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.


Leanne K
Leanne K7 months ago

There are sooo many worthwhile petitions around recycling here on Care2 with bugger all signatures, including mine. Every one is worth signing. Just type recycling into the Q field box and up they come. Thanks in advance

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Ralph F.
Ralph F4 years ago

Interesting read & good comments. Thanks.

4 years ago

When you start painting people with a broad brush and start ams cling ( conservatives, republicans, excetera, you have just turned away 50% of the population. The environmental movement is about politics now and seems to have NOTHING to do with saving anything. I have been a republican/conservative my entire life and i'll wager I have planted more trees than any 10 people on this comment board combined. I also have a permit from the Michigan DNR to save/move/rescue endangered/rare plants from habitat destruction, yet, because of my politics, I am vilified and called names and my accomplishments are completely ignored. Another thing to note: over 50% of the US population DOES NOT BELIEVE ANTHROPOMORPHIC CLIMATE CHANGE! Because of that, they are turned off to environmentalism completely, and are not aware of the fact that The great lakes have mercury levels so high that it is dangerous for some people to eat the fish, they are unaware of the irreversible damage habitat destruction can cause. It leo does not help that activists like PETA KILL almost 90% of all adoptable pets that they "rescue" and the environmental movement does not speak out against them. There is also ELF (Earth Liberation Front) who engages in criminal property destruction, burning down newly constructed homes and damaging equipment, and again, NO ONE from the environmental monument speaks out against them, which give the public the perception that the activity is CONDONED.

K H.
Kate H4 years ago

"Are Stereotypes Scaring People Away from Environmentalism?"

YES. ABSOLUTELY. PETA, for example, they may have started out with good intentions but they have a history of doing unpleasant things to their opponents that are hardly professional. Such as that stupid "Save the Whales" billboard with the overweight person in a bathing suit, who was being called a "whale." I mean wtf. Coming from an animal rights proponent, I find a lot of their antics to be embarrassing; and yet if people hear that you like animal rights, the first thing they may think of is 'PETA' and then they might never take you seriously again, if nothing else then because of the accusations that PETA are hypocrites who kill animals themselves. No offense but I really think we need a better group to take over their fame, a group that doesn't throw paint on people or put a cut-up dead fox corpse in your face to try to make a point. Sometimes shock value can help but they also need to exercise some politeness here and there and stop pissing off the people they're targeting, because that's not going to make people appreciate animal rights activism that way.

Karen McNutt
Karen McNutt5 years ago

Yes, some enviornmentalists do come off as wackos, but they feel they have to react extremely to what they perceive as threats to our precarious globally warmed world. By the way, I'm not a tree hugger, but I do believe our world is at risk for some extreme weather due to global warming and man's destruction of land by chopping trees down, fracking, drilling for oil and oil spills, over fishing species, over killing animals without regard to extinction, wiping out specious due to pollution, and I could go on with many more examples. I'm well read and informed about global warming and I'm scared for the future!

Mark T.
Mark T.5 years ago

Stereotyping environmentalists is a method the opposition uses to divide & conquer. Slap a label on us, lump us all into that category that they have defined and proceed to tear us down. It's done by corporate interests and their spokespersons / pr firms (ie: Rushbo, the Kochs, API, Heartland, etc). Whenever some right-leaning individual unknowingly refers to"them treehuggers", I try to calmly inform them that I am a treehugger and I consider it a compliment, unless it is used in a negative tone like they have just done. They are usually somewhat shocked at this statement and there is enough of a pause in their diatribe that I can throw out a few positive talking points that they may actually think about and maybe not act like their corporate-masters want them to when the next opportunity arises.

Jocelyn S.
Jocelyn S5 years ago

When I buy things, I always look at the labels (if any) on the product, then go for the option that's the most eco-conscious of whatever it is. For example, a few months ago, I was shopping with one of my family members. In the aisle were two similar items. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that only one had the made of mostly recycled materials label. In spite of the fact that the other had a more attractive design, I made the CHOICE to pick up the recycled products one. (While I generally don't go for recycling myself, I prefer to reuse what I can).

The eco-aware movement is different things to different people, and they may show their awareness/concern in different ways. What I don't care for is the "my way or the highway" attitude of some of the individuals in both the conservation and eco movements, the connection between them being what first attracted me to environment concern.

Why do people who care about the same thing fight amongst themselves about how they show it (this way is somehow "better" than that one?) and lose focus on collaborating to solve the issues that are of concern to them/that they are most passionate about in the ways that they can?

Ryan French
Ryan French5 years ago

Let's talk about the actual problem across the board. Can anyone name for me a major destructive problem on this planet that has nothing at all to do with one of the following?:

1.) Financial Cost
2.) Affordability for the Consumer
3.) Maximizing Corporate Profit
4.) Keeping People Employed


The fact is, our global economic system is the root problem of ALL issues we are dealing with. An economic system which only actually supports less than 15% of people on this planet. We have over a BILLION people starving to death, one every second, and 80% making ten dollars or less a day (poverty).

The entire idea that we even have a "green movement" shows how broken our economic system is, because the definition of Economy is "the management of a household", which last I checked included the life support system we all share.

Space here does not allow me to elaborate too much. My post is useless if no one reads it because it's too long. :-)

I recommend two films that will substantially change your views of the world we live in currently:


Zeitgeist Moving Forward & Paradise Or Oblivion

There is a conversation that is not currently taking place on this planet that really needs to. This is my purpose. We all know on some level that we need to change direction or we will not survive our future, but I think most are completely in the dark as to how bad things actually are. We can sign all the petitions we want but unless we address the root

Clara Halfin
Clara Halfin5 years ago

Let's see...our species' population is nearly 8 BILLION and counting and our impact on the biosphere is rapidly becoming catastrophic...but we better not "scare" anyone with sandals or other clothing items???


This ridiculous pettiness is exactly why we are doomed!!!
Humanity is lost in the fantasy of our own superiority...but our myth is fatally ignores the irrefutable fact that we are just another species of animal on and of...Planet Earth...part of the Web of Life...and when we have destroyed the Web we too will die...