Why I’m Not an Environmentalist

I believe in climate change. I ride my bike everywhere, I work at a solar company, I buy organic and local when I can. I am young, liberal and idealistic. But I’m not an environmentalist. And I’m not alone.

Over the past decade the number of Americans who identify as environmentalists has steadily declined, from a peak in 1990 of 75 percent to less than half of Americans today. For most of the past three decades, a strong majority of Americans prioritized the environment, even at the risk of curbing economic growth. But since 2009, most of us have been unwilling to make that trade-off.

At the same time, as the New York Times recently reported, a large majority of Americans believe that the weird weather of late is at least partially caused by global warming. Another poll showed that 83% of Americans want more government support for clean energy. Yet another showed that three in four Americans recycle, have reduced their household energy use and buy environmentally friendly products.

In sum: Americans are beginning to believe in climate change and most of us have adopted various forms of environmentally-friendly behaviors. But, we now prioritize economic growth over the environment and don’t want to be called “environmentalists.” So what’s changed? Is it just a matter of labeling?

The “environmentalists” don’t seem to think so. In 2004, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus famously proclaimed that environmentalism is dead, spawning a firestorm of controversy but also getting many prominent environmentalists, including former president of the Sierra Club Adam Werbach to agree with them. They argued that environmentalism, with its focus on technical solutions and narrow scope of issues, is unequipped to handle the holistic challenge of global warming.

Historically, environmentalism has defined itself as preserving wilderness from human interference. John Muir and others like him built a movement around saving beautiful natural spaces such as Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National park. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in the 1960’s brought further attention to the way that humans were harming the environment through pesticide use. This environmental awakening culminated in 1970 with the first Earth Day in which one out of every 10 Americans participated.

At some point in the 21st century we became tired with the idea that planet had to come before people. With close to 7 billion of us in this world, we can’t separate ourselves from our environment and we need a way to clothe, feed and shelter all of us. We’re changing our natural environment and we will continue to do so. The issue at hand is simply how we go about it.

In 2007, civil rights advocate Van Jones sparked a new movement around the idea of “building an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.” Though right-wing conservatives managed to kick Jones out of his role as President Obama’s Green Jobs Czar, the movement for green jobs continued to grow. In 2009, over 12,000 young people gathered in Washington D.C. and stormed Congress demanding green jobs and clean energy as a part of Powershift, a conference organized by Billy Parish and the Energy Action Coalition.

I was at that conference. I distinctly remember looking around and realizing that we weren’t there to protect the wilderness. We were there to build a more sustainable and equitable world. And we’re not alone.

This entry was posted on Saturday, April 21st, 2012 at 7:22 pm and is filed under Bay Area, Ponderisms. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Lisa's Blog » Blog Archive » Why I'm Not an Environmentalist | The Environmentalism says:

    […] Why I’m Not an Environmentalist […]

    ... on July April 21st, 2012
  2. Bob Altzar says:

    Lisa, I never considered myself as an environmentalist. But I am a Steward of the Earth (www.gaiasteward.org). I don’t know what being an environmentalist means. To me, it means being CONNECTED to Mother Earth, not “preserving wilderness.” And in order to find “a way to clothe, feed and shelter all of us” as you put it, we need to learn to REPLENISH not just take precious resources from our planet. One cannot be done without the other.

    I suggest you focus your energies on healing Mother Earth so that, in turn, she can heal you and the rest of humanity. Exploiting the environment will only lead to more protests from the Mother and the Universe in the form of earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, etc. We can affect the climate with our actions and emotions. And we can do it both in a beneficial and destructive ways.

    To learn more about the connection of human emotions and actions and our planet, check out http://www.gaiasteward.org. Maybe you’d want to join us and work as a Steward yourself? Sounds like you are on the right track anyway with respect to you use of solar energy, etc.


    ... on July April 25th, 2012
  3. Daniel Herr says:

    I definitely agree; Environmentalism sparked people into paying attention, but the point is not just preserving the environment, we ultimately have to develop a better way to live and work. I actually wrote an article a little while ago about being a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist rather than an environmentalist on my blog. Anyway, good post.


    ... on July April 29th, 2012
  4. Lisa Curtis says:

    I totally agree, it’s all about finding a better way to live and work. I’d love to read your piece–send me a link when you get a chance?

    ... on July May 6th, 2012
  5. Jason R says:

    I think you have created something of a false dichotomy. It’s like when people say, “I’m not a feminist , but …” and then go on to list all the things feminism stood for that they support. I totally agree with you that we need to live and work differently. I’m trying to do that in my own life, andI’m seeing more and more people do it successfully. But there does come a point where it can be a form of navel gazing, or rather fiddling while Rome (or the planet) burns.

    Will eating organic, or biking to work, save the planet? By itself, no. http://www.fastcoexist.com/1679260/why-the-planet-doesn-t-care-about-your-eco-friendly-lifestyle. I do those things too. I also work for and environmental group. I guess I am part of Big Green, and I have a lot of things I could say to criticize my organization and others. But at the same time, we must acknowledge that we won’t get to 350 without a carbon tax. We need a national policy for renewable energy. We must change Washington and restore conservation-minded majorities to Congress. It is just not enough to act locally.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I think it is essential to act locally. But why must we choose? Both strains of thought have been at the core of our movement from the beginning. Think about Roosevelt v. Muir. E.F. Schumacher published Small is Beautiful at the same time Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. We’ve heard the challenge to sustainability before. Green jobs is just a new spin on it, but I fear it is a spin that reduces care for the planet to dollars and cents. There is a moral imperative too, is there not?

    My point: I urge you not to deny your environmentalism, but to expand it, and in your work encourage others to do the same. It’s not, “I’m not an Environmentalist.” It’s “We’re All Environmentalists Now.” We have to be.

    Maybe we need to redefine it. Maybe we need to better link the two threads of environmentalism. But I hope we can do that without creating false choices between nature and people.

    ... on July May 8th, 2012
  6. Nicolle Kuna says:

    Hi Lisa, Interesting blog. I think actions speak louder than words (labels). Everyone is talking about how we ‘frame’ the debate, and that is an interesting area of theory, but again let’s get back to what is spurring us to action. People are feeling somewhere in the middle, understandably siding with their economic needs over thinking about future unknown generations, and why wouldn’t they? What we feel (issues over housing security, economic anxiety, social isolation) and why has to be recognised before the green movement can move forward. For too long, environmentalism has been about what people need to learn, think and know, and not enough about the heart. This is crazy as people go about their day very much driven by their moods, how they are feeling.

    I talk about the spin (the message), empathy and the need for recognising emotional influences on our lives in my book : Green Spin – Promoting the Green Message (Amazon, 2012).

    Cheers Nicolle Kuna

    ... on July May 9th, 2012
  7. Lisa Curtis says:

    Hey Jason,

    Thanks for the great thoughts. My spin was very much, “we’re all environmentalists now.” I actually gave the piece that title originally but ended up with “don’t call me an environmentalist” to show that there are many people who don’t call themselves environmentalists but believe in creating a more sustainable economic system AND doing all the things that maybe don’t save the planet by themselves but get us somewhere when they add it.

    There is and will always be a need for environmental legislation. But when the movement lives or dies by the success of that legislation, e.g. when we put all of our eggs in Congress’s basket then we won’t get very far.

    I don’t think it’s about creating false choices. I think the false choice is to think that we can save the planet without concerning ourselves with the fate of the people who live on it.


    ... on July May 14th, 2012
  8. Jason R says:

    There it is again — how are we saving the planet without concerning ourselves with the fate of the people who live on it? Is this just a way of saying some focus too much on trees and wolves and bears? Of course, the polar bear fight, at least, is proxy for climate change — for preventing harm to people all over the world. Protecting nature is protecting people, is it not?

    You say, “At some point in the 21st century we became tired with the idea that planet had to come before people.” But for the small victories of place-based conservation (if we can keep them), I guess I wonder when we have every put the planet first? It is the kind of statement that I hear a lot in Washington from the people who think any conservation measure is just another example of valuing the earth more than people. I don’t even understand what that means, because by that logic, the earth must always give way as there will always be somebody’s job, or some other economic interest at stake. Ultimately, it is we who give way. We leave behind a diminished earth.

    I think our task is to say clearly that “we have an affirmative moral duty, individual and collective, to leave a world that is as rich in possibilites as the world that was left to us.” (K.D. Moore). And to find a way to live ethically, humanely, with integrity. Only then do we get to that place where I think we both want to go — where the fate of the earth and its inhabitants is the same and our work, far from being dualistic, has a unity of purpose.

    ... on July May 15th, 2012
  9. Lisa Curtis says:

    Hey Jason,

    I think we’re saying the same thing. I’m coming from more a storyteller & marketing perspective. I think that the environmental movement hasn’t done a great job of making the case as to why many solutions to environmental problems are also good for economic growth. Of course in the broader picture everything that is good for the environment is good for humanity since we’re the ones who live on this planet but not everyone thinks like that.


    ... on July May 18th, 2012
  10. Geoffrey Holland says:

    I am an enviro0nmentalist because we have seven billion humans on Earth, headed for ten or more billion. At the same time, we are innovating labor saving technologies that translate ultimately to only two precent of the population being needed to produce all the goods that we will ever need. We need to evolve our systems of governance to sccount for that kind of reality. Restoring and maintaining a viable environment and a healthy biodiversity requires that we stop taking nature’s gifts for granted. Being an environmentalist means being into stewardship rather than exploitation.; being part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

    ... on July November 22nd, 2012
  11. jack Ehrhardt says:

    I know this came out april 012, but it still rates comment,
    We have been called Environ-mentalists because like the word says, we feel with our thoughts the significance of our environment. The current techno generation may want to give it a new name because it is a old word to them, but there is gracious fortatude in this word that many of us have stood behind in battles around the world to presearve the lifeway system.It is our badge of courage we proudly wore and defended, that apperantly has lost significance like our efforts in the past. thanks

    ... on July December 26th, 2012

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