What’s in a name?

Imagine, you live in Boston, but you are a die-hard Yankees fan. You simply hate the Red Sox, and so you have no choice but to go to the other side.  Thirty years later, however, the Yankees have hit a slump, so just to make things easier for you and everyone else, you start calling yourself a Red Sox fan.  You are still a Yankees fan at heart, but being a Red Sox fan just sounds better and is easier for you and everyone else to stomach.  It sounds absurd, right?  But raise the stakes a little bit, and that is where the environmental movement finds itself today.

Once upon a time ‘environmentalist’ was a good word.  Americans proudly called themselves environmentalists, and no one would have shied away from this moniker.  No one who wanted to protect wildlife, open spaces and clean air and water would have disguised this identity for any reason.  It was a noble cause and anyone attached to it felt good for doing so.  These people most certainly still exist, but strangely enough, you will not find them working for organizations like the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society or Defenders of Wildlife.  If you ask employees of these flagship environmental advocacy organizations as well as many others, they will most likely shirk this label and call themselves instead, ‘conservationists.’


This trend is decades old by now, and it appears to be the accepted jargon, but there is something very troubling about it.  By calling themselves conservationists, these environmental advocates are directly referencing the school of thought founded by Gifford Pinchot at the turn of the twentieth century.  This ideology, which steered the nation’s natural resource policies over the first half of the last century, was ground in wise-use.  It stressed the need to manage and harvest our natural resources in a sustainable manner so that extractive industries could remain lucrative for generations to come.


It was this ideology that the environmental movement and environmentalists fought against during the 1960s and 1970s.  In the spirit of John Muir, Pinchot’s arch foe during the battle over the construction of the Hetch Hetchy Dam, environmentalists fought for greater protections for our natural resources that led to the passage of the Wilderness Act, Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and curbed our obsession with dam building.  And it is the legacy of this movement for which organizations, like the ones listed above, continue to fight today.  Yet somewhere along the line, ‘environmentalist’ became a dirty word, and these people and organizations began referring to themselves as ‘conservationists’ or ‘conservation organizations.’


So how did this happen? Like so many other movements, extremism came to define the environmental movement.  Radical organizations like Green Peace and Earth First! made the most noise and attracted the most attention.  All of a sudden if you were an ‘environmentalist,’ you were associated with the radical side of the movement and you supported spiking trees and underhandedly sabotaging development projects.  Combined with a conservative backlash against the environmental movement that followed a stagnate economy at the end of the 1970s and 1980s, conservatives were able to rebrand environmentalism and environmentalists as extremists who were out of touch with the more important issues facing society.  In a survey conducted to gauge the different meanings of ‘environmentalist,’ one respondent said in her explanation of why she refers to herself as a conservationist, “I want people to think I’m not an extremist…in that respect I would not want to be known as an environmentalist.”


With this rebranding, environmentalists became persona non grata, and wanting to keep their place at the table, they were all too willing to adapt to this revision.  So in 1996, when an environmentalist in Montana questioned his colleagues’ dedication to the movement, he derisively referred to them as “pseudo-conservationists.” And in the survey cited above, twenty-five percent of the most active members of local environmental groups surveyed did not identify themselves as environmentalists.


The worst part about this trend is that instead of coming up with an entirely new term environmentalists fell back on the one used to describe the ideology, which they originally defined themselves against, hence our convoluted baseball analogy.  As a result, environmental advocates nonchalantly and perhaps unknowingly identify themselves improperly as a way of appeasing their foes.


Yes, there are more important issues at stake, but the time has come for environmentalists to take back that word and rebrand the movement once again.  Because it is more than just a word.  If die-hard environmentalists can’t call themselves that, why would anyone else, and how could anyone support the environmental movement if there are no environmentalists? Times have changed since the 1960s and tactics need to be rethought to face difficult political climates, but environmentalists need to be proud of their ideological heritage and not be afraid to call themselves what they are.  Our environment is depending on it.

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