Does environmentalism have an image problem?

A Foreword

A difficult issue that is currently faced within our world is our natural dependence on energy. Our urban infrastructure is set up such that most people must drive cars to get to work. Plastic dominates in supermarkets, retail stores, and online shopping. Although frequently shared memes like the one below lay out quite the convincing case for self-imposed freezing, my gas-powered furnace is here to stay. Barring going nomad and living off the earth on a tropical island somewhere, it’s simply impossible to be completely carbon-free.


For most people, however, even making small changes in our lifestyle to accommodate more environmentally friendly behaviour can seem incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Public transit could double the commute time for a young professional. Asking students to spend more money on clothing products made by sustainable manufacturers is not an easy sell. A mother of three will reasonably say she doesn’t have time to hang dry all her children’s clothes.

To put it plainly, although people usually agree with it, sustainability often isn’t convenient.

Polls, Polls, and more Polls

Despite the lack of significant progress seen in the form of binding climate change policy, the environmental movement remains one of the strongest ideologies to emerge in modern times. Success in clean air, clean water, and wilderness protection policy can be rightly attributed, in no small part, to environmentalist efforts. There is a general feeling that environmental clout is only on its way up, too.

This said, polls have shown that the movement has somewhat stagnated recently in regards to membership. A 2018 Gallup poll revealed that 42% of Americans consider themselves environmentalists, the exact proportion also found in 2016. Interestingly, this is down from 1999, where half of Americans were self-titled environmentalists, and even further down from 1989, where the label was found in three quarters of people (although this high share can be attributed to the very effective grass-roots and bipartisan effort aimed at reversing ozone depletion, something which begs the question of why climate change couldn’t equally cross party div—- alright, focus back to the topic Colm!).

So using America as our case study, we can see that membership is down in the long-term, but stable in the short. What about action? Well, our friends at Gallup revealed in 2017 that while 17% of people consider themselves active participants in the environmental movement, 45% are sympathetic but inactive, and 28% are neutral to the cause (with the remaining 10% being unsympathetic or having no opinion). These figures are virtually unchanged dating back to 2010.

active participant gallup
Credit: Gallup

Finally, let’s look at general concern about climate change. If trends are anything to go off, we should see this stable over time, right? But instead, we see that 43% of Americans in 2017 said they worry “a great deal” about global warming or climate change, a 15% increase from 2010. Shout out once again to those at Gallup.

gallup climate change
Credit: Gallup

Besides the fact that I’m a poll fiend, these studies are proof of a couple other obvious things; one, that the concern regarding climate change is growing, but two, that the subset of the population turn that concern into action is relatively constant. The reasons for the disparity in growth between concern regarding climate change and environmental activity can, and should, be debated. But instead of asking why more individuals aren’t self-inclined to identify as environmentalists, should we be wondering if there is something about the eco-movement that is unattractive? Do environmentalists have an image problem?

The Mixed Middle and Avoiding the Extremes

I use the term “Mixed Middle” to describe people that are inactive or neutral to the environmental movement but would typically align themselves with environmental values. This Mixed Middle is full of individuals that I visualized previously in the foreword – students, family members, professionals – people from all walks of life that recognize climate change as a threat, but for one reason or another, don’t engage past that thought. Until recently, I would have considered myself among these people. In many environmental sub-sectors, I still consider myself apart of that Mixed Middle.

From my own personal experience, I know what the perception of environmentalism can be from the outside looking in. There was a sense of exclusivity, of expectation in regards to personal sustainability efforts. Although never explicitly stated, it seemed as if being environmentally friendly was equated with being a morally good person. The Mixed Middle cares for the environment, but they certainly don’t care for being preached at or judged by holier-than-thou “TreeHuggers”.

The truth is that most of my predispositions were inexplicably imagined. The vast majority of environmentalists are not like this. Yet passionate in their calls for change, they are overwhelmingly warm, modest, and down to earth people. It is important for the Mixed Middle to realize this. However, as is often the case, a few bad apples can ruin a good thing for everyone and taint what is otherwise a movement most would get behind.

Simple comments, like these by the former leader of the UK Green Party Caroline Lucas, contribute to a worsening of the green image. On a more extreme level, organizations like Ende Gelände in Germany, and Sociedade Secreta Silvestre in Brazil hijack and subsequently smear environmentalism by engaging in various forms of “eco-terrorism”. These acts include violent protests, bombings, and even climbing into coal mines to interrupt production. While the intentions of these protestors may be noble in environmental stewardess, their misguided actions ultimately do nothing but discredit the movement and encourage doubt-casting on climate science.

Ende Gelände protesting and halting coal production in Germany, 2016. (Credit: Tim Wagner)

Environmentalism moving Forward

History has shown that the most effective way to grow a movement is to aim for inclusion and appeal to a broader audience. The green movement can promote this inclusivity by remaining rooted in a science-focused, moderate vision that aligns itself with the environmental concerns of the mainstream citizen. At the same time, environmentalists have a responsibility to isolate and renounce extremist action if they wish to encourage others to join the cause.

This is not to say that the intensity of calls to action should be altered. The science remains that the world is warming, the sea level is rising, and human-related emissions are the primary cause for these developments. Significant action is required immediately to avoid the most damaging consequences. This is the scientific consensus. The severity of the situation means it cannot even be apathetically stated without a strong tone.

The balance between vigor and moderation is not one easily struck. But the method of delivery is vitally important when attempting to gain support for green action. How environmentalists frame their plea for help determines whether they are admired or hated, and whether they inspire action or rolled eyes. Who’s up for it?

Colm O’Fuarthain

* Post-note: All polls used can be found here. Gallup has conducted environmental surveying for some time now, and the data on its own, regardless of the conclusions that can be inferred, is quite interesting.

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