Are You an Environmentalist?

Am I an environmentalist?

It depends on what you mean by that.

Going to college at American University — a school on environmentalism overload — I was under the impression that most university-aged students were concerned with “the environment.” However, twice since starting to teach at CUNY, I’ve attempted to get my students reading and talking about environmentalism of different kinds, and both times it has fallen pretty flat.

The first time, I assigned articles about corporate exploitation of environmental disasters (the Upper Big Branch mine disaster and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill). Initially, I found their lack of criticism about either event disconcerting but understandable, since both had happened far away from their urban New York homes. But one student’s assertion that they just didn’t really care about the environment — not even considering that there isn’t one single “environment” — made me angry.

This summer, I tried to make environmentalism more relevant, and I asked my introduction to cultural anthropology students to read an essay by Melissa Checker, whose work about an urban, African-American environmental group (HAPIC) from Georgia seemed like it would speak much more directly to my students. But I received a similar lack of response from most of them as I got before. One reason I think Checker’s work is so interesting is because of the way her interlocutors characterize the environment: it’s “where we live, work, and play.” Furthermore, they see their group as distinct from the mostly white, middle-class groups that typify environmentalism in the U.S. These groups are generally based more on an interest in conservation and “green” consumption practices — two activities that most members of groups like HAPIC can’t afford. They are concerned about environmental justice, in which improving the place where they live, work, and play will counter some of the inequalities they’ve suffered from for many years.

I felt that this description of the environment and who should be concerned about it would be much more interesting to my students. After all, this is the kind of environmentalism that concerns me. Interest in making places that people live healthy and safe for them and their families is relevant to all sorts of environments. But my impression of New York-style environmentalism is that it mostly revolves around bike lane controversies, organic restaurants and local food movements, and Greenpeace volunteers in your face asking for money all over Manhattan. Environmentalism in New York is not presented as a working-class issue. This isn’t to say that people of all backgrounds aren’t or can’t be environmentalists (check out Melissa Checker’s newer work on Staten Island), but it makes it understandable that the environment doesn’t resonate with most students. Most of their families are working class, and many are immigrants — environmentalism here is still seen as a bourgeois issue, and they don’t see themselves as participants.

So, what does it mean to label oneself an environmentalist? Several of the activists in the anti-mountaintop removal movement who I so admire — and who have been recognized by worldwide environmental organizations — have been hesitant to call themselves environmentalists because of the term’s association with exclusively white, middle-class clubs. A concern with environmental justice isn’t quite the same thing. If it’s not characterized as “environmentalism,” would it seem more approachable to my students? In the end, I think it’s impossible to convince them they should think about the environment in one or two classes; it would take a long and critical look at the different manifestations of the movement over time to move away from the assumptions people make about environmentalists. This is a project that I’ve been working on for years, and I still can’t decide if I’m part of that group.

Here’s where I ask for your input: do you consider yourself an environmentalist? Why or why not?

4 Responses to “Are You an Environmentalist?”

  1. Are You an Environmentalist? « facilegestures Says:

    […] Originally posted on Appalachian Anthropology […]

  2. Keith R. Okrosy Says:
    Profile photo of Keith R. Okrosy

    This is a great point and it’s difficult to answer with absolute certainly. However, if I would have to choose, I would say that I am not an environmentalist.

    I do prefer environmentally friendly policy. I get very angry when I see how major projects are pushed through that dramatically effect the environment based solely on profit gains.

    However, outside of some debate and some environmentally conscious choices, I don’t think that I do enough, I am not immersed into the issues of environmental change, to truly call myself an environmentalist.

    I’m not sure if it’s because these issues do not reach my passions enough, if they are too far removed from my immediate concerns, or if I too benefit enough from capitalist ventures that I do not engage myself enough to call myself an environmentalist. There is also a cultural impression of what an environmentalist is that makes me not see myself as being one.

    I think you are hitting on some of the right questions. You might already be doing this, but perhaps you would like to ask your students this question directly. It might help start the conversation.

    Thank you for submitting this post.

  3. Footenotes » Blog Archive » The Round Up Where I Get Back to New York… Says:

    […] Anthology had a wonderful post up about environmentalism in general and broaching the subject of urban environmentalism with her students.  I was surprised to read how the subject played out in her classroom.  I’ve never really […]

  4. Kara Says:

    I like reading your thoughts/concerns about attempts at getting through to your students. It’s tough to be honest about where we’re falling short of our goals as educators, but it’s also so realistic that we won’t know what to do at all times. I like Keith’s idea on asking your students directly about what notions things about environmentalism or environmental justice raise for them. I saw a great TED talk once by a woman who led her community (which was largely African-American) somewhere in NYC in taking over control of an area that the river had been really polluted and turning it into a park. I’m sure I’m simplifying the story because I can’t remember it too well, but if I could figure it out it might be a good resource for your syllabus…
    Also, environmentalism being a middle class issue is a really present in the natural gas ruckus in PA. Pennsylvania from Below has been used as an educational tool by all kinds of anti-drilling groups, but we’re pretty unique in our approach to analyzing the issue with a focus on people, and specifically poor and working people. It gets depressing when you learn that some of the environmentalists/activists view the people who have leased their land for drilling as stupid rather than with an understanding that those who lease don’t want to see the land or water damaged either (and certainly not to the effects on their health) but have very few financial options otherwise.
    Oy, sorry to end on such an uncheerful note…

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