Are Stereotypes Scaring People Away from Environmentalism?
Sometimes it seems like the environmental movement has an awfully bad name. Bunch of tree-hugging, Birkenstock-wearing, bearded, tangle-haired, hemp-swathed, unwashed hippies, right? These stereotypes are so embedded that many people are reluctant to identify themselves as environmentalists — even if they care about the planet. Think of them as closet greenies.
Anna Fahey at Grist points to a recent study examining this phenomenon and its unexpected outcome. Both environmentalism and feminism are outspoken, vibrant social movements pushing for social change, and both movements are also plagued by stereotypes about the kinds of people active within them and how their members behave. These stereotypes effectively backfire on both movements, reducing their ability to agitate for changes even though they’re about fundamental human rights issues (more and more, environmentalists are stressing that a healthy planet is a right and conservation should be undertaken not just for its intrinsic value but also for human communities).
As we know in the real world, feminists and greenies alike come in all stripes. Tree-sitting hippies exist just as much as snazzy attorneys for environmental organizations, and you can ride your bike to work without looking like a slob in the office. Many environmentalists are just ordinary men and women, and while they may love trees, it’s entirely possible they’ve never hugged a single arboreal specimen, not even on a long and lonely hike.
So how does the movement go about changing its public perception in order to make itself more appealing? Feminism has been struggling with the same issue, and it has experienced considerable fracturing and splitting as people argue about the face of feminism and what the women’s rights movement should represent. Within environmentalism, one savvy move was the push to make ecological consciousness trendy, pushing the green movement into the mainstream to make it more socially acceptable and in some regions of the country desirable to behave with environmental concerns in mind.
The Prius, the rise of single-stream recycling (hey, don’t knock it) and a proliferation of green products testify to the fact that consumers have begun to be drawn to environmentalism, even if through a slightly devious back door. By integrating green issues into daily life, the environmental movement has made itself more ubiquitous. Every time someone searches for a recycling bin instead of throwing something away, that person is thinking about the environment, even if on an unconscious level, and while she might not be an environmentalist, she may be rethinking her stance on what it means to care about the planet.
Environmentalists have also wisely taken another angle, reminding people that in a time of climate change and rapidly shifting land use, it’s more important than ever to protect the planet. Many environmental organizations are also creating unconventional partnerships in the hopes of breaking down historic barriers, which is why you’ll see them working with farmers, fisheries, timber companies and more to talk both about responsible resource management and conservation. This shift is bridging gaps to make the movement more appealing to people who might otherwise think of the movement in adversarial terms.
Creating a friendly, accessible face for the movement has also been important. One of the best ways to reach people is by forming common ground, as for example when organizations appeal to people on the basis of concern for children, rather than the planet. Rather than asking people if they care about fracking, for instance, a group might start by discussing concerns about children’s health, as fellow parents and grandparents, and back into the larger conversation to get people engaged without scaring them off.
While this soft approach might be criticized by some more radical activists, there may be some truth in the saying that you catch more flies with honey.
Photo credit: Pixel Drip.