By Dom Nozzi
This blog is mostly inspired by the Hogtown Creek Greenway Wars I was a part of in Gainesville FL in the 1990s. Lots of folks bitterly opposed that bike/pedestrian trail. Most of these people called themselves “environmentalists.” The fact that they were opposing low-impact travel (biking & walking) was one of many clues that they were really just NIMBYs who wanted the environmental label to achieve the moral high ground.
Similarly, as a town planner, I often saw “environmentalists” oppose low-impact infill development (infill is commonly recognized as essential for conservation).
One of the reasons it is important to categorize those who call themselves “environmentalists” is that I believe it is important to have “truth in advertising.” Hypocrisy has always been a pet peeve of mine.
In addition, the term “environmentalist” loses credibility when anyone, regardless of their lifestyle or agenda, can call themselves “environmentalists.”
My list of categories is not meant to suggest only environmental professionals are legitimate “environmentalists.” Activists and non-activists can be “true” environmentalists as long as their lifestyle, knowledge and agenda is consistent with that label.
Remember: Folks like Reagan and James Watt referred to themselves as environmentalists.
There are a number of different categories of “environmentalists.”
Environmental professionals are those who hold advanced college degrees in environmental science. Nearly all of the folks who fall into this category hold a job in the environmental sciences. Such jobs as laboratory/research/field scientist, a faculty professor, or a bureaucrat. This group tends not to enter into public debates about the environment.
Armchair environmentalists are those who have little or no college-level education in the environmental sciences. They therefore tend to be quite naïve about such matters. Most in this group call themselves environmentalists — whether their behavior reflects such self-styled definition or not — because our culture and media (appropriately, I might add) are so completely saturated with calls for environmental conservation that considering oneself an environmentalist is seen by nearly all of us as a virtue that all “right-thinking” people adhere to. When asked, almost all of us want to be seen as a “good” person by assuring others that “of course I’m an environmentalist.”
Better Homes and Gardens environmentalists are those, like the armchair environmentalists, who know little about the environment, but have a “Good Housekeeping” concern for creating a tidy, neat, clean community. Like the strategic environmentalist, the “Martha Stewart environmentalist” knows that calling oneself an environmentalist is a way to be listened to when pushing an agenda (such as recycling, litter clean-ups, etc.).
Environmental activists are those who may or may not be well-educated in the environmental sciences, but have strong enough emotions about conserving the environment that they are quite eager to engage themselves in public debates about the environment.
Strategic environmentalists are those who call themselves environmentalists as a way to better achieve an objective. For example, some developers are careless when it comes to developing in an environmentally sound manner, yet know that because all “good” people are seen as environmentalists, will refer to themselves as environmentalists simply as a way to achieve the “moral high ground” in a debate. Commonly, this group will call themselves “environmentalists” as a way to “greenwash” a development project they are proposing. Another group of strategic environmentalist are the politicians who call themselves environmentalists simply because it is a way to be more popular with voters. And finally, another example is what Andres Duany calls the “NIMBY (not in my back yard) disguised as an environmentalist.” These people find that by adopting the “environmentalist” mantle, they are able to be seen as morally admirable and concerned about the welfare of the community or wildlife, even if they know little about environmental science, and even if their day-to-day behavior is environmentally atrocious. Today, this group has become quite large, politically important, and growing in size. They use the “environmentalist” label as a way to hide the fact that they primarily have selfish interests rather than community interests in mind. They grasp at any device that can be used to stop a proposed development “in their backyard,” even if it is beneficial to the overall community. NIMBYs increasingly disguise themselves as environmentalists because they know that “protecting the environment” is a much more persuasive argument in stopping a development than the self-serving “not in my backyard.”
Sky is falling environmentalists are those that, while usually well-informed about the environment, will use unwarranted alarm-ism and exaggeration as a means to provoke a community into increasing conservation efforts. While well-meaning, this group creates the “cry wolf” risk. That is, by exaggerating environmental dangers, this group might create the impression that environmentalists are not credible. If an exaggerated fear turns out to be false, people are more likely to discount future environmental concerns that are, indeed, based on a great deal of reliable evidence and probability. Yet the community might not take action because the alarm bell rang by the sky is falling environmentalists was unreliable in the past.
In sum, calling oneself an “environmentalist” can mean many different things. We therefore need to be careful about how that term is used, and how to react to it.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
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