The recent channel four documentary ‘What the green movement got wrong’ managed to categorise those working on reducing the impact of climate change into the tribe labelled ‘environmentalists’.
This was exemplified in the poll they placed on their website: ‘Can an environmentalist be pro-nuclear and pro GM?’ and the debate which followed the programme which used representatives from groups that are perceived as ‘left-leaning’, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and the columnist George Monbiot.
This kind of labelling excludes many people from the solution about the global problems we face in terms of a changing climate, diminishing resources and increasing consumption. First on broad political ideology- why were there no right-wing supporters of environmental action, such as John Gummer or Peter Ainsworth present?
Second through its language; as George Lakoff argued in our pamphlet ‘from hot air to happy endings’ language is not neutral, and affects how we perceive an issue. The word ‘environment’ is a loaded word and most of what people care about –people, health, economy, crime – is not perceived as being in it. As a result there is also an ‘environmentalist’ frame which many people would not see themselves as being part of.
To suggest that these issues only concern left-leaning ‘environmentalists’ misses some of the major impacts that global environmental problems are likely to bring- poverty, hunger, extreme weather, energy insecurity and conflict. These are issues that many more people than those that label themselves ‘environmentalists’ hold dear. It also suggests that the solutions are only being discussed by ‘environmentalists’ rather than for example the engineers who works in the renewables industry, those that install home insulation or are involved in urban design.
This is, increasingly, rubbish. Today, for instance, Green Alliance is holding a programme for eleven up-and-coming Conservative MPs who care about climate change, to help them become leaders on the issue. I doubt most would call themselves ‘environmentalists’.
As David Roberts argues for Grist words with an ‘-ist’ or ‘-ism’ at the end suggest substantial commitments to an identity. And people need to be able to make commitments to solving our global environmental problems without having to take the entire ‘environmentalist’ identity on board.
We don’t have ‘-ist’ or ‘-ism’ labels for people that care about other all-encompassing issues like health or poverty, so why do we need one for people that work on the solutions to environmental problems?