No, “environmentalist” is NOT a “dirty” word other than many of us who call ourselves environmentalists may be happiest digging our hands in the dirt. It’s a profession, a hobby, a life style that is deeply embedded in community building in the most inclusive way.
“I am not a prophet. I am not a messiah.
I am like a small bird that has left a small boat to deliver an important message”. – Terry Tempest Williams, Author
Defining an Environmentalist
An environmentalist is an individual who advocates for the natural world when the nature-culture dichotomy is apparent. This person urges others to see human connections to the natural world, to see how humans affect the web of life. An environmentalist sees the connection between inner and outer body health, the connection between the human body and the global body, i.e. the environment. This individual thinks beyond the self in making daily decisions and forming life-affirming habits. “Is this good for me? What impact am I making on the environment? What actions can I take to create healthier ways of living with the environment?”
An environmentalist may utilize many skills of persuasion to convince the populace of her/his convictions. This individual may teach awareness about the outside world, research human induced impacts upon an ecosystem or lobby on its behalf. An environmentalist may even guard against those who seek to harm a particular species other than her/his own by physically intervening on the behalf of wildlife. This person can be someone who puts his/her life on the line for trees; she may be part of the Chipco movement clinging to a banj tree in the Himalayas, or he may be someone who lives in a tree in Oregon’s WillametteNational Forest. Environmentalists can be canvassers for the Sierra Club or someone who pulls invasive species off a beach in California. She may rescue whales from whaling ships or he may lead owl prowls at a local nature center. She may be a professional lobbyist in the state’s capital or a nature writer working at home. This person may be anyone; what defines her or him as an environmentalist, more than their job or profession, is their passion, their commitment to preserving the integrity of global citizenship.
With the understanding that we all ~ flora and fauna alike ~ are citizens of earth, environmentalists act out as spokespersons and defenders of individuals, of species, of habitats, who do not have the power to defend themselves. Whether speaking out against the injustices of environmental racism in a community who has a disproportionate amount of toxins in their bodies due to illegal dumping, or monitoring endangered puritan tiger beetle populations along the Connecticut River, an environmentalist is a person of action; committed to solving self-prescribed tasks.
Though an environmentalist may or may not have scientific figures to back up an argument against the slaughter of large predators, or the meaning behind the decline of neo-tropical songbirds, or an account of the relationship between the hole in the ozone layer and the warming of the planet; s/he will nonetheless speak out where there is a perceived injustice. More than attempting to “fix” the planet and make it “all better”, an environmentalist is someone who is attempting to change his or her own destructive habits and the destructive habits of other humans. As an environmentalist reads about or witnesses actions perceived to be detrimental to the environment, s/he sees the need for human intervention on behalf of the Earth. Regardless of whether s/he believes there is a nature-culture dichotomy, this person feels that humans can be a disruptive force on the planet. As this person recognizes human actions that harm the web of life, s/he wants to correct those actions or heal those that have been affected by those actions.
“I think a part of being an environmentalist is having grief over the way we have distanced ourselves mentally and physically from the forces that are beyond our control here on this planet. Then because of this we act out of our grief to do something about it, which may or may not be sustainable actions, depending on how much grief we feel around it, and how deeply we are immersed in it while we act.” – Walker Korby, Environmental Educator
More than winning the political argument, a person who labels himself or herself as an environmentalist needs to live a life of integrity. Not taking the moral high ground, but honestly living as sustainably as s/he is able. And though there may be much grief or anger when looking out upon human impacts on the world, an environmentalist will hopefully also see the love and beauty in the world and their connection to it.
“…remember that the earth is alive, and that all creatures deserve equal love and respect. Feelings of respect lead to gratitude; a grateful heart enables us to be ever more humbly in sympathy with other creatures. Humility allows us to see life in proper proportions, understanding that our human desires should be tempered with willing to defer to the needs of other living things.” – Joseph Cornell, Author
If a person can keep in mind that all of life longs for itself; that life competes, cooperates, lives, loves, and dies so that life can continue, then as an environmentalist, this person can then move forward with an open heart to do her or his work. This individual will then not cave into his or her grief about the state of the environment but remember that what is important here, is the joy received by making a positive difference in another’s life, whether that be a fellow human, a Butternut tree, a Fowler’s toad, or an Atlantic salmon.
Love, this deep feeling of fondness or devotion, is not merely a human concept. Love is an agreement between organisms to share or provide something of themselves. If an organism is devoted to its own life then it will not destroy the tapestry that it depends on to live. It will take what it needs and give back its whole life at the end of the journey.
“Love in its purest sense is not based upon what you get from the relationship,
but on what the relationship allows you to give.” – Judith Lasater, Author
If you as a human can honor that agreement in all that you do; feel it in the air you breathe, knowing it’s the trees who provide the oxygen, you who provide the carbon dioxide, then you can understand the love that is the world. And when you experience this love you will not just act on your own behalf, but the on the behalf of the relationships that help sustain you and the relationships that sustain your relationships. This feeling of devotion will expand in ever greater ripples and you will see yourself as part of the Earth and you will act to the best of your ability in accordance with the cycles and processes of Earth. It is at this point the label of “environmentalist” becomes secondary; no longer are your actions focused on mending what other humans do to the environment but on building relationships with the environment. By creating healthy connections between yourself, your community, and the environment that will affirm the cycles of life you act as a model in creating a home that not just survives, but thrives. Rejoice in the fact that you too are a part of the world.
Cornell, Joseph, Listening to Nature: How to Deepen You Awareness of Nature, p. 65, Dawn Publications, Nevada City, 1987.
Korby, Walker, email reply to survey question “who is an environmentalist?”, 11/00.
Lasater, Judith, Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life, p. 142, Rodmell Press, Berkeley, 2000.
Williams, Terry Tempest, An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field, p. 105, Vintage Books, New York, 1994.
About this Article
This article is based on a paper from Environmental History & Philosophy, a course taught at Antioch New England Graduate School, Keene, N.H. in Fall 2000.