The reason is simple: when we accept or adopt a label it becomes part of our identity.
Many years back when I started Enviro(ish), I started it on a principle in the wake of this truth. I proposed that we should not get hung up on the label and just do eco-friendly things in our day-to-day. This is still true, in part...meaning yes, please continue to do eco-friendly things. With the way 2020 is going, here's hoping some people reading this don't leave their lights and faucets on and put recyclables in the trash out of spite. But I digress.
As my Enviro(ish) conversation has continued, and as the systemic nature of the climate crisis has reared its ugliness, and seeped more deeply into our collective conscious, I've been spending more time thinking whether my theory of change of Enviro(ish) is really enough. Is it the only thing that matters? That answer is no. It's no longer "do eco-friendly things and don't worry about being labeled an environmentalist." I fervently believe now it is "do eco-friendly things and embrace being an environmentalist."
Nearly every conservative I know in real life enjoys hunting, fishing, visiting our national parks and/or getting outside in nature. Newsflash: this makes you an environmentalist. In this starkly regressive period of the Trump Administration on all the issues I care about most, there is a bright spot. Do you remember when Congressman Chaffetz (R-UT) tried to sell of 3.3 million acres of public land and utterly failed? I do. I have posted before about how the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were passed on a bipartisan basis, but I feel the need to remind people these foundational laws for environmental protection were signed by a Republican President. Environmental protection use to be universally agreed upon. (And while I have you here, President Nixon also started the Environmental Protection Agency.)
(Read more after the jump)
If you think I'm kidding about this, I'm not. Let me tell you about a close friend's comments when I started Enviro(ish). She said to my face that she loved it because I'm not an environmentalist. She was a friend who knew me before I was an environmental studies major and for every major life event since. (Seriously what now? Have you met me??) Her hatred of environmentalists was so strong that in order to be my friend she had to compartmentalize. Instead of rethinking environmentalists, instead of thinking maybe there are many ways for a person to be an environmentalist, she chose to re-label me. In order to stay my friend, she had to remove the label of "environmentalist" even though it's pretty much the first thing people say when introducing me. Even though it's a part of my identity that is deep-rooted in my purpose, career, and life.
This is the power of labels.
So suffice to say, I'm no longer friends with this person (I mean...imagine trying to stay friends with someone who hates the main part of you and tell me how that works out. We lasted about 4 more years. Good luck. Haha). However, I am friends with a woman who is moderate and doesn't consider herself an environmentalist. But let me tell you the actions I've seen her take, and you tell me. She:
- buys local, organic milk that is hand delivered to her door
- hikes 2-3 times a month in the foothills / mountains
- buys fresh, local produce
- made flyers to inform her neighbors that their HOA was planning to spread Round-Up in a protected area in her neighborhood
- engaged with a local church to find an alternative to poisoning local prairie dogs, and found an alternative solution for the ecosystem
Wouldn't you say she's an environmentalist? At some point I said that we were both "conscious consumers" and she bristled at the term. After I explained what it meant though, she acknowledged the truth that she definitely is.
We run away from labels because they mean something. They mean we have incorporated that label at least in part - if not completely - into our identity. It means we have to worry about being seen or called a hypocrite because the world criticizes hypocrisy. Most importantly, we think that if we accept or own that label we have to own the full set of people who may identify with it too.
You can be an environmentalist and not be the kind that goes onto an oil rig to chain yourself to halt production. You can be an environmentalist that believes in the power of business and the economy. You can be an environmentalist that most of the time buys the most eco-friendly items - especially big purchases like a car - and sometimes doesn't get that greenest option. This is me. I'm definitely an environmentalist, and you can be an environmentalist like me.
But who cares? Why does it matter if someone avoids the label or not? Why should you enable the label and embrace being an environmentalist?
In short, because we need you. Because as I sit here in the midst of 2020, we are awash in crises and systemic changes around. Most days I am lucky if I feel like I'm only up to my eyeballs and not completely flailing or drowning in the scale of the problems we face. I used to joke that when I started learning about environmental issues in college I went through an eco-depression. I remember walking out of one of my environmental economics classes in particular thinking "HOW CAN PEOPLE CONTINUE LIFE SO CALMLY". I look back at that simpler time as so quaint. This decade of 2020 has felt like all of the negative outcomes of the climate crisis are happening in real life, on an ever accelerating pace. The consequences from our decades of polluting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are ALL @ now, and the trend line is only getting worse.
It has made me reckon with my own philosophy and belief. A belief when I started Enviro(ish) that said labels weren't necessary and individual actions were enough.
We need you to buy organic and local, and we need you to take eco-friendly actions every day. But those actions alone are not enough.
We need to tackle the systemic issues, the structural ways our economy works and our politics fail at addressing the climate crisis and all other environmental pollution and injustice.
The climate is screaming at us. Youth have mobilized for over a year en masse to grab our attention already. Just when we want to get outside because we are cooped up inside with a global pandemic, the air isn't healthy or breathable because of all the fires. How many more signals do you need?
Do you want to have air you can breathe without headaches, cough or sickness?
Do you want water that you can drink from the tap?
Do you want food that isn't covered in pesticides that could make your family sick?
Do you want forests that aren't decimated by the expansion of pine beetles due to warmer temperatures?
Do you want to live anywhere near the wild places and not have the tradeoff be watching your home burn down?
If you said yes to any of the above, you are an environmentalist. It's as simple as that. Own it already. Enable the label and let it become part of your identity. Let it be in the back of your mind when you make purchases at the grocery store. And most importantly, let it be at your core when you vote for all levels of government this year.