difference, they see my health and joy. They can make their own discoveries. I'm not trying to change the world anymore. I've changed and that's what matters. For me, living gently with love is the environmentalist's way.

gavin stairs_2
4/13/2009 5:59:48 PM

Like most who have commented before me, I have been aware of the predicament we face for many years. I have also been aware of the strange attitude of many environmental pundits, mirroring the attitude expressed above. I beg to differ. Any person who absorbs fully the psychology of humankind and the total catastrophe we face must accept that the greatest likelihood is that we humans will persist in our errors far too long for any hope of retreat from the lip of a precipitous decline in quality of environment for humans and other mammals, birds, fish, etc., an also certain of the insects, many plants, and on and on. Whether this decline will permit us to survive or not is moot, but that the decline will occur is inescapable. This has been obvious for many years now. Why are not those in positions of influence who know this shouting it from the rooftops? Because of council like the article above: "Let's not panic the people, now. Easy does it." Well, I'm sorry: It is too late for that attitude. The sky IS falling, dammit, and we WILL get clobbered. Now, I am just about 63, so most of this calamity will pass me by. In fact, most of this century will be a herky jerky decline into disaster, so even the children of this generation may not experience the worst of it. And I'm not issuing a council of despair. But please do open your eyes and mind and recognize just how all encompassing this predicament is. There is nowhere to escape to. The are no more alternatives to many critical resources, especially the atmosphere, the oceans, fresh water and fertile soil, the biosphere, etc. I mean, whole-Earth systems are at risk of failing. And we are too many, even now. Probably well over 1000% too many. Yes we need many more good examples. We also need responsive and visionary governments and businesses which can see the writing on the wall, and act for all of us where global interests are at stake. We need a global debate on what a

m mcwilliams
4/13/2009 2:48:08 PM

I have found (especially in my own instance) that it is much easier to lead people than to push them. Most of us when educated and encouraged will at least do some of the easy things to help. I, for one, am all for Solar energy. I am so for it I have started a company that designs/installs systems. I first started studying solar energy for my own house. Yes, it is expensive up front but if you are under 50 y/o and can recover the cost in 5-10 is a no brainer. We have installed or are in the process of installing 7 systems in this year. What I have found interesting...NOT ONE of these people is a professed environmentalist...all are Conservative in politics. Their motive is saving money and taxes! The enviromentalists need to let people know that while they are saving energy and the environment... they are saving MONEY. That will get their attention and the "feel good", "you are horrid and killing the earth" talk to most...Lead by example and encourage them but the worst thing you can do is try to make them feel guilty. Bryan is right the Elites have taken over many movements and it doesn't work; even for people like me who would if possible save every tree and animal I could. I feel that using grid tied solar on individual houses is the way to go since it requires no new infrastructure and much less investment for the government. We have found that many electric companies are more than happy to work with us at least the co-ops. I live in a rural area in VA and look forward to the day when I can have my family garden and little or NO utility bills. My goal is saving MY world first, then I will help others as I can. That is all I can an example.

4/13/2009 2:21:00 PM

Having spent the past 35 + years working for industry in the environmental field I have had the privilege of interacting with Environmental Regulatory personnel, Consultants and yes, "environmental radicals". I have learned much and one thing I am certain of is that environmentalists come in all shapes, sizes and persuasions. Environmentalists are not just stereotypical "tree huggers". I even consider myself and the corporation I worked for "environmentalists" because together we undoubtably removed and/or prevented many tons of pollutants from entering the environment, even when it wasn't a regulatory requirement.

edward j peters
4/13/2009 1:15:36 PM

Movements have happened in the near past, but the ones I can name seem to have been peoples as a nation behaving badly.Wish I could bottle that near universal enthusiasm. Seems as if a life of environmentalism is best, try not to see the parents of large families as setback I guess. We are at that point , if not now when? So other than that big bummer I remember the British Television comedy Good Neighbors did a nice take on suburban environmental enthusiasts. Each day to meet the challenges I can find for myself regarding decisions environmental was the show's premise, it made sense.ejmpetersinc@

walter daniels_1
4/13/2009 12:24:50 PM

The author has it exactly right. Too often, Environmentalist has meant radical Puritan. That attitude engenders a push back, on the part of those hearing it. When and if it is presented as 1) What's in it for me?, and 2)Why it doesn't have to be joyless, it will take hold. Sell the use of CFL and LED lights as an easy way to save money, and watch it happen. Make the "hybrid" or all electric cars in the _sizes_ people want, and again, watch them sell in quantity. Make them tiny little vehicles that most cannot use, and watch them sit on the dealer lots. Mini vans sell because people need the size and capacity of them, not for "prestige." Make the "cost/pain" of change less than that of not changing. When you do, people will change rapidly. Make the "cost/pain" equal or higher, and they will not do it willingly. It is an age old part of Human nature that you can't ignore.

4/13/2009 11:52:31 AM

Well from one who is not a "Green" as she should be i.e. we switched all of our light bulbs to compact flourescents and we don't use the dry feature on our dishwasher and we only run full loads of laundry,but we drive a mini-van (no I generally don't walk cuz I have a bad leg)I like long showers but my showerhead is a 2.5 gal etc...etc... I know that a lot of what I would like to do is just too darn expensive...we're moving to our 19 acre property to learn to live more simply and would love to do the solar thing or the wind thing but once again $$$ Ka-ching, Ka-ching...we're going to get a wood burning stove (ka-ching again) and not use our electric furnace too often, we don't plan on having air conditioning so we're doing a little something but from the news etc...we just feel like we're never doing enough

12/17/2008 11:49:40 AM


elizabeth stevens_1
12/17/2008 11:34:18 AM

Environmentalists -- as effective leaders -- have had a disappointing track record. But we are learning, growing, collaborating and improving our ability to make an impact. Witness the "Transition to Green" report recently sent as a joint effort of 20 environmental groups to the Obama Administration. The report addresses issues from genetically-engineered crops to birds as predictors of environmental health to sustainable, regional farming to the farm bill and conservation reserve programs. Mother Earth News readers will find issues dear to their hearts addressed in this report, and should be buoyed by its overarching message which I would sum up as "Take this seriously, get back to science-based operation, and make the US an environmental leader." The solstice is coming up, promising lengthening days and, eventually, another Spring. A new President is stepping in, promising attention to the environment and energy concerns. Environmentalists are consolidating their efforts, thus promising a louder voice and more clout. Hope springs eternal.

david shanley-dillman_1
11/29/2008 11:30:30 AM

I'm not really sure what the author is talking about. There seems to be a putitanical side to some small towns and a reverence for the "old days" in many folks, but I don't see evidence of these views in the mainstream population. This country was founded on and is still made up of very diverse views. The conservative right has had a hay-day with Bush Era, but that's not how it has always been. There are always swings from one extreme to the other. However, the average sentiment is in the middle. I think that most folks are in the middle. Some may view themselves as environmental or environmentally friendly or not at all. These are the folks that must be engaged to have any successes in environmental conservation. There seems to be a theme of environmental elitism in the article. Frankly, that turns everyone off. The problem with "environmentalist" is not environmentalism, it the feeling that dwells in some folks, that call themselves environmentals, that they are better then everyone else (elite). Most envrionmetally sensitive people use common sense and do not bash others who are trying to make a difference. Go out and do some good things; you don't have to move mountains, just do a little good every day. And be kind to others at the same time.

11/28/2008 6:27:49 PM

11/26/2008 2:24:34 PM

Hmmm. Maybe that's why my mom didn't like it when I explained why it was bad to run her dishwasher on the super sanitary wash and extra extra dry cycles. ;)

11/25/2008 5:33:43 PM

I have no idea what you're talking about. I'm a absolute riot 24/7. Every little positive enviro friendly thing I do, think, and spread the word about attributes to the dazzling rainbow at the end of the, lush, fragrant, road just ahead waiting to be enjoyed in all its clean and organic goodness. Perhaps you simply need different color glasses? Jut remember, buy them gently used!

11/24/2008 5:57:41 PM

Thanks, Graham. We'll keep on doing what we can.

graham mewburn
11/24/2008 5:44:21 PM

Brian, sadly there are extremists at the other end who would cut down every tree on the planet to further their own wealth. So extreme greenies brought some balance. At the same time they also damaged their standing as moderate folk avoid all extremes. So, I think you are being too hard on yourself. You did make a difference. However a moderate, balanced voice will get more hearers. Keep fighting for our planet as it's the only home for us our children, grandchildren and their grandchildren. Cheers Gray Graham Mewburn Australia, Planet Earth

winter star
11/24/2008 3:37:30 PM

Our culture is heavily entrenched in responding to tragedy of any kind [instinctually as well as enculturated], than it is to anything joyful; Every level of communication tends to be framed in negative terms--even when most folks try hard to make "positive" statements, they're often worded as negatives. This is new learning for most, to frame things in terms of what we DO want, rather than what is wrong, or what we DON'T want. It's a tough transition! Another tough change, is viewing things as "big picture", rather than dissecting things into small packets of information. Breaking "The Environment" into small packets, may be helpful for learning purposes, but for finding solutions, can inhibit broader thinking. Those smaller packets of things trip us up and "business as usual" continues by default. Inability to view "the big picture" is conducive to poor choices / solutions; indeed, encourages limitation. Once people *profoundly* understand how incredibly connected everything really is, THAT will be the larger turning point on which virtually all people will start choosing better options. The most effective way to garner real behavioral changes, is to help people want those changes; help them understand how the changes will help them, personally, as well as world-wide. Help them visualize how good those new things are. It's really a sales pitch, but with honest education. Or, we can continue to play at "scare 'em to death" to get them on-board, which works to a point, but never really gets ingrained. This has its points, but, not many. Choices! Chi

11/24/2008 12:33:29 PM

Just like ecological systems, there is no one right way to approach environmentalism. Its amazing that people who embrace and demand diversity in the natural world seek to homogenize the environmental movement. As important as consensus building is we also need people who are willing to get out there and lay it all on the line and bring the fight to people in a way that cant be ignored. Those "radicals" are vital to the movement because they let those who would destroy our world for profit and gain know that they will ultimately be held accountable and because they also keep us honest by reminding us where our roots are. There is no right way to be an environmentalist. For every person who wont give up an inch there is someone else who will meet you half way. It does not matter the method with which you choose to fight, but simply that you choose to fight. There is no one "problem" with environmentalists, other than that most people refuse to acknowledge the value of people who use tactics other than there own. It must be an inclusive movement not an exclusive one.

11/24/2008 12:13:11 PM

The story made me laugh, because it made me recall a Rainbow festival I went to in Idaho in 1981, I believe. During a talk, a person was complaining about waste, and proceeded to brandish a mayonnaise jar he had retrieved from the trash and point out how much was still stuck to the sides. To further his point, he rubbed some off and then sucked it off his finger with relish and the words "And it is still perfectly good!". Now that is an extreme example - and given what mayo is made from, not one that I would recommend - but it served its purpose. I think society - like our economy - is afflicted with inertia simply because of its size. It seems we never do ANYTHING until we face a crisis of life-and-death proportions. "Radical" environmentalists serve their purpose; to get large bodies in motion, sometimes you have to use radical forces. Besides, I know how frustrated I am with the end-effects of "free trade" and "trickle-down" economics upon this and other countries, but I think it was worth it to be perceived as a "radical" back in the '80s when I first began projecting the doom those policies would bring, if only for my own conscience's sake. Being perceived to be a "radical" when you truly believe you are right is far better than going to your grave thinking "I should have said something.".

11/24/2008 11:21:30 AM

How about gift subscriptions to Mother Earth News? Seriously, I don't know. I guess everyone would prefer to think we're not responsible. I find most people, even people who should be aware, are surprised by the rate of human population growth. From 1 billion in 1900 to 3 billion in 1960 to 6.5 billion today. That opens a few eyes. Even if you deny our responsibility so far, it's hard to argue that we aren't headed for a crisis.

11/24/2008 11:14:40 AM

Yes, holier-than-thou antagonism doesn't persuade many people. Finding common ground works better. My latest frustration is that now that I've come around to the need to live more responsibly, I'm finding that a lot of my friends and neighbors are clinging to a world-view that lets them ignore environmental issues with a clear conscience. How can we get through to people that their actions DO matter and that environmental problems aren't just far away things that don't concern them?

11/14/2008 3:31:54 PM

That's my experience, too. In fact, nearly everyone wants clean air, clean water and open space. We've allowed this critical dialogue to be controlled by politics and politicians, and we've all lost something.

11/14/2008 3:26:20 PM

I was raised on a farm in what was then a rural part of western North Carolina, I have always had a deep appreciation for the land. I have found that farmers and hunters, when the issue is presented to them in the right manner, can become the most ardent protectors of our natural world.

11/12/2008 2:15:53 PM


sarah beth jones
11/12/2008 1:16:35 PM

I have made all sorts of people crazy with my conservation efforts - my step-mother always had choice words for me when I'd beg my step-siblings to scrape their plates rather than rinse them and I've definitely gotten under my husband's skin a time or two. Slow Food was a big turning point for me, though. It was like a lightning bolt: wait - you mean I can be joyful in my activism??? I can meet my need to be a part of the solution while enjoying myself, by treating people to wonderful food and sharing in amazing pot lucks? What I've learned is that there's not much that makes people reconsider their feelings about activism like a pat of Amish butter on a slice of homemade toast!

zane selvans
11/11/2008 12:37:00 PM

Which is why I love and the Rocky Mountain Institute They are (and have been) focused on practical solutions to our problems, much more so than environmental moralizing or the nihilistic End Times narrative. These approaches absolutely need to go mainstream, without diluting the true magnitude of the problems. Hopefully it's possible.

11/11/2008 11:58:20 AM

I will look forward to the invitation! :-)

ernest smith_2
11/11/2008 9:50:37 AM

An environmentalist sees the light! Environmentalists are perceived by many as the enemy that have no sense of balance in their lives. Would I invite a environmentalist to a party? Only if they know what to do with their organically grown hops and barley.

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