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Generations of Environmentalism

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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.

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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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