Millennials cleaning up the coastline. Just don’t tell them they’re environmentalists.
Hiking, composting, gardening, camping, buying hybrid cars, bicycling to work, hitting the farmers market every weekend, and replacing lawns with native plants are common behaviors of my friends who never call themselves “environmentalists.”
Even the ones who keep backyard chickens for eggs, put solar panels on their houses, eat less meat, and only adopt “rescue pets” don’t identify themselves as environmentalists. I’m talking about people in their thirties and forties, but this lack of interest in the “enviro” tag is even more pronounced with the Millennials. A new Pew Research study says only 32 percent of young adults call themselves the E-word, and they’re reliably liberal voters who overwhelmingly support strict environmental laws. What the hell?
Even professional environmentalists—conservation workers, wildlife biologists, writers of environmental legislation—have backed away from the word. Listen to a group of them talking at a meeting and they generally call themselves “enviros,” which is the insult/slang used by the slimeballs representing oil companies and housing tract builders and other cartoon villains in business suits.
When I was a teen-aged monkeywrencher dreaming of feeding James Watt to wolves, in Canada, recycling wasn’t even common in California. My International Scout got about 12 miles per gallon of leaded high-octane. The only guy I knew who recycled was the editor of the local Sierra Club chapter’s newsletter. (He also introduced me to whole grain bread and hippie peanut butter that you had to stir up; I’d never seen either before then.) This was the 1980s. If you could put a couple of 1980s treehuggers in a time machine and let them out in Brooklyn or Portland or San Francisco or Tucson or Berlin of 2014, they would be in awe, in awe of the thousands of bicyclists, the organic gardens at elementary schools, the solar panels stretching across warehouse rooftops and return of salmon and otters and even wolves!
They would be saddened but not terribly surprised by how fast the planet is heating up, by the gruesome sprawl that has cleared so many more forests around the world and left so much wild land scraped and barren and covered in foreclosure boxes. But a look at a U.S. map would bring joy, seeing all the new green chunks of national parks and monuments, state and local preserves. And a look at how modern city dwellers live—no longer choking under factory smokestacks and thick exhaust pouring out of gas guzzlers—would be such a joyous and shocking sight that the assumption would be that most everyone considered themselves environmentalists in the early 21st Century.
Well, words are born and words can die. This one, environmentalist, is close to dead.
Call it something else. Something that doesn’t sound like a legal term in one of those 10,000-word contracts we click “OK” on, every time we download a stupid game on our phones. Here are some other words that need replacements: sustainability, conservation (sounds too much like “conservatives”!), mitigation, and probably “green.” We like to think we put some soul back in the word by adding “friar” at the end, in naming our site and our philosophy here. But overall, “green” is just a leaf graphic that companies slap on anything they think they can sell to the elderly suckers who now make up the core of the Environmental Movement in the United States.
There’s nothing wrong with being old. I’ll be there myself fairly soon, if I’m lucky. But the environmental groups that make so much of this nice new hopeful world possible—the ones that steer the governments to control development, invest in honest green energy, build bike paths and save more land for natural parks—are going to need a lot more support from Generations X, Y and Millennial.
And they’re not going to get that support until they figure out how to reach the kids—including kids in their 30s and 40s like my reusable-grocery-bag-carrying friends bicycling back from the farmers market—who are already onboard in philosophy and practice.
Photo via Allagash Brewing in Maine.