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Generations of Environmentalism


Lisa Curtis has a provocative essay proclaiming that while she holds environmental values, she is very much not an environmentalist. Why? Because the environmental movement is dying and misguided and irrelevant for the concerns of young people with a social conscience.

The environmentalism of my grandparents’ generation was focused on preserving pristine wilderness, free from human interference. For my parents, environmentalism was all about the legislative victories.

In the 21st century, with 7 billion people to clothe, feed, and shelter, there’s little environment left that we haven’t altered. We’re changing the natural world and we will continue to do so. When the trade-off is between survival and preserving the pristine, survival will always prevail.


At the same time, there are plenty of ways to survive in a more ecological manner. As I found out when I lived in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, environmental solutions catch on quick when they fit the needs of the local population. The women in my village loved getting more efficient cookstoves, not because they saved trees but because they saved hours spent collecting wood.

This isn’t to say that we can’t and shouldn’t take care of wild spaces and creatures. But we need to recognize that often the best way to protect wild places is to take care of people in a way that leaves room for the wild as well. There’s a reason that many environmental groups have found that the best way to stop poaching is to employ poachers as eco-tourism guides. When we make the economics align so that survival equals protecting the environment, good things happen for people and planet.

Obviously Curtis is an environmentalist anyway you slice it and I’m sure she actually thinks of herself as such in private. But she makes good points. The environmental movement’s focus on wilderness had value but wasn’t a very sustainable social movement because it didn’t mobilize people where they lived on the issues that affect them everyday. This brand of environmentalism that became prominent in the 80s and 90s opened the door for corporations to carve people away from the popular people-based environmentalism of the 1960s and early 70s because it could say that environmentalists didn’t care about jobs. Even if these industries were using environmentalists as a cover for their own destruction of resources and desire to move their capital investments to exploit cheaper labor forces, the environmental movement helped dig its own grave through some poorly thought-out tactics. In a world of shaky employment, growing population, and declining resources, many young people see the need to feed and house people as more important than protecting caribou herds at ANWR. Since their vision of the environmental movement is the protecting wilderness, charismatic species-focused movement of the last 20 years, it makes sense that someone like Curtis would say she isn’t an environmentalist.

Curtis is wrong however about her grandparents generation. That environmentalism seek to protect wilderness, including seeing the 1964 Wilderness Act into law. But that generation of environmentalism was very invested into the issues Curtis cares about. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and other legislation championed by environmentalists in the 60s and 70s was all about protecting working-class people from environmental dangers and ensuring their safety on the job and at home. The genius of, say, the Clean Water Act was that it protected both people and non-people at the same time. It was popular because people didn’t want to be poisoned by their water supplies, but if people aren’t poisoned, neither are trout and beaver and osprey–and those species benefited directly from the act too.

That’s the environmentalism we need today.

On a side note, I hate the discomfort young people with the social movements of the past. Saying that she’s not an environmentalist because of the problems of the environmental movement reminds me too much of young women who refuse to call themselves feminists because they associate that with unshaven armpits and bra-burning. You are too an environmentalist. Rather than give up the label, Curtis should fight to make environmentalism what it should be–a movement made up of people trying to protect themselves from the dangers that threaten to poison their bodies and ensuring a better life for our children and grandchildren.

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  • Bill Murray

    The environmental movement’s focus on wilderness had value but wasn’t a very sustainable social movement because it didn’t mobilize people where they lived on the issues that affect them everyday.

    Where I live, this is the main issue that ties environmentalists to hunters and fishers (which is a large constituency in the Black Hills of South Dakota) who want available undeveloped space to have their fun.

  • shah8

    I disagree with with both the linked essay and this blog post.

    First, I think it is a must to emphasize that environmentalism is an artifact of literature and land management bureaucracy. To the extent that there is any American strand, it’s from fiction writers like Hermann Melville, Jack London, James Fennimore Cooper, and the other adventure writers. It’s also from our indigeonous strand of philosophical thought and writings, most notably Thoreau’s Walden Lake. All this has fed into American organization’s contrast of what is, and what could be, everything from Thomas Jefferson’s garden to the classic public revulsion from the Cuyahoga’s flames, the concerns from land mismanagement that resulted in Dust Bowls, Yellowstone fires, and Great Floods of 1927s. In this sense, environmentalism has *never* been a compelling narrative divorced from the premise that humans should control nature, even when thoughtful people have protested, loudly, otherwise.

    Therefore, the conflict between the “needs of nature” and of “human needs” was always going to be slightly false dilemma-ish. We simply do not maintain environmental policies without strongly negative and relatively immediate consequences pointed at our heads. Hence, the importance of stories, of religions, of irrationality, in giving some space to the idea that somethings genuinely belong to themselves among the masses. Silent Spring, bay-bee!

    So when Loomis talks about how corporations were able to coopt the message, it really should understood as an impact of mass media’s maturation, and of its utility in spreading stories and irrationality *beneficial* to corps. Some people don’t learn new tricks, but actually, most people are pretty flexible and open to learning new ways of being activist (at least in non-cult of personality situations). Thus I’m saying that I think the cause-effect relationship was opposite of Loomis’ narrative.

    I do agree with the silliness of the whole “not an environmentalist”. That flowed in the original article where the underlying premise of environmentalism should be an act/ideology of individuals rather than any real consideration of the body public. Indeed, with some thought that body public is a declasse enemy. So…uh…Hipsterism. Not cool.

    • I think you are overrating the importance of the literary tradition of environmental writing upon the popular imagination. It’s important, but it had almost nothing to do with the passage of legislation in the 60s and 70s.

      • shah8

        That would have to be a mis-reading…

        I am saying that environmentalism, for the sake of non-humans, is mostly or entirely a product of literature.

        I.E., California has strict air rules because they don’t want killer smogs over LA. No other reason. We have National Parks, however, precisely because literature, religion, mysticism, etc, had a role in setting aside what could be logged, or mined, or whatever. Without such, we would not really have any well maintained parks that develop other reasons for humans to like them, such as bike trails.

        This is why charismatic animals are such a trap, because it depends on the stories that get told about them. If the story changes, set-asides start having political problems. If the animal/plant just isn’t charismatic enough, ridicule is a strong tactic. Sometimes, settling for the simple story just isn’t worth it. One has to take the time and effort and spend the money to tell a complex story that somehow sticks in people’s heads.

        Of course, right now, the fight is essentially against political millenarianism. Whole ‘nother kettle…

        • Katya

          Actually, some of the national parks rhetoric was about how important “wild places” were for humanity, and national parks were intended as places of recreation for citizens. Businesses and the Northern Pacific Railroad supported the creation of Yellowstone because it would be a valuable tourist attraction. The creators of national parks thought it was important that these places be preserved so that future generations could enjoy them.

          • shah8

            Well, that’s actually the issue…

            The main reason people could think of Yellowstone as a tourist attraction, not unlike a pilgrimage to some site of religious significance. As with either of those things, people’s imagination has to be sparked with concepts of what wilderness should be, and at least with an idea that, say, animals deserve homes, too! Regardless of how that works out in real life.

  • I am confused by this discussion — both Curtis’ post and then this one here — and it’s not because I can’t read or know environmental history, having been part of it. (FWIW, I organized one of the very first environmental fairs at the University of Washington in 1969.)

    Honestly, I am not sure what Curtis is claiming but it sounds as if she is saying that environmentalists of the sixties didn’t care about transformation of the economy. Didn’t get sustainability? Right? Is that it?

    Well if that is it, then she is misinformed. I can go on chapter and verse but I want to make sure I spend the time making sure I understand what she is saying. Specifically. Not just broad generalizations without any examples.

    So what is she saying? And what is Loomis saying? Call me old and decrepit if you like. But I know my history and I was there and sustainability has been part of the story from the 1950s onward. Environmentalism (David Brower for example) was not just about saving charismatic species and landscapes.

    • … it sounds as if she is saying that environmentalists of the sixties didn’t care about transformation of the economy. Didn’t get sustainability? Right? Is that it?

      No, I read it as “the owner class and their hired apologists in the media have succeeded in redefining ‘environmentalism’ as a swear word, in much the same way as they made ‘liberal’ synonymous with ‘pervert.'”

  • jon

    What Loomis says, basically. What’s quoted speciously misstates and reifies environmentalism to be a very small and limited thing, and then picks at highly selected aspects of that grotesque beast. ‘Environmentalism’ is a vast subject. There are lots of places to productively focus. As an emerging field, there is not a unified body of knowledge or standardized practice – and that’s likely for the best.

    So the argument is a straw man. Sadly, as here is a lot of productive work to be done in inspecting environmental premises. But that should not mean that my objection to one tendency means that everything is invalid. To think so would mean that my methodology is invalid.

  • What happened to the more than 40 comments which were here a few days ago?

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  • Jay

    I think that, presently, environmentalists in practice are largely concerned with climate change. After a string of hottest years ever and with drought conditions devastating the grain harvest, climate change is simply by far the most pressing problem, and it seems to be happening much faster than predicted. And the bad news is that we simply don’t have a realistic solution for it, which really takes the wind out of the environmental movement.

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