Environmentalist, Conservationist, Or Neither?


Darby Nelson, a member of a Minnesota state panel that advises the Legislature on fish, game and wildlife habitat spending, is a classic conservationist.

Almost 40 years after the first Earth Day, the term environmentalist is in some disrepute. Once a badge of honor for public-spirited citizens seeking to protect and clean up air, land, water and fish and wildlife, the word is now often associated with special interest politics. Is it time somehow to restore the term to its original associations or to choose another, like conservationist?

The now-famous (or infamous) 2004 paper, The Death of Environmentalism, argued “that the environmental movement’s foundational concepts, its method for framing legislative proposals, and its very institutions are outmoded. Today environmentalism is just another special interest.” Although much of the paper dealt with the thought and message framing processes of professional environmental advocates, some research suggests the public itself perceives environmentalists and environmentalism in an increasingly negative fashion, and does not place so-called environmental issues high on their list of policy priorities. Meanwhile, there is conflicting poll data on whether Americans and others are making personal lifestyle changes to help protect air, water, and land, from recycling to energy efficiency, remain popular.

An anecdotal support for this contention was a Minnesota focus group in which participants were asked to give their reactions to the terms environmentalist and conservationists. Environmentalists were perceived more negatively as lecturing and alarmist. Conservationists were viewed more sympathetically as people who love the outdoors, relate to fish and wildlife, and are more inclined to allow for use of natural resources. Environmental advocates, however, sometimes view hunting and fishing conservation groups as having different and even competing priorities, and vice versa.

During presentations to college audiences, I have asked these young people to word associate with the term environmentalism. Almost invariably — despite the fact that these audiences are inclined to support protection of air, land and water — three-quarters or more of the responses are negative, including the proverbial “tree-hugger,” “environmental extremist,” and even “eco-terrorist.”

No doubt, some of the negatives associated with environmentalism are the result of a sustained attack on the community by often powerful sectors that benefit from relaxed protection laws and enforcement. And substantive changes, not just words and slogans, are the answer to an image problem. But is it time to reconsider environmentalism as a descriptive term when it implies to many outside the movement a political interest out of touch with their needs and priorities?

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